Day 4: Dorothee Sölle's Critique of Consumerism

Welcome to Day 4 of the German Political Theology Blog Conference, brought to you by Theology Corner! For an introduction to the conference and a list of the schedule, click here.


In May 1979, graduate students at the University of Chicago Divinity School held a conference to discuss the meaning of theologies of liberation for the so-called First World. For a conference organized by students, it had some impressive speakers: Langdon Gilkey, Schubert Ogden, James Cone, and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, among others.

Dorothee Sölle was impressive as well. Born in 1929, she was part of generation of German political theologians who responded to the horror of seeing Nazism unfold during their youth. While perhaps not as well-known as her contemporaries Jürgen Moltmann and Johann Baptist Metz, Sölle was not less accomplished.

Her political theology led to feminist criticism, poetic expression, and political activism. (Far ahead of the kids these days, she was a founding member of the Democratic Socialists of America, having been active in the predecessor group Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee.)

As a German who took on a position at Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 1975, Sölle was critical of both U.S. and German cultures. As in the paper she delivered in Chicago in 1979, she drew on Latin American liberation theology to critique First World cultures.

first world captivity

Sölle started by portraying First World Christians as Israelites in Egypt who didn’t recognize their own captivity. Such Christians “do not consider our living in the affluent societies as being in captivity”  (Sölle 5). Beyond mere denial, by engaging in economic, cultural, and military imperialism, First World Christians were attempting “to Egyptize the whole world,” to export the captivity that they were in.

She was clear that “Our being exploited is different from the exploitation of the Third World” (9). But it was precisely the (self-)exploitation of First World people as consumers that resulted in the exploitation of majority world people as workers.  While Sölle observed that “Our immediate experience of the beast is of its hedonistic side rather than of its oppressive side” (10), its essential beastliness was unquestionable. She was not a Christian hedonist.



the rise of consumer economies

However wrong or right her critique was, Sölle was right to observe that consumerism was new. Many industrialized nations experienced economic miracles after World War II. From the U.S. baby boom to Japan’s reconstruction to West Germany’s Wirtschaftswunder and Italy’s miracolo economico, production surged.

This affected not only the size, but also the shape of economies. German spending on food and drinks fell from 65% of consumer spending in 1890 to 36% in 1965 (in West Germany) and has continued to fall since then (Laqueur 246). As a result, average consumers were increasingly able to pay for furniture, appliances, and vacations. Consumer goods like microwave ovens, television sets, refrigerators, and automobiles were almost universally purchased for the first time and drastically changed how ordinary people in wealthy nations lived, moved, ate, and relaxed.

consumerism and fascism

Sölle cited the Italian philosopher Pier Paolo Pasolini, who argued that “where historic fascism failed to touch the soul of the Italian people, this new consumerism represents a total and relentless repression of what once had been called soul” (Sölle 6). In a world defined in terms of objects to be purchased rather than people to be known, time itself has a different character: “Everything just continues” (8).

This shift results in a limited horizon for values, as “The most seriously discussed questions are now concerned with how to save taxes and where to get what at a better price” (9).

But surely we must object that a society in which history ends is preferable to a fascist society? For sure, it is far better to live in a society in which people care about how to get a deal on a toaster than one in which they care about how to effectively kill Jewish people. That’s why I can’t accept Sölle’s critique of consumerism uncritically.

But we do have to take it seriously.

Sölle argues that a liberal society dominated by consumerism is just a more humane version of fascism. Its freedom is at the cost of the oppression of those not deemed worthy of being consumers (particularly in poorer nations), and its religion mainly exists to reinforce the existing order. At best, a society defined by liberal individualism is one in which “religion is a private affair. Thus, to bear witness becomes a private matter” (11).

solidarity and salvation

Moveover, we cannot even hear the cries of the oppressed if “our ears are offended from one hour to the next by the noise of hedonistic fascism” (14). The blaring voice of entertainment drowns out all else. By prioritizing the pleasure of consumers, a society organized by liberal individualism inevitably silences the voices of the people most exploited.

Only human solidarity that eliminates differences in power can change this state of affairs. To make this possible, we must build a world defined by people, not objects. While “Objects cannot be liberated; they can only be moved from a bad place to a better one” (15), salvation means the liberation of people as active agents who are able to join God in the work of human liberation.

For people in wealthy nations, this doesn’t typically mean living without a microwave or a cell phone. Getting rid of technology and moving “back to the land” would not change our lack of solidarity with other human beings in our personal and political lives. If we opt out of a consumerist society, we turn our backs on exploited people. The only way forward is to transform our society.

choose life

Instead of settling for a world in which inequalities in power and wealth are inevitable, we must “choose life.” (Sölle quotes Deuteronomy 30:19: “I summon heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I offer you the choice of life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life and then you and your descendants will live.”) We must choose a world shaped by the equality, diversity, and creativity that makes us most human.

We must choose a world that does not use immigrants for their labor, only to tear their families apart through deportations. We must choose a world that concretely (monetarily!) values the lives of children, disabled people, and the elderly, even if they aren’t fulfilling the labor demands of a consumer economy. We must choose a world in which unnecessary divisions of class, race, and caste do not mean the difference between a life that is long and joyful or a life that is short and miserable.

We must choose a world without the use and threat of weapons made of depleted uranium and enriched uranium. We must choose a world in which militarized borders do not cause some people to be valued over others. We must choose a world that actually values human beings above the endless creation of objects for convenience and entertainment.

The status quo of a liberal and consumerist society cannot be sustained. In a world defined by consumption and exploitation, Sölle reminds those of us in wealthy nations that “Our need is to be redeemed for humanity’s struggles; to abandon ourselves in a day-to-day betrayal of the class in which we were born” (15). Blessing and curses, life and death have been set before us. Choose life!

 

works cited

Dorothee Sölle, “‘Thou Shalt Have No Other Jeans Before Me’ (Levi’s Advertisement, Early Seventies): The Need for Liberation in a Consumerist Society” in The Challenge of Liberation Theology: A First World Response, edited by Brian Mahan and L. Dale Richesin, Orbis Books, 1981

Walter Laqueur, Europe in Our Time: A History 1945-1992, Penguin Books, 1993


Waldron is a writer who lives in Salem, Massachusetts. He is interested in many theological perspectives, including the Anabaptist tradition, postcolonial theologies, liberation theologies, and the interaction of philosophy of science with theological method during the 20th century.


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