Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Consuming Religion

Written by: on March 7, 2014


Starbucks Medium Ethiopia Whole Beans! 

Starbucks Medium roasted Ethiopia Starbucks coffee is my favorite coffee and I enjoy it every morning. It has the best flavor and aroma of all other coffee brands I have tried. A picture of a coffee pot with a cup on the brown foil packaging reminds me of home. However, to my surprise, I have never taken time to learn more about the people who produce this coffee and how it came to be in the U.S. market. I appreciate that this week’s readings, Consuming Religion by Vincent J. Miller and “Being Consumed” by William T. Cavanaugh, increased my curiosity to find resources online that might provide information about the coffee producers behind the coffee I enjoy. Then, I ran across this great article[1] “ Promises and Poverty: Starbucks in Ethiopia” by Tom Knudson. Knudson highlights the impact of coffee plantations on the farmers and environment. The forests are being cut down to grow more coffee and the farmers (workers) on the coffee plantation are paid as little as 6 birr, which is $0.66 cents per a day. But here is what Starbucks conveys on the foil bag packaging to its consumers, which the authors calls their claim  “a marketing genius ” :

“We believe there’s a connection between the farmers who grow our coffees, us and you. That’s why we work together with coffee-growing communities — paying prices that help farmers support their families … and funding projects like building a bridge in Ethiopia’s Sidamo region to help farmers get to market safely. … By drinking this coffee, you’re helping to make a difference.”

The author also asked farmers in the regions the research was conducted and here is what one of farmer said, “ We plant coffee, harvest coffee but we never get anything out of it.”

Cavanaugh also mentions about  ”Fair Trade” coffee, for example, can be read as simply showing the genius of the market to accommodate all kinds of preferences, including the preference to pay a bit more to support a poor farmer.” [2]

Now, what is our Ethiopian church’s responsibility to counter the alienation of coffee producers from the product of their labor? How do our churches see the alienation of producers from their products affecting our daily Christian faith and practice? Can I in good conscience continue to pay $13.99 for a bag of coffee at Starbucks while most the farmers in my home country make less than a dollar a day? Not to mention our country’s corrupted system, as I read on another article, “only 5 to 10 percent of the retail price actually goes back to Ethiopia; most of the profit is shared by distributors and middlemen in the marketing sector.”[3]

Miller and Cavanaugh suggest better ways to consume. They both offer very practical ways Christians can encounter the consumer culture. Both Miller and Cavanaugh argue that it is not consumer culture or the free market that we are for or against. Instead it is the impact of consumer culture that impacts our beliefs and practices. Cavanaugh argues that it is our Christian calling to “create concrete alternative practices that open up a different kind of economic space – the space marked by the body of Christ.” [4] I realized that, just like most Ethiopians, I often find myself blaming our government for controlling everything, but little do I consider finding alternatives the community of believers could possibly facilitate within the government controlled market system. In the process of creating concrete alternative practices, Cavanaugh encourages “Christians [to be] in constant collaboration with non-Christians in making such spaces possible.”[5] The idea of creating a space marked by a body of Christ would pose a challenging question for churches in my communities that have always been estranged.

Miller is very optimistic about the plausibility of Michel de Certeau’s idea of bricolage to understand the rationality and practice of daily life. De Certeau’s concept of bricolage refers to the ways “ ordinary women and men, those whose voices are heard only as the background “murmur” of official history, live their lives from day to day”[6] This reminds me a story of Annalena Tonelli (1943-2003) was a Roman Catholic nun who served in Somalia as a social activist and missionary. She had accomplished many great things in her life: “she focused on tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, campaigns for eradication of female genital mutilation, and special schools for hearing-impaired, blind and disabled children.”[7]

In addition, Miller suggest the use of tactics which are referred as the “art of the weak” to counter the influence of consumer culture.[8] Thus, it is in the nature of our Christian calling to side with outcasts, go the extra mile, and so on. Miller is hopeful that Christians can engage in consumer culture by “ bringing what society assumes must be kept separate, for example, rejecting a safe middle-class existence, crossing class boundaries, working with outcasts for their civil rights”.[9]

Finally, I wholeheartedly agree with Miller that we develop awareness of the origins of products and the strategies used to sell them. For example, both authors suggest buying fair trade goods and obtaining produce from local family farms may seem insignificant symbolic gestures, but can certainly raise believers’ awareness against the logic of the commodification of culture.[10]

[1] Tom Knudson, “Promises and Poverty: Starbucks in Ethiopia”, 2003. http://www.tomknudson.com/starbucks_in_ethiopia.html  (accessed March 6, 2014.)

[2] William T. Cavanaugh. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Kindle Locations 33-34). Kindle Edition.

[3]  “The Coffee War: Ethiopia and the Starbucks Story” http://www.wipo.int/ipadvantage/en/details.jsp?id=2621  (accessed March 6, 2014.)

[4] Cavanaugh, Being Consumed, Kindle Locations 22-23.

[5] Cavanaugh, Being Consumed, Kindle Locations 39-40.

[6] Vincent J. Miller, Consuming Religion Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (London, UK: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2009), 155.

[7] Wikipedia contributors, “Annalena Tonelli,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Annalena_Tonelli&oldid=583931629 (accessed March 6, 2014).

[8] Miller, Consuming Religion, 156.

 [9] Miller, Consuming Religion,175.

[10] Miller, “Consuming Religion”, 183.

About the Author

Telile Fikru Badecha

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