William T. Cavanaugh’s book, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, offers a theological perspective on economics and challenges Christians to participate in the economy in ways that are congruent with their belief system. Boldly marrying the disciplines of economics and theology, the author makes a compelling case for Christian responsibility in the marketplace. In this way, Being Consumed is both a textbook and an edict, an intellectual analysis with an inherent call to action.
He begins with an exploration of economist Milton Friedman’s definition of a free-market, which “hinges on the insistence that exchanges be voluntary and informed.” The problem with this approach, according to Cavanaugh, is that it is lacking telos, or “common end to which desire is directed.” Freedom, from a Christian perspective, is “being liberated from [one’s] false desires and being moved to desire rightly.” After examining subjects such as the coercive power of advertising, the imbalance of power that is created by mergers and acquisitions, and the quest for cheap labor, the author comes to a conclusion that seems to echo Polanyi, that a “free” market cannot be identified by “the absence of restraint on naked power,” for such absence of restraint leads to slavery and abuse. Instead, freedom is found through acknowledging and working towards God’s telos, which is necessarily devoid of exploitation.
According to critic Lake Lambert, “The absence of a shared telos also explains consumerism. If a clear vision of human ends is unavailable, then we are constantly restless, and human restlessness leads to detachment.” This detachment is related to a lack of proper theology around work, a lack of knowledge around supply chains, and a general lack of contentment. Rather than wisely and intentionally engaging in economic exchanges, the consumer derives pleasure “not so much in the possession of things as in their pursuit.” To combat this type of consumerism, Cavanaugh calls upon the Christian value of community and a call to offer all possessions in service of the “common good.”
Throughout the book, Cavanaugh illustrates his points with concrete examples of people and businesses. In this way, deep theological points are brought to life in ways that help the reader to understand the practical implications of the author’s theories. For example, in explaining how the Eucharist can stand as a positive example of consumption, he tells a story about a poor woman who gave him a gift, and the inner conflict that arose as a result. Since the woman was poor, he wanted to pay her for the gift; however, if he paid her, he would have turned the gift into an economic exchange, therefore depriving the woman of the joy of giving. He concludes by explaining that “the gift relativizes the boundaries between what is mine and what is yours.”
Cavanaugh’s story reminded me of an incident that happened to me a few years ago. I was visiting family in the States, and had spent an afternoon out shopping with my older sister. After having picked up a few necessities (Levi jeans cost 100€ in France, so we always stock up on jeans when in the States!), we were hungry for some lunch and so we headed to the food court. After we both ordered, I said, “Let me buy!” She looked at me, incredulous, since I am a missionary and she is a college professor. She said to me, “I should buy. I have more money.” To which I replied, “So does that I mean I don’t have the right to be generous?” When we deprive people, regardless of their means, the joy of sharing what they have, we rob them of part of their humanity.
As missionaries, my husband and I choose to support other missionaries. We sponsor children through Compassion International. We tithe. This seems counter-intuitive for some, I suppose, given the fact that we live on the generosity of others. But being generous is good for my soul. Like the woman in Cavanaugh’s story, I find generosity to be no only an antidote to consumerism, but also to self-pity and discontent. The ability to give is one of the few great equalizers—for everyone has the right to be generous.
I remember reading a story about a little girl in a Nazi concentration camp who found a single raspberry, and saved it in her pocket all day long, so that in the evening she could share it with her sister. Imagine a girl who had absolutely nothing choosing to SHARE a raspberry. It is empowering and humanizing to be generous.
Having a healthy relationship with money and consumption are critical aspects of missionary sustainability. Missionaries must find and live into the tension of being on the receiving end of financial gifts while continuing to give generously as well. Generosity is an act of faith and a statement of who God is. Some missionaries can fall into the trap of thinking “I give my whole life in the service of God, and I’m also poor compared to my supporters, so therefore I don’t need to be generous with my money.” Some missionaries are the most miserly people I know.
But there is another side as well. Historically, missionaries have been expected to live in total poverty, as if choosing to serve God meant that one was no longer allowed to take vacations, buy the latest technology, or wear good shoes. Missionaries were sent hand-me-down clothes and used toys and broken cameras. And church goers felt like they had been “generous” because they had put their unwanted items into a “missionary barrel” at church. Missionaries could never retire because they didn’t have any savings and never take a real vacation because “furlough” was considered “time off.” This mentality has also been changing in recent years, and for this, I am deeply grateful.
 William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2008). 3.
 Cavanaugh. 5.
 Cavanaugh. 9.
 Cavanaugh. 32.
 Lake Lambert, “Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire by William T. Cavanaugh,” Dialog: A Journal of Theology 49, no. 2 (Summer 2010): 169–71, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-6385.2010.00521.x.
 Cavanaugh, Being Consumed. 47.
 Cavanaugh. 52.
 Cavanaugh. 92.