[Partially adapted from Chapter 8 in Pursuing Justice: The Call to Live and Die for Bigger Things]
One of the most eye-opening moments in my life happened in an unlikely place: sharing time at my daughter’s school. It seemed innocent enough, but the experience there would shake me to the core.
I had just picked up my good friend Marcel from the airport. Marcel is a pastor in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), one of the most violent, war-torn regions on the planet. He has given his life to serving the poorest of the poor and the most broken of the broken. My daughter Esther was in the car. Being so excited about having a guest from Congo, she asked if she could bring Marcel to sharing time at her school. He graciously agreed.
The next day, my wife, Marcel, and I piled into the car and headed to Esther’s school. Being a warm spring day, the overhead lights in the classroom were off and the room was lit only by natural light filtering through the decorated windows. The kids were gathered on the sharing rug behind a strip of tape that designated the “stage”. Marcel sat in a second-grade-sized chair in front of them while Esther introduced her indigenous friend from Congo and opened the opportunity for kids to ask Marcel some questions.
Esther joined her classmates on the rug while I leaned against a bulletin board, observing from a distance and ready to offer quick explanations to Marcel if he needed help.
As the kids with raised hands were called on, they asked typical second-grade questions, like “Do you wear fancy clothes?” and “Do you eat green beans?” The class had recently done a study on animals from around the world, so the teacher prompted a few questions about gorillas, snakes, and zebras in an effort to steer their focus.
Then came the question that would change the way I see consumerism forever.
“Do you have a PlayStation?”
Instant chaos. Every kid in the room was clamoring to be heard, asking Marcel if he had a Nintendo, a Game Boy, an Xbox. Marcel looked to me for help, confusion wrinkling his forehead. He didn’t know what any of those things were.
As the teacher sought to regain order, I looked at Marcel’s confused expression. “Tell them no, Marcel,” I said, “you don’t have those.”
Marcel smiled, looked back at the kids and said, “No, my brothers and sisters. We don’t have PlayStations.”
I stood rooted in place, a sick feeling growing in my gut. Watching my friend interact with the kids, I thought about what I’d told Marcel to answer. I’d told him to say his country didn’t have PlayStations.
Except what I’d told him to say wasn’t true.
His country has been bleeding for centuries. Various militias and governments have come and gone, but there has been one constant: war. When civil war isn’t tearing the country apart, war often spills over the border from neighboring countries. The result is an utter devastation and deprivation of the human spirit.
The DRC’s wounds were opened even wider on October 26, 2000, when the PlayStation 2 was officially launched in the United States. The DRC has the misfortune of possessing some of the richest coltan deposits in the world, a mineral used in the manufacture of the PlayStation 2 and many other consumer electronics. The unparalleled success of the PlayStation 2 led to a flurry of market speculation that drove the value of coltan up to over ten times what it was worth only months before.
The warlords pounced. Recognizing a golden opportunity, the leaders with military power in DRC seized as many coltan mines as they could, subsequently enslaving men, women, and children into mining operations. Young boys in the Congo were forcefully swept into a real-life war so that little boys in the West could play electronic war games.
Marcel was doing ministry right in the middle of all of this, and his family suffered along with him. He would drive on long, deserted roads into affected areas. In his words, “The roads became the woods.” Nobody else ventured there because it was so unsafe.
Marcel told me he each time prayed with his family before he went into the remote villages, and while he was gone they would fast and pray the whole time for his safety. Every time he left he was literally putting his life at risk, yet he couldn’t imagine not going to help these vulnerable people. Even if it cost his life.
Watching Marcel interact with my daughter and her classmates, it struck me: the suffering and tragedy he is giving his life to fight is fueled, in part, by the toys many of us are consuming.
As Marcel sat humbly and graciously in front of those second graders, there was no way he could have known.
Consumerism is a relatively new phenomenon, even in America’s short history. Our rabid economic machine that constantly churns out new products and services hasn’t always been calibrated this way. Even as recently as The Great Depression of the 1930s, our industries weren’t producing disposable, purchasable garbage in mass quantities—or importing it from overseas.
What happened? The deliberate choice to create, market, and sustain consumerism is what happened. It was a planned development in American economics. Following World War II, marketing strategists realized that if America didn’t continue to consume the amount that it had during the war, our super-charged wartime economy would slow down and sputter out.
The solution was consumerism.
Although today we consume the Congo, tomorrow we can begin to restore it.
The only reason the PlayStation 2 drove the conflict in Congo is because it was successful. Any other successful product in the electronics industry could have caused the same tragedy.
I’m not calling for a boycott of video games and cell phones. I can’t do my job as an author and pastor without my computer and smartphone. But we must realize that the way we consume directly affects the lived realities of other people, whether we want it to or not. The story we are part of is far larger than we think.
As we investigate our habits of consumption and our lack of gratitude, let’s be willing to allow God to shepherd and disciple us into people who are compassionate and grateful, and who raise compassionate and grateful kids. If we’re part of a larger story than we realize, let’s weave a narrative characterized by God’s definition of enough, rather than our culture’s.