I Shop Therefore I Am?
- By Paul Joshua Bhakiaraj
- Published 10/18/2007
Paul Joshua Bhakiaraj
Paul Joshua Bhakiaraj is the husband of one wife and father of three children. A Commended Worker from the Brethren Assemblies, he serves as the Director of the Mylapore Institute for Indigenous Studies, a research institute dedicated to the study of Christianity in South Asia. Besides overseeing research and its dissemination through books and journals, including the Dharma Deepika: A South Asian Journal of Missiological Research, he also teaches at seminaries and is a popular speaker at various youth and mission conferences.
While IT may be present here also serving as its backbone, this however is a revolution of a different sort. Not resident in the lines of code that engineers write creating software applications that run business but rather one that stares us in the face as we go out and about in our towns and cities and is present even in our homes as we watch television. Ubiquitous, glitzy and promising, with unbridled pretentions, a taste of first world, this is a revolution that will not only facilitate, at least supposedly, a sophisticated lifestyle but more significantly will shape our lives in more ways than one. This is the retail revolution.
Recently when we heard news that the American giant WalMart and India’s Bharti Enterprises (promoters of Airtel) signed a deal to create a mammoth retail chain store, and again when we were informed that Mukesh Ambani of Reliance Industries unveiled his mega plan to establish a similar chain, it was clear that the retail revolution was underway.
Research shows that together big corporations like them plan to invest US $ 10 billion over the next five years. So when market analysts say that retail is the next sunrise sector (growth for the organized retail sector is estimated at 15-20%) they are not far from the truth.
One reason this retail revolution is feasible is because of the growing middle class. Rise in personal final consumption expenditure (which it is said has grown by about 11% over the last three years) supplemented by easily available credit facilitates this new found purchasing power and thus drives the demand side of the equation. On the supply side institutional investors on the lookout for fresh markets provide ready capital inflow for inventory as well as retail space in the form of malls.
On the other hand is the psychological driver. Since the 1980’s our nation has been gradually ushered into the world of consumerism. The popularity of colour television nursed a generation of young people on ‘choice’. The monochrome of the staple of consumer goods was infused with the colour of choice. Growing up on such a diet, choice came to be seen as good and valued.
Today this ‘choice generation’ of the 80’s are now the ones that people the corporate offices of our land. As they earn unprecedented salaries their desire for ‘choice’ has now grown to be rather insatiable. It is not sufficient to get by with what works, on the contrary the latest brands, even the ones that currently are on offer in the west, and the most advanced technology are the objects of desire. Cost is no bar, image is the criteria. Exuding a view on life that believes, if-you’ve-got-it-flaunt-it, they live life, as they say, XL size.
Now sooner rather than later, if it has not already caught up, other sections of society are liable to follow suit. Visit any B grade city and you will find the trappings of consumerism as evident there as in any upwardly mobile urban home. This abundance of material goods is not necessarily value neutral. On the contrary it actually goes hand in hand with a distinct change in attitude toward those goods. Such consumerism suggests that for many significance is not derived from ‘being’ rather it obtains from ‘possessing’.
The car becomes, not a means to get from point A to B, but statement of one’s status, one’s purchasing power and one’s preferential style. A watch becomes, not an instrument to tell time, but to tell people who one wants to be and when one has arrived. The French philosopher Rene Decartes’ statement, Cogito, ergo sum, I think therefore I am, could be reworked to describe this influential philosophy to say, ‘I shop therefore I am’!
As members of society Christians are not necessarily immune from this view on life, in fact many of us are as prone to exhibit this view as blatantly others are. Sadly the church often becomes a stage on which we display our spoils from the local mall. Further not only do we succumb to its beguiling charms we often import it into the way we even perceive and practice our faith.
Consider how many of us ‘shop around’ for a church that appeals to our sense of ‘uplifting’ spirituality, piously saying that we really feel the presence of God in that place. Consider how we flock to those who preach a safe and comfy gospel, rather than to those who, like Jesus, do not mince their words. We pick and choose a church or a spiritual guru based on what they have to offer us rather than on the call for sacrificial discipleship that the scriptures issue.
On the face of it, the retail revolution may seem to be a rather innocuous change in the way society is ordered, and to be sure there are many benefits that it will usher in. Jobs and enhanced services are but only two of many. However when one stops to ponder the issue the deformation that consumerism causes on human persons is a powerful force that is increasingly and alarmingly evident in society.
Human life and meaning is marred, human agency is trivialized, and goods that hitherto possessed intrinsic utility are now endowed with a transcendent value quite separate from what it exists for in the first place. Such trivialization of humanity and the divinizing of commodities holds serious implications for church and society.
Salt and Light are fecund metaphors for an engaged and constructive discipleship within the culture we inhabit. Salt preserves and light illuminates. As disciples of Jesus Christ how can we be S&L within the context of the retail revolution that is sweeping through our nation?
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