Earlier this month I started a series of blog posts reviewing chapters in an Irish Peace Centres’ publication, Studying Faith, Practising Peace, which asked graduate students in theology to address the question: ‘Do theological studies make a tangible and practical contribution to peace on the island of Ireland?’
There are a few more chapters which I wish to highlight, beginning today with ‘Consuming Peace’ by David Masters. Masters wrote the chapter while he was a student on the master’s programme in Reconciliation Studies at Trinity College Dublin at Belfast (the Irish School of Ecumenics), where I work.
Masters has since been working as Europe Regional Secretary at the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF) in Budapest. His master’s dissertation, ‘Send in the Clowns: Laughter, Hope and Failure in the Art of Making Peace’ won our James Haire Memorial Prize for the best dissertation in Reconciliation Studies.
David Masters on Consuming Peace
My previous posts have focussed on chapters that address the legacies of conflict in Northern Ireland. Masters’ chapter also does so, but in a very different way.
Rather than drawing us into reflection about the negative consequences of Irish churches developing their theologies in isolation (Jon Hatch), proposing a local theology of reconciliation (John Peacock), or offering suggestions for how Christians – even in Northern Ireland – might learn to disagree more peaceably (Jayme Reaves), Masters asks us to join him in thinking about Belfast’s shopping centres.
Masters’ argues that the ‘regeneration’ of Belfast city centre was in part a deliberate strategy to transcend conflict by replacing polarised identities with the common identity of consumer.
Masters quotes William Neill, lecturer in Architecture at Queen’s University, who wrote in the early 1990s (p. 43):
‘the “neutral symbolism” of retail brands was intended to create images and spaces which dilute the backward-looking symbolism of the present” and thus “induce historical amnesia”.’
As Masters sums it up (p. 43):
“In the commercialized and neutral space of the city centre, the historical, political and religious identities of Protestant and Catholic would be subsumed into the contemporary, apolitical, and shared identity of the consumer.”
Playing on the theology of the Apostle Paul, he characterizes the theology of 21st Century Belfast as (p. 44):
‘There is no longer Catholic nor Protestant, republican nor loyalist, nationalist nor unionist, for all of you are one in the economy of consumerism.’
But Masters points out that the so-called transcendence of polarized identities by consumerism has been limited to the middle classes. Not everyone can afford a consumerist identity.
And even for those who can afford to consume, Masters claims that a consumerist identity is shallow, defining us by what we own and not by who we are. It causes us to be unhappy with our lot and drives us on to acquire more possessions, concluding that (p. 46):
‘Consumerism, then, is a form of violence against our inner beings. It is a warping of desire that keeps us forever dissatisfied.’
Finally, Masters argues that even the ‘peace’ offered by consumerism is a false one, because it simply directs violence elsewhere, to other parts of the world. People in these parts of the world are exploited as they produce the cheap goods on offer in our shopping centres, and our insatiable desire for fossil fuels may be harming the environment beyond repair.
Masters concludes with a series of questions that emphasize these points:
- Do our solutions for violence nurture the inner life of those being reconciled?
- Do they create the conditions for peace with the wider world?
- Or do they merely export violence elsewhere?
- Are they creative of life and hope rather than provocative of death and destruction?
Given the pervasiveness of consumerism not just in ‘post-conflict’ Belfast, but in the West in general, there is no easy way to overcome the effects which Masters outlines here.
I suspect there is a lot of thinking – some more theologizing? – to be done around how the church might offer an alternative to the consumerist identity and way of life. Thinking, of course, needs to be accompanied by action. Masters quotes Gordon Lynch to this effect (p. 47):
“We need places that treat us as more than just consumers, places where we can be reminded that we suffer, dream, love, fail and find forgiveness.”
Are our churches places like that?
(Image: Belfast’s Victoria Square shopping centre, cathedral of consumerism? Sourced on flickr, by infomatique)