I just finished reading “7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess” by Jen Hatmaker. In it, Hatmaker decides to pick 7 areas of her life and over the course of 7 months tries different experiments to change those areas. For instance, in her month focusing on clothing she chooses 7 articles of clothing and wears only those for a month.
There is a lot that I really liked about this book. It’s an interesting concept (I love these human guinea pig books) and she does a lot of really powerful things. I got a lot of ideas to try in my own life and with the youth I work with. She provides some great information about how excess consumption affects the larger world and hits hard on the mandate that Christians have to do something about all of this.
There were so many moments where I was thinking, “Yes. Finally someone is speaking truth to power in the Evangelical church” (This book is decidedly written for an evangelical audience). I am happy that she called out consumerism, the shallowness of a lot of churches, the way churches spend money, and more. I loved her thoughts on churches stepping up and adopting kids, giving away half of all the money they bring in, serving their community and more.
Hatmaker is writing from a privileged life. She is definitely upper middle class and assumes her readers are as well (or at least solidly middle class). And that I think that’s what made this book really uncomfortable to read. There wasn’t any class critique but there were a lot of mentions of “the poor” and “the homeless”. While she talks about serving and giving things away there wasn’t a call to change the system that keeps people poor.
There were some weird racial things in the book as well (although these were more understated). Throughout she talks about her families plan to adopt two children from Ethiopia and seems to be fixated on the fact that they will be brown skinned with different textured hair (and while it’s important to know how to care for your childrens’ hair the emphasis on it made me uncomfortable). And in one instance, when someone critiques her for wanting to adopt she seems unable to understand his critique. She says he is drunk and it’s only because he’s drunk that he’s saying such things. However in her recounting of his dialogue she reveals the man is Puerto Rican and says that he is telling her that it would be like her family adopting him, which she thinks is completely strange. To me his argument makes sense and is one every white family thinking about adopting a child of another racial background needs to really wrestle with and think about.
In another part of the book she talks about the refugee community and makes sure that the reader knows that they are kept in poverty not because they aren’t hardworking but because there is a language barrier or they lack practical skills (with the unspoken assumption that it’s not like those OTHER homeless people. The ones living under the bridge.). Again, weird class stuff.
And of course there is the dig at a transgender person as she says they had to explain to their kids why there was a “man in a dress” when they went to feed the homeless. Instead why don’t we talk about the fact that extremely high portions of unhoused people (especially youth) are queer. And they lack housing because their religious families kicked them out. Why don’t we have a conversation about how transgender women of color are the most at risk for poverty and violence? I guess that doesn’t fit into an evangelical book.
She embarks on these experiments but then is able to immediately pick her life back up after they are over. Which, on the one hand, I get. How many of us are really willing to completely overhaul our lives? How many of us are willing to sell all we have and give to the poor? But there is a constant push pull in the book: Here is what God demands of us, but I’m not going to do that. And I guess I would be more okay with it if she would just state that up front. I am not going to sell all that I have.
I think what made me most uncomfortable was how insidious the lack of class critique can be. In this world the white, privileged folks get to give away lots of stuff and feel good about it, they get to adopt children from Ethiopia, they get to feed the homeless in the park, give up their shoes, and then go out and buy a new pair of shoes. And not work to overthrow the unjust system that is keeping people without housing and health care.
What I worry this book will do is have a bunch of other people doing experiments to make themselves feel better without actually changing the system. And maybe I am being too harsh. Maybe if lots and lots of people would do these experiments we WOULD change the system. But there still needs to be a sustained understanding of class critique. We need to root out our internalized classism and racism. I think once again of the quote by Paulo Freire on charity: "In order to have the continued opportunity to express their 'generosity,' the oppressors must perpetuate injustice as well. An unjust social order is the permanent fount of this 'generosity,' which is nourished by death, despair, and poverty...True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity." And in this book there is a lot of, “Oh, look how much we’ve given away to those people who really need it.”
I am glad she is raising these questions. I was challenged while reading this book to think about my own excess. But I am still uncomfortable with the outcome of the book. I am uncomfortable with the individualism of the American church. She states in her conclusion that she doesn’t want to guilt anyone and doesn’t want to prescribe a way forward. But honestly, don’t we need to start making some bold and prophetic statements? As Stephen Colbert said, “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it.” But taking it even further if we really care about the fact that people are kept in poverty than we need to stop thinking of them as “the poor” and instead actually be neighbors with them. She talks about her church going out to serve food to the homeless but doesn’t talk about whether or not they would be welcome on a Sunday morning. Or what barriers there might be to unhoused folks making it to a service.
I a lot of ways I am very thankful for this book. I am thankful someone is taking on this consumer culture from within the evangelical tradition. I know it takes a lot of courage for an author to put herself and her family out there like this: To reveal their own finances, how and where they spend money, their own excess and I applaud that honesty. But I am afraid that the things left unsaid will allow a culture to continue that keeps people in poverty because we don’t understand systemic oppression. I am afraid that a book like this allows people to get off the hook because there aren’t any prescriptions for what we should do next. I am afraid that this book doesn’t challenge a white evangelical subculture to really examine privilege and racism. This conversation can’t stop here. And the traditional individualism of the evangelical church hasn’t equipped churches to really talk about what it means to live in community or to be community. That’s something we’ve got to start talking about if the systems of the world are going to change.