Should Christians own sport utility vehicles?

consumethis-1In our materialistic culture where ethics has become an individual’s private affair, it’s high time decisions regarding our material possessions  become more prominent in our Christian communities. One issue ignored all too often is that of vehicle choice. How does a life committed to discipleship to Jesus inform what vehicle we drive? For some this may seem a ridiculous topic – I beg to differ.

It’s no secret a growing number of people are driving oversized pickup trucks and SUVs in North American society. Now, don’t get me wrong – I realize that many people require a larger vehicle whether it is for work, family dynamics, or other reasonable needs.

But would “Jesus drive an SUV?” In 2002, the Evangelical Environmental Network enlisted the support of many prominent Christians around North America to ask the same question (whatwouldjesusdrive.info). As ethanol subsidies rise and more farmers are growing corn, one statistic jumps out – it takes as much grain to fuel an SUV a single time as it does to feed a person for an entire year.

I had to wonder whether the main motivation to limit SUVs was simply the claimed inevitability of environmental disaster and social injustices that come along with it. While compelling, the argument places guilt as the central motivator for Christian ethics. This guilt can easily turn into remorse and eventually disappear, making vehicle choice irrelevant to Christian ethics. Simply talking about the consequences of our actions – pollution and famine in this case – doesn’t take into account whether the action results from consciously chosen Christian habits, a way of life.

So how do we make vehicle choice an ethical decision? Ethics, including choice of vehicle, must return to the church. Most often, favourite company, model, style, or colour are the central concerns when buying a car. Based on personal preference alone, it is difficult to understand how vehicle choice has anything to with church.

Stanley Hauerwas, a vocal critic of individual, rule-based ethics, suggests that our decisions “must serve and be formed by the Christian community, a community whose interest lies in the formation of character and whose perduring history provides the continuity we need to act in conformity with that character” (The Peaceable Kingdom, 1983). I believe this community-formed character provides the framework we need.

First of all, community is central. How many of us have even considered asking our brothers and sisters what their opinions are regarding our material choices? The community in which we participate should include people who interpret life alongside us. The admonition to “encourage one another” (1 Thessalonians 5:11) does not refer to maintaining the status quo. Rather, it implies that other people have a role in forming who we are and helping us live the challenging road of faithful discipleship. Vehicle choice, then, has relevance in our church communities.

Second, community ethics defines our character – who we are. Christian ethics is not just” doing” the right things, but “being,” a good person. Our Christian character defines our actions. Outside a discerning community, ethics becomes an  individualized endeavour, and our character is left to the amalgamation of the personal choices we make. In a community of disciples however, we are given a context to better understand our identity as Christ followers, and the impact this has on everyday choices. A Christian community focused on forming character will allow individuals to integrate faith into  everyday choices, even what vehicle to drive.

Third, ethics in community is always a work-in-progress. Churches shouldn’t have a single policy concerning member’s choice of vehicles. Instead of focusing on universal good or bad decisions (which could lead to legalism), we should be prepared to discern together what appropriate responses to specific events.

I am not suggesting churches should have an open-mike for issues of materialism every worship gathering. However, the people with whom we share our lives, whether care groups or specific individuals, have a part to play in our material decisions. In terms of choosing a vehicle, this means the decision process involves far more than just a meeting with the car dealer and the bank.

Materialism, particularly vehicle choice, will only begin to be addressed when our decisions are guided by a Christian community that’s forming our character and actively thinks through issues together.

Some say this way of thinking is abstract and fails in practical application. Surely as Christians we need concrete principles to live by. However, if principles are divorced from a community context that shapes our lives, they quickly dissolve into empty rules, leaving decisions once more at the mercy of personal preference.

So what’s my verdict to the question, “Should Christians own SUVs?” Ask your church!

David Warkentin is a member of Bakerview MB Church in Abbotsford, B.C. and is currently studying at Regent College. He blogs at www.davidwarkentin.blogspot.com

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