On Loving Your Coffee and Your Neighbor
Entire books have been written on how the church should be more like Starbucks. Some churches house Starbucks. I imagine most Christians in this country have been to a Starbucks in the last month, or last day for that matter. Christians love coffee. So it was with curiosity that I read Kari Barbic’s review of Byrant Simon’s new book Everything But the Coffee: Learning About America from Starbucks.
The premise of the book (and the article) is that Starbucks sells more than coffee. Sure, you go there for the double tall venti creme espresso whatever (I don’t drink coffee so I don’t know what I’m talking about), but Starbucks promises you more than a cup of joe. It promises you community and a better planet.
The problem, says Simon, is that these promises are unfulfilled. Barbic explains:
Although Starbucks provides a clean, comfortable location for people to be, the idea that Starbucks is actually promoting “community” through its stores is debatable. Simon cites hours spent in a variety of Starbucks in different cities where he interviews patrons and employees to examine this promise. What he discovers is not surprising to anyone who has spent any substantial time in a Starbucks: stores with many people in one place, but not true “community.” Simon gives examples of empty community bulletin boards and a persistent lack of real conversation with strangers or meeting of “neighbors.”
I like visiting Starbucks, Panera, Barnes and Noble and other “third places.” It’s great to meet with friends, enjoy a book, or work quietly at your computer. But I suspect Simon is right: few people meet new friends at Starbucks and little of the fresh neighborly interaction can ever be classified as real community.
Similarly, the Starbucks promise that you are making a difference in the world just by purchasing their coffee is way overblown. Can expensive self-treating actually be a form of altruistic compassion? Starbucks would like us to think so. Here’s what it says on the back of the cup in front of me:
Everything we do, you do. You stop by for a coffee. And just by doing that, you let Starbucks but more coffee from farmers who are good to their workers, community and planet. Starbucks bought 65% of our coffee this way last year–228 million pounds–and we’re working with farmers to make it 100%. It’s using our size for good, and you make it all possible. Way to go, you” (emphasis original).
Toward the bottom of the cup are the words: “Starbucks Shared Planet. You and Starbucks. It’s bigger than coffee.” No doubt about it, Starbucks is not just selling coffee. They are offering us the chance to salve our consciences and make the world a better place, one $5 dollar drink at a time.
And yet, according to Simon, Starbucks is not that different from most companies. They produce a lot of waste, and 10 cents off for using your own mug isn’t much of incentive to put our carbon-free footprint forward. True, they buy a lot fair trade coffee. But the impact on peasant farmers is not always clear. Plus, if fair trade is the way to go, why doesn’t Starbucks get 100% of their coffee this way?
The bottom line is that Starbucks still cares about the bottom line. The company may still benefit Colombian farmer through the genius of capitalism, but it’s not like Starbucks is World Vision with a little coffee on the side. “From the evidence presented by Simon,” the review explains, “it is clear that Starbucks, through its marketing, appeals to the sympathies of the consumer while placing the profit of the company before the good of the world.” This doesn’t make Starbucks evil. Quite the contrary. It makes them a business. And there’s no inherent sin in a business pursuing profits. The “Grande Illusion” is not that Starbucks is a sinister company pretending to be good. The illusion is that your Starbucks habit is a terrific way to help heal the planet. Barbic concludes: “If you want to make the world a better place, look for a reliable charitable organization to donate to rather than buying a bottle of Ethos water.”
So what’s the point? Why rag on Star bucks for 600 words? Well, here’s a few concluding thoughts.
1. The church has almost nothing to learn from Starbucks. If you are retooling your church to fit the Starbucks model, try reading Ephesians instead. Surely we can do better than faux community and the illusion of social superiority.
2. Enjoy your Starbucks coffee, but don’t imagine you are the “global Good Samaritan” for doing so. You may have noticed from books like Stuff White People Like and Hipster Christianity that there is something of a backlash afoot against pretentious coolness. Please here me (and see point 3): there’s nothing bad, and probably lots good, about listening to emo bands, drinking fair trade coffee, and reading Wendell Barry at Panera Bread. Just don’t wear it all as a badge of spiritual honor.
3. Those who like McDonalds more than Starbucks and Bell’s Pizza more than Magdalena’s Tea House need to be extra careful that in an effort to defend the “uncool” they don’t end up demonizing the “cool.” Some people like the things that “hipsters” like. No problem. They need Jesus too. We all need Jesus. The battle is between God and the devil, between good and evil, between sin and righteousness, not between bourgeois and bohemian.
Forget hip and unhip. Don’t try to be cool. Don’t revel in being uncool. Just be who you are and love your neighbor as yourself.
And go head and enjoy the Starbucks. Just don’t mistake pricey coffee for the in-breaking of the kingdom.