Black Friday: A Morality Tale

This Black Friday, I expect that some religion commentators will write their yearly screed on the immorality of consumerism decrying the shopping frenzy gripping the nation on the day after Thanksgiving.

But I am not going to join that chorus. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t love consumerism or the outburst of materialism that accompanies American Christmas celebrations. It is, however, tediously easy for people who write columns, ministers who preach sermons, or those who are generally comfortable with their jobs or finances to look down on the rushing mobs grabbing electronics from Wal-Mart shelves. When it comes to consumerism, there exists a tendency to blame the customers for bad behavior and greed.

Of course, they are greedy people everywhere, those who will do anything to gain advantage for themselves at the expense of others—people who live in a soulless world of material possessions. But the oddest thing about the folks in lines at those discount stores: They are mostly poor, working class, or marginally middle class. These are the very people who attend church regularly, express higher levels of belief in God, and are more likely to give a higher percentage of their income to those in need. Indeed, nearly every survey in religion shows that the poorer the American, the more likely they are to be both faithful and generous.

By contrast, the rich—the people who aren’t in lines on Black Friday—are less likely to be religious, more likely to find meaning in materialism, and give a lower percentage of their income to help those in need. According to a recent New York Times story, the wealthy will spend most of their holiday cash at stores like Nordstrom, Saks, and Tiffany where there will be few sales and no door-buster specials.

On the morning of Black Friday, I watched a reporter interview two women at a mall, who had arrived early for the sales. He asked, “What are you going to buy?” The woman, clearly not a well-off person, responded: “Shoes.” He said, “Shoes? You’re not supposed to be buying shoes!” She said, “But I need shoes.” He pressed the issue, “Are you buying anything else?” “No,” she replied. “I just need new shoes.” Her companion was buying jeans. The reporter didn’t know what to say. How many people on Black Friday are like these two women?

And that is the morality tale of Black Friday. Yes, there will be mall riots over flat-screen TVs. But maybe, just maybe, people are shopping on Black Friday because they can’t afford the prices that greedy corporations charge on a regular basis—saving up to buy things like shoes on deep discount. And, of course, people who are suffering under the weight of economic inequality would like to have nice toys for their children and decent electronics (electronics are arguably a necessity to participate in 21st century western society) and the only time of the year they can afford such things is during the super-sales pushed on us by mega-business on Black Friday.

So, this year I do not want to hear the cultural elite decry people standing in line for discounts. The problem isn’t Black Friday super-sales. The problem is that America is mired in deep inequalities, that the middle class is dying, and that many millions can’t afford to buy nice things for their families without waiting in long lines on Thanksgiving night. We have become a coarser and less neighborly America, a culture where too far too many—including those who will spend their Christmas wad at high-end stores rather than Black Friday sales—are not working for the common good wherein all of us share in the benefits of living in a wealthy society.

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