Those of us living in the United States have surely seen the ads this week and earlier, calling us to rise from our food-induced comas and bring the retailers “into the black” on that holiest of American shopping days, now popularly known as “Black Friday.” These calls and what they represent (often in a quasi-religious way) should give Christians pause for a number of reasons. Here are a few of the reasons I’ve been pondering for staying home from the stores this Friday.
Liturgical: There is some confusion created by the fact that we Christians share one of our holiest days with America’s alternate religion of Secular Consumerism. For the latter, the day after Thanksgiving marks the official beginning of the “Holiday Season.” The culture warriors can protest the term until they’re blue in the face, but I’m all for not confusing this with the Feast of Our Lord’s Nativity. (Try and commercialize that – or on second thought, don’t.) Let’s not forget that in the Christian year, the Christmas season begins with Christmas. As of this week, we haven’t even gotten to Advent yet. Taking a season to wait in wonder for the mystery of the Incarnation may be the best possible antidote to the allure of flashing lights and jingle bells and marketing gimmicks enticing us to overconsume.
Christological: Speaking of the Incarnation, let us above all not forget the radical humility of the Word becoming flesh. It is true that this humility implies the redeemability of our full humanity, including our culture. It is also true that we who seek to follow the incarnate Word are likewise called to be incarnational, to believe in the redemption of the world rather than thinking ourselves superior to it. Yet these truths, rich and profound as they are, should not be interpreted as a divine carte blanche to baptize every cultural practice and attitude indiscriminately (and judging from Our Lord’s reaction on this one occasion, I’d say it’s a safe bet he takes issue with the exploitation of worship for profit). To be sure, the Incarnation is an affirmation of the goodness of humanity, but it is also a call and a challenge to a better way. The true test, as Aaron Weldon has put it so well, is “that any engagement with ‘the world’ should be measured against this standard: does this action perform the truth?” As we celebrate the unique kingship of Christ this Sunday, and as we expectantly ponder his descent among us this Advent, in everything we do let us ask ourselves: does this help us to proclaim, or keep us from proclaiming, the radical humility of the Incarnation?
Theological: Long before sending his son among us, God was speaking to his people, warning against idols that fail to satisfy human needs – and today’s brand-name pantheon often comes dangerously close to this, especially when they compel us to an all but compulsory visit to their temple on their own Day of Obligation. This is not to say that we must never shop, but simply that we must never allow it pride of place over things that matter more. We need periodic rest from the frenzy of commerce, and God knows this. That’s why he gave the gift of Sabbath – a gift enshrined in the ancient covenant from the creator who knows what’s best for us.
Spiritual: Because God knows what’s best for us, if we all paid more attention to his gifts, we’d be a lot healthier – physically, psychologically, and spiritually. The pressures of consumerism are taxing; they weary the body and soul. At some point, of course, we will have to purchase necessities for ourselves and gifts for others. Better at least to avoid doing so in a high-pressure atmosphere that will ultimately be detrimental to our own well-being, and consequently to the well-being of those we interact with.
Social: Our consumer activity always has an impact beyond ourselves. This is not only about the working conditions of producers overseas (although it is partly about that, which is why I recommend favoring fair trade retailers for gift purchases). It is also about the working conditions of the people we meet face-to-face on the other side of the cash register. I was reminded of this in a recent conversation in which someone I know was lamenting the fact that her sister, who works in the food industry, has been required to work Thanksgiving day for the past several years, largely due to popular demand for “Early Black Friday Deals” (which really are advertising ploys to induce increased spending, and not savings except in the most artificial sense). Yes, the many people required to work this Thursday and Friday are in one sense fortunate to be employed, but this provides all the more temptation – and certainly no justification – for their employers to take excessive advantage of their need to remain employed, even to ignore their humanity and view them as mere tools for profit (Pope Leo XIII would have a few things to say about this). They too deserve a time of rest and recreation with their families and friends – which many will continue to be denied as long as we continue to make it profitable.
This video from the Advent Conspiracy (remember Advent?) ties these things together nicely:
The Gospel calls us to walk a fine balance in our relationship with the world, remaining deeply involved while also remaining set apart in such a way that people take notice. This is ultimately not a sectarian message but an evangelizing one, not a false ideal of purity but a prophetic and relational witness. A holier-than-thou “you’re all shallow idiots for buying into the consumer mentality” kind of message is not likely to win many hearts and minds. Still, we ought to have something to say to tired and frazzled compatriots who have been led to seek meaning in things that can’t fulfill their deepest human needs and longings. Perhaps we might say with St. Paul (concluding 1 Corinthians 12), “But let me show you a more excellent way” – first of all by living the way in our own lives. We might also plead with the prophet Isaiah (55:2):
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good….
A plaintive critique, prophetic yet compassionate, accompanied by an invitation to what does satisfy. An invitation to the thirsty and weary – as St. Paul also says at the end of his first letter to Timothy, “so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.” What a New Evangelization that could be!