While I personally have never had any interest in participating in the shopping melee that is taking place across our nation today, I understand also that, for good or for bad, many hardworking people will rely on today and the upcoming holiday shopping season for their livelihoods.
Somehow we have created the ultimate irony.
We have built a society which places high value on material possessions. That value requires people to create and distribute those possessions. In order to make those possessions as affordable and widely available as possible, we demand that those people work for low wages. Inevitably, the consequence of people working for low wages is marginalization and, ultimately, impoverishment.
In our Western Christian heritage, we have attached the giving and receiving of possessions to one of our holiest days, our celebration of Jesus’ birth.
And so our consumer culture has merged with our religious culture. A religion which claims to worship the ways of a radically self-giving God attempts to do so through a consumeristic celebration of God’s incarnation into humanity.
The result is a kind of religious schizophrenia. In order to celebrate the birth of Jesus, we have created the very kind of marginalization and impoverishment Jesus consistently condemns.
In the biblical narrative, God’s intent was for Israel to be a nation which valued all people equally and sacrificially cared for one another, and which demonstrated that kind of care as a counter-cultural picture to the rest of the world of what humanity could be at its best.
During the period in which the books of the prophets emerged, many in Israel had become very prosperous. Ironically, wealth and power came largely through enslavement of the poorest and most vulnerable.
The prophets arose as a voice to critique what Israel had become. Their job was not so much to predict the future as it was to point out the consequences for the nation’s behavior. Israel, ironically, had risen from enslavement in Egypt to enslaving its own people. The consequence would be exile and enslavement in Babylon.
Enslavement always leads to enslavement. Mistreatment of others always leads to being mistreated.
As another Black Friday leads us into another Christmas shopping season, we would be wise to remember the voice of the prophets.
This is not a call to monasticism or asceticism. I’m not advocating that we stop buying or giving. I claim no moral high ground from which to cast blame on anyone. I am as culpable as any.
I simply hope that by confronting our own religious schizophrenia, we might begin to be more truly generous, more counter-culturally compassionate, and more truly human.