Photo from http://flow.es/el-e-commerce-y-el-sentido-comun/

Photo from http://flow.es/el-e-commerce-y-el-sentido-comun/

I found myself standing in a line outside a department store at 4:30 a.m. on Black Friday. I don’t know how it happened, but it did. When the store finally opened its doors, its aisles filled with frenzied shoppers, it reminded me of the first 20 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan.” People shouting at sales clerks, huffing behind the elderly shoppers, pushing shoppers through lines — all of this only ten hours after sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner, where, undoubtedly, Americans give thanks for what we have and celebrate our commonality. There’s something to be said about a nation where the day after giving thanks, we literally fight one another over material acquisitions.

It is also worth noting the death of Paul Crouch, the famous televangelist and Christian Network Television mogul, which took place on Nov. 30. As president of the Trinity Broadcast Network, Crouch made millions of dollars and, along with his wife, enjoyed all of “God’s gifts,” including private jets and his-and-hers mansions side-by-side in a gated community. Crouch was one of the leading proponents of the “prosperity doctrine,” the idea that God will award the faithful with material wealth. In other words,  Crouch believed God wants us to be rich, and , as logically follows, those who are poor are clearly not in the good graces of God.

This assertion made me think of the retail workers who often are barely paid minimum wage to serve those of us who stand outside their immaculately kept stores at 4:30 in the morning. Having been a seasonal retail employee, I understand the joys and sorrows of the holiday season and the odd sensation of unbridled, transactionary wealth.

This seems to be part of a larger occurrence. According to Fortune Magazine, the economy has only recovered for those who can afford to buy luxury goods, that is, the wealthy. Making minimum wage and having a customer hand over enough cash to cover rent for six months is an unsettling feeling and, for me, led to a feeling of apathy during the most wonderful time of the year. It was sadly unsurprising to learn that these encounters have negative psychological effects, that they limit an individual’s ability to interact and connect with others, the unfaithfulness to God — Paul Crouch’s take — notwithstanding.

It certainly doesn’t help that the Christmas shopping season, undoubtedly driven by economic voracity, now begins after Halloween, circumnavigating Thanksgiving altogether. This pleonexic binge seems to get worse and worse as time wears on. I think many people would share my anxiety with commercializing or re-branding holidays with roots in spirituality. One of those people seems to be His Holiness Pope Francis.

In a recent papal exhortation, Pope Francis lays out his case against global capitalism and the “dehumanization” often found in the numbness of sales transactions this time of year:

[H]umanity is experiencing a turning point in its history, as we can see from the advances being made in so many fields. We can only praise the steps being taken to improve people’s welfare in areas such as health care, education and communications. At the same time, we have to remember that the majority of our contemporaries are barely living from day to day, with dire consequences. A number of diseases are spreading. The hearts of many people are gripped by fear and desperation, even in the so-called rich countries. The joy of living frequently fades, lack of respect for others and violence are on the rise, and inequality is increasingly evident. It is a struggle to live and, often, to live with precious little dignity…

Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “Thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality.

It was this passage that infuriated Rush Limbaugh and caused him to label the Bishop of Rome a “Marxist.” Despite Pope Francis’s affinity for the liberation theology of Gustavo Gutiérrez Merino, limiting his message to a political buzzword is completely misunderstanding his message. In South America, Pope Francis — then Bishop Bergoglio — witnessed large corporations profiting from the cheap labor and low taxes afforded those who do business in the region. Like many industries seeking a low-wage work-force, their industry tends to follow poverty as outlined in the garment business in Colombia and Bangladesh. And while global capitalism has its merits, His Holiness’s point is that allowing ourselves to become disoriented by wealth, money and its material incentives actually detracts from leading a fulfilled life simply because turns us away from one another and, by extension, from God.

So join me, please, the next time you’re waiting for your 50 percent off, in thinking about what all that “great deal” has to offer.

7 Comments

  1. RIFF MATTRE

    Hey Skyler,

    I’m always encouraged when I hear from another who isn’t afraid to acknowledge feeling an irony/contradiction/hypocrisy in values between our “Black Friday/Thanksgiving/Halloween consumer madness” and the traditional values upon which the holidays are founded. One question? Are folks like Rush Limbaugh your adversaries? I ask because from my perspective L.B. has a mind hard-wired by belief in absolute dichotomies (such as the juxtaposition of capitalism and socialism). It is my experience that no such absolutes exist and that these are false dualisms wrongly associated with connotations of “good” and “evil” propagated by “end-justifying-means” political motivations. If I am correct that such ideologies are in fact falsehoods, it would follow that they must eventually collapse of there own misplaced illogical foundations. Reason follows that to argue against such misguided belief risks bolstering its propagation. Often I wonder if our challenge is less seeing our dilemmas and the misinformed ideologies of others and more our inability to demonstrate alternatives?

    Thoughts?

    • R. Skyler Oberst

      Article author

      Hi Riff!
      Sorry for this response being so late, but I want to make sure that I keep my word in writing you back. :)

      I don’t consider the Rush Limbaughs of the world adversaries. I think that it is important to make a distinction between one’s actions and oneself. If I were to detest Rush Limbaugh because of his actions, I would then channel my frustration into detesting him. My personal faith tells me that once that happens, I’ve lost the point completely of spirituality. As Gandhi once quipped “Hate the sin. Love the sinner.” It’s a tough thing to do, and more often than not, I find myself losing perspective on this…
      It may be thought difficult to look back through history and find similar times when polarization and incivility have gripped the country as it has in recent years, though I take solace in a few shining examples of how we can challenge ideologues without stooping to their level….

      Sometimes opposing someone’s actions requires the highest sacrifices. Do you know who was the lawyer for the British soldiers who were involved with the Boston Massacre in 1770? John Adams. Yep. He later wrote in his journal “It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested actions of my whole life, and one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country. Judgment of death against those soldiers would have been as foul a stain upon this country as the executions of the Quakers or witches, anciently.” Adams knew that to give in to the bloodthirsty mobs in Boston by standing aside or ‘throwing the case’ was to be no better than the British soldiers themselves. And that wasn’t the country he was interested in building.

      The great statesman Thaddeus Stevens, champion of the emancipation movement during the civil war, was asked by opponents to the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution if he believes in the equality of all things. The question is baited, and a wrong answer could either kill the bill before congress, or his life’s work. His answer as shown in the recent Hollywood film “Lincoln” (found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QTwKOCILJl0) basically sums up how I feel about R.L..

      Patrick Kennedy said of his father, Senator Ted Kennedy at his funeral in 2009: “He even taught me some of life’s harder lessons, such as how to like Republicans. He once told me — he said Teddy, Republicans love this country just as much as I do.” While we have differences, there is a shared experience we have. We may differ in opinion on many things (and trust me, my opinions differ GREATLY from R.L.’s), but I am bound to accept that all human beings are created in the image of the Divine.

      I think you are right to focus not on the person, but on the message. Our challenge is combat blatant fear-mongering, douchebaggery and hate-swelling spittle wherever it is present in our society. That is what we have been doing for generations in this country. We must never shy away of challenging hatred, but we need to be able to discern and present our dissension in the best way possible.
      I reserved tickets to sit through a lecture on Islam v Christianity in the context of Revelations only to be able to tell the presenter that I will not have this type of behavior in my community, and that his message is inaccurate and helps no one… What will others do?

  2. Yisrael Bisman

    Hey Skyler – Thanks. You too Riff,

    It is a shame that we have allowed our culture to take what was and is for some – still a valuable tradition – and turn it into a celebration of brawling and a cause for displaying all of our worst traits.

    Let me share a story. I once had a partner (may his memory be for a blessing) very educated, an academic, and for most of his life – an avowed Atheist. Oddly – Christmas was his favorite holiday. In fact – he spent most of the year preparing for it.

    I never knew him to ever do Black Friday. He preferred instead to shop for bargains all year round and slowly cross people – one by one – off his list as he found just the perfect gift for them.

    In August if you opened the wrong closet in his townhouse, you would find merchandise raining down upon your head. This man believed in giving – and for no other reason – than for the shear pleasure it gave him to watch the joy on someone’s face when they opened his unexpected gift!

    Unexpected because he would go to great lengths to secretly find out what they most honestly needed, wanted, or would appreciate. He did this for all his friends, and if someone unexpected should be encountered – or at the last minute, invited to Christmas dinner, he would sneak away and pull from his stash of “just in case” gifts he had also purchased for just such occasions.

    For his own parents, sibling , and niece – he would always get them something that they would not buy for themselves because of cost. Odd, that we sometimes have to learn selfless giving from a “godless heathen”, isn’t it?

    I once asked him about his Christmas obsession – and he replied thus, ” Giving gives me so much pleasure. To see my friends happiness and surprise is worth more to me than any amount of money it cost. It is how I express my love for them. I do it because I can.”

    At fist I thought he couldn’t really be sincere – certainly he must have a hidden motive, but after watching him do this consistently for 13 years – I can honestly say I was witnessing the purest form of “selfless” giving.

    And by the way Riff , as to your last comment – I have to disagree with you in this way – Our ability to demonstrate alternatives is always present – we can donate our time to collect gifts for Tree of Sharing at the malls where they need help or the distribution warehouse – we can help those organizations aiding the homeless fund-raise on the streets this holiday season.

    You might just be surprised at yourself.

  3. RIFF MATTRE

    Hi Yisrael. The story of your partner rings true of a sincerely giving heart. Thanks!

    I might might have better commented “our inability to COLLECTIVELY demonstrate CONTAGIOUS alternatives.” Each and every individual who chooses a different way DOES make a difference! It’s how we might collaborate these efforts to effectively sway the masses that I wonder about. We are EACH a gear in the giant American machine of capitalism. Choices can add up!

  4. RIFF MATTRE

    What up, Sky.

    THANKS for getting back! Wow! Effort appreciated.

    Apologies for tossing a tactical question from left field, but you didn’t let me down! The when’s and how’s of choosing battles could definitely be a post unto its own (or even a great Coffee Talk).

    I’m a simple believer in the Yoda doctrine that, “fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” Political positions built upon irrational fears of the unknown always crumble.

    My experience is that to attack a position from an equal and opposite position is to create a dynamic in which the whole house risks collapsing. This is not to say such dynamics do not become inescapably necessary along the way (our own Civil War and WWII being two MACRO examples).

    Before true wars breakout (failures resulting from our own mistakes) WE have the opportunity to find a better way. The race is always a matter of CHOOSING how best to invest our efforts toward establishing the dream in waking reality. If the backward sliding crowd is getting a foothold, sometimes it is most definitely apropos to raise alternative awareness in the shadow of fear.

    Otherwise, I tend to believe that best efforts correcting our course are always to combine our efforts toward active solutions rather than attacking what we view as wrongheaded. One example is the participation in discussions such as this website and it’s monthly Coffee Talks and mixers.

    At the last Coffee Talk you spoke of putting interfaith dialogue INTO ACTION in positive ways. Who really gives a crap what RL says if we are SO BUSY reaping the fruits of our actions toward a better world? Establishing this opportunity for all is what the next generation is all about.

    Maybe you and I should give Mark Zuckerberg a call?

    Thanks again. :)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments with many links may be automatically held for moderation.