When Ethical Reflection Becomes Righteous Moralizing: A Black Friday Reflection

Today is Black Friday, that day when millions of Americans head to the mall and millions of other Americans get on large soap boxes to preach against the false gods of materialism and consumerism.

Hey, I got nothing against soap box preaching. I my very own self preached against consumerism and materialism from my pulpit a few weeks ago. My sermon was titled, “Enough Already!”

But I want to talk about the tipping point when a good and righteous cause changes in tone from earnest and thoughtful to smug and shrill. It’s not something you can pinpoint exactly, but it’s a felt shift that happens for me when I notice when social media is packed with rants about the stupidity and badness of those who don’t get on the bandwagon. In other words, the cause about a behavior becomes an attack on the people who engage in the behavior.

In this case, shopping.

I was so taken with Bill McKibben’s lovely little book, Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case For a More Joyful Christmas several years ago. I read it, recommended it, bought copies for people, read it with two congregations, and changed my holiday habits as a result of it.

It worked. It did its thing. It achieved its purpose. It named a problem and it recommended a solution. In tone and in intent, McKibben’s book was caring, inclusive and creative. It didn’t just want to stop a behavior or to take something away from people, it gave us better ideas that sounded fun and happy things to do.

The liberal moralizing around shopping I’ve seen lately bugs me because it’s high-horsey, judgmental and just plain TRENDY. That really bugs me. Bashing mall-goers this time of year is the social justice arugula of the season: an instant way to earn that enviable aura of moral sophistication or even enlightenment. Meanwhile, a whole lot of folks I see engaging in this conversation drive nice cars, have nice homes, and pretty much already have everything they need. For them to unplug from the Christmas machine isn’t going to a huge sacrifice, as they are regularly able to give themselves and their loved ones the little jump in mood and endorphins that comes at the price of a new sweater or nice dinner out.

There’s a lot of classism in this issue.  ‘Nuff said.

Like I said, this isn’t about me disagreeing with the Buy Nothing Day commitments.  I have gone on record as a preacher expressing concern for the ways that materialism seduces us with false promises and traps us with debt and an oppressive amount of possessions that suffocate us and our planet.

I just think that the issue of consumerism, like every other one we embrace as religious liberals, needs to be treated as a pastoral concern first, and a social, political and environmental one second. The reason is that we cannot reach anyone if we don’t come from a place of solidarity and affection.  If you have never known the thrill of finding a pair of Franco Sarto knee-high boots in your size for 40% off at Nordstrom on Black Friday, remember that those of us who have are not unenlightened sinners in the hands of a retail god, we’re average Americans.

As the church becomes increasingly irrelevant in society, the church has to work harder to understand and connect ourselves to the human experience. When we get into our echo chambers of righteous rhetoric denouncing this or that “ism” (in this case, consumerism), we wind up isolating ourselves from tons of ordinary people who suspect — and I think rightly so — that when we denounce the “ism” we are denouncing the human being who is participating in it.  This accomplishes nothing but to activate defensiveness and to separate us from each other.

Religious liberals are really good at identifying things that people should not do. We’re not always as good at recommending things that we should do instead of the other, bad thing.

To myself and all my colleagues who are preaching against consumerism lately: what program did our congregation offer today, on Black Friday? Did we open our doors and serve hot chocolate and have a game day? How many of us hosted a Make a Gift or crafting workshop for all ages?

If you did offer something like this to be a fun, creative, life-giving alternative to the mall, I’d love to hear about it. Let’s share ideas.

But if we did not – if we merely shook our fingers at shopping and failed to provide emotional support, creative alternatives and a place to do something that would help anxious people feel that they were preparing for a meaningful holiday (something that shopping accomplishes, believe it or not), then we shouldn’t wonder why it is so easy to ignore our fine advice and high ideals.

I’ll see you soon in my Franco Sarto boots. But don’t judge: today in the mall I had great conversations with a half a dozen people and encourage two women to give tickets to cultural events in lieu of gifts. Their kids may groan when they get a day at the MFA with mom instead of the Uggs they wanted, but I hope they’ll start a wonderful new tradition.



8 Replies to “When Ethical Reflection Becomes Righteous Moralizing: A Black Friday Reflection”

  1. Not to disagree but when people are being killed on the way to checkout line, things have gone to far. [Oh, absolutely!! Shoot-outs for parking spaces is sheer madness. – PB]

  2. PB, you would be interested in a project initiated by amember of my church –Memorial Drive Presbyterian in Houston– a few years ago: “Bless Friday”. (website: blessfriday.org)The idea is that instead of shopping on Black Friday, people are encouraged to engage in community outreach and service. The church organizes several opportunities and suggests ideas for families or small groups to undertake on their own. Bless Friday is now sponsored by several other churches in the Houston area. Maybe this is an idea that others will want to embrace. Great post.

  3. I so agree, PB. Decades ago when I found myself YELLING at my two little girls (ages maybe 3 and 5) for wanting to help me make Christmas cookies (“Go away and leave me along! Can’t you see I’m trying to make a beautiful Christmas for you??!!”)… ummm, I realized it was time to simplify the holidays. I’ve been cutting back ever since (though I did do a little shopping yesterday with my pregnant daughter, now 41, because we were together, which is a rare and wonderful occasion). I’m a big fan of The Center for a New American Dream, which has some good suggestions for simplifying the holidays here: http://www.newdream.org/programs/beyond-consumerism/simplify-holidays. There might be some good ideas there for churches like Jody’s which want to do something different on Black Friday.

  4. I love this. You have put to words what my feelings couldn’t articulate.
    Oh, and “social justice arugula?” Brilliant. Xoxo

  5. I’ve been thinking this same thing. It’s easy to judge when you don’t HAVE to shop. I found myself wondering if many of those who were shopping on Thanksgiving and Black Friday were low income folks who needed every last $$ saved. I read a really scathing article on self-gifting. You know – buying something for yourself when you’re doing that holiday shopping. Sure, some of it is likely greed. But my guess is that much of it stems from economic necessity. I’m not sure why we need to judge others’ shopping behavior. Don’t want to shop on Black Friday – don’t shop. Of course, the kind of greed that leads to the death of Wal-Mart workers – that’s not what I’m talking about here.

  6. Oh Judy Welles, I was sooooo there with the yelling about making a nice Christmas. Thankfully my children survived. (they too are now in their early forties) I also scaled way back on all of that insanity. However, I do admit to giggling at your comment…through a 35yr buffer. Enjoy your new grand baby.

  7. You’re so right, Peacebang! Moralizing any issue not only leads to self-righteousness and blame, it stops all thinking about the costs and benefits of the issue.

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