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Buy Nothing Day as Advent Activism Against the Demon Mammon

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[Editors' Note: This blog post originally appeared on the God's Politics blog December 2, 2008.]

As per usual, on Friday, we had all sorts of Buy Nothing Day festivities (check out the video here). But that's not what I want to talk about. I read recent posts on consumerism and Buy Nothing Day by Eugene Cho and Rachel Anderson here on God's Politics, and I admire the optimism and nuanced critiques. But this past weekend folks around the world stared in embarrassment, pity, and horror as people killed each other for bargains –- literally.

It seems to warrant a little more reflection.

A 34-year-old Wal-mart worker was trampled to death. A young woman miscarried in the same frenzy. Two folks were shot in the Toys-R-Us. Fights broke out in stores around the country as people stepped on each other to save $40 on a plasma TV.

Some of the media stories simply looked in horror on the crowds, calling them “savages” and such things. But there are much deeper questions we must ask. We must ask questions of class, race, inequality, and the dynamics that create killing stampedes at Wal-marts. And certainly greed may look different inside the Neiman Marcus, but that does not mean it is any less dangerous or evil.

Suddenly the theatrics don’t seem like hyperbole –- the documentaries on the “affluenza epidemic” are not so far-fetched. The antics of theological stuntsters like Rev. Billy preaching about the “Shopocalypse” and casting demons out of Wal-marts don’t seems so over-the-top. It does seem we are up against a demon … Mammon.

We are fighting a battle not simply of flesh and blood. It is a battle of principalities and powers that possess us to do things we would not do in our own flesh -– like kill enemies we don’t know and step on workers we don’t see. We are up against Mammon (the demonic personification of money that Jesus gives a name to). And Mammon has many faces and disguises as we see possessions possess us with the obsession of heroin addiction and occupy us with the fanatacism of demonic occupation.

As you watch video of the stampedes it does seem almost like a mass hysteria, as if possessed by an evil spirit. And yet I find it hard to imagine any of them doing individually the horror they were able to accomplish together. I’m sure you would be hard-fetched to find anyone who would stomp a defenseless 34-year-old man to death, even for a free TV.

I will never forget what happened to a young man in our neighborhood a few Christmases ago. He never meant to be a murderer. A few adolescent friends planned a robbery, which went from bad to worse. As they were in the middle of the robbery, things got messy and guns were pulled, shots were fired, and a police officer was killed. The young man faced the death penalty. At one point someone asked the glaring question that no one dared ask, “Why did you do it?” The young man said, “We just wanted to be able to get presents for our families for the holiday.” That wasn’t the answer folks were expecting. That wasn’t the voice of a killer, but of a son and a father. The reporter had tears in her eyes.

It seems like a good time to say: ENOUGH.

One of the great memories I have from our Buy Nothing Day circus outside the Gallery mall here in Philly was a woman who came up to me and said, “Thank you. I just needed permission to say ENOUGH! – ENOUGH to the frenzied rush to buy stuff for people who already have everything.”

Enough to the myth that happiness must be purchased. Enough to an economy that is awarding CEOs salaries 500 times that of their workers and still manages to seduce people in poverty and wealth alike to give more money to these predatorial corporations. Enough to the American dream that now consumes over 40 percent of the world’s stuff with less than 6 percent of the world’s resources. Enough to a dream that would need four more planets if the world pursued it … a dream the world cannot afford. Enough to the advice of government leaders who fearfully order us to “just keep shopping” after tragedies like September 11 and November 28. ENOUGH. Maybe God has another dream.

I see a church pregnant with new imagination this Advent season.

In the wake of the bloody frenzy in the malls, I saw another news story that was about a church congregation down in North Carolina that had worship services all day long, praying for freedom from the spirit of consumerism and mammon, praying for the end of poverty, and giving people an invitation to do something different the day after thanksgiving. What originally seemed like wild ideas on the fringes, like the Advent Conspiracy, have snowballed into movements that now include thousands of diverse congregations who are committed to “taking the holiday back from the empire” as one of compassion not consumption.

I love the story of one pastor who got fed up with all the decorations and clutter. He began to see that we are in danger of losing the very “reason for the season,” Jesus –- the Jesus that was born in the middle of Herod’s bloody genocide, the Jesus who was born a refugee with no room in the inn, the Jesus who knew suffering from the cradle to the cross. This pastor went through the sanctuary the night before the big Christmas service and spread out manure all over the floor -– nasty, stinky piles of turd. As folks came in the next day in their best attire, he preached … and did he ever. He preached about how the original story of was not about malls and decorations. He preached about a story that was not pretty. He preached about a God who enters the s**t of this world and redeems all that is ugly and broken. It is a story they will never forget. It is the story of our faith.

That is the imagination that we need as we seek not to conform to the patterns of this world. It takes that kind of courage to exorcize the demons of greed that smell more each day like the seven deadly sins. But unto us a child is born … a child who has overcome the world.

Shane Claiborne is a Red Letter Christian and a founding partner of The Simple Way community, a radical faith community that lives among and serves the homeless in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. He is the co-author, with Chris Haw, of Jesus for President.

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