The Common Good

A Search for Self in a Season of Stuff

Once there was a crowd of about 2,000 shoppers gathered for the early morning opening of a local Wal-Mart.

Black Friday shopping, Kenishirotie / Shutterstock.com
Black Friday shopping, Kenishirotie / Shutterstock.com

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It was the morning after Thanksgiving Day in Valley Stream, New York, an occasion commonly known as “Black Friday” throughout the United States.

As the opening hour of operation approached, the crowd grew quickly in size, but it also increased with anxiety and anger, as many had waited throughout the cold and dark night, some as long as eight hours. The masses were more than ready to move into the warmth, brightness, and seasonal buying bliss of their neighborhood Wal-Mart. 

When the store manager finally unlocked the front entrance, the massive and eager crowd erupted with energy and passionately pushed into the store like a tidal wave.  In doing so, through the sheer physical force of mass purchasing power, the swarm of shoppers broke through – and eventually broke down – the Wal-Mart doors. 

During this early morning surge of customer momentum the crowd trampled a 34-year old Wal-Mart employee who had stepped into the path of the storm.  As paramedics would later confirm, the incident resulted in the first recorded Black Friday-related death. 

According to eye-witness reports, as the crushed employee lay on the ground gasping for life, the mob of shoppers in search of sales appeared unconcerned for her well-being.  In specifics, the crowd of customers refused to halt their furious stampede, not even when Wal-Mart staff and volunteers tried to intervene.  All together, the avalanche of bargain hunters seemed to value their pursuit of products over the life of another human being. 

The Wal-Mart shoppers complained that they had waited in the cold and dark for far too long, and because of their state of discomfort and strong desire to take advantage of the Black Friday discounts, they were not willing to delay their customer cravings any longer, regardless of whether or not someone was injured.  In fact, even when police officers arrived on the scene and attempted to revive the injured employee, shoppers continued to pour into the store in mass numbers, some even shoved and pushed aside the law enforcement personnel – and the dead employee – in their quest for low-priced treasures.

In reaction to this disturbing Black Friday tragedy, some common responses are shock, disbelief, and even a sense of collective indifference.  We often conclude that such extreme cases are so far beyond the communal norm that they should not be taken seriously, and as a result, we try to resist any knee-jerk overreactions.  However, if we move past the temptation of mental and emotional disconnect, not only do we recognize that such Black Friday stories are more frequent that we like to admit, but they also reveal a great deal about our society.  In other words, the first recorded Black Friday-related death is indeed an extreme example, but it should not be disregarded or casually cast aside, for the calamity is – in many ways – a predictable consequence of an increased nationwide obsession with consumerism and materialism.   

While November and December are supposed to center on celebrations of Thanksgiving, Advent, and Christmas, the emphasis has shifted with each passing year toward a collective carnival of capitalism, or in other words, a Season of Stuff.  In doing so, instead of an extended focus upon gratitude, expectation, and the amazing grace of God made known through the birth of Jesus, we focus upon production and consumption, and thus our identity is shaped not by the love of God, but rather, whether or not we consistently contribute toward economic growth.  In other words, within a Season of Stuff our self-worth is often dictated by an ability to surround ourselves with possessions, which in turn leads to a never-ending search for more.

As people of Christian faith we recognize that our identity is not defined by contributions to capitalism, nor is it found in the search and/or sum of stuff, but it is grounded in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  In contrast to the thousands of corporate and political messages we receive each day, and regardless of the economic and partisan forces firmly placed around us, we embrace the freedom that comes from being created, liberated, and sustained through a God that loves us regardless of who we are and no matter what we have done or left undone.  While countless forces may try and persuade us to see our identity as directly related to the marketplace, through Jesus we are far more than the stuff we are surrounded with, and our sacred worth and divine dignity is firmly secure in God’s outpouring of unconditional love.

As we approach Black Friday and the opening of our annual Season of Stuff, the time is upon us to resist the stampeding forces that often trample upon our personal identity and public reality.  The time is upon us to reclaim who we are as Children of God, diagnose the tragic symptoms of consumerism and materialism, and recover the holiday season as a period of gratitude, peacemaking, and gracious giving for the sake of others.  We are far more valuable than the stuff we are surrounded with, and our compassionate connectedness within local and global communities is far more important than the exchanges of capitalism.  And so, may we resist the long shopping lines and obsession with financial transactions, and instead replace such efforts with an outpouring of service and love for the sake of others.  The time is upon us to proclaim who we are as one human family, reclaim the coming months for what they are meant to be, and in doing so, receive the fullness of life, freedom, and amazing grace of God given to us – free of charge – with each passing day.

Brian E. Konkol is an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), serves as Co-Pastor of Lake Edge Lutheran Church (Madison, Wis.), and is a PhD candidate in Theology & Development with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa).

Black Friday shopping, Kenishirotie / Shutterstock.com

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