The Common Good

Dropping Out Of Our National Religion

Photo: Holiday shopping, © Infomages / Shutterstock.com
Photo: Holiday shopping, © Infomages / Shutterstock.com

When you really drop out of the national religion of shopping you gain all kinds of time and a capacity to do what you might really prefer to do … and you gain a chance to be about the number one priority, which is to try to ease the burden on the poorest people in our world, especially those who are stuck in warzones. – Kathy Kelly, Peace Activist

This year my hometown of Chicago hosted the NATO summit. Thousands of protestors came to voice their concerns about war and the economy. Along with peace journalist Bob Koehler, I had the great fortune to interview one of those protesters, Kathy Kelly. (You can listen to the interview on my Voices of Peace podcast here.) Kathy is a three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee and lives a fascinating life. She is an advocate of nonviolence on a global scale and has been arrested more than 60 times in the U.S and abroad for nonviolent protests. Kathy has traveled to Afghanistan and Iraq more than 26 times, remaining in dangerous combat zones during U.S.-led military strikes. She risked her life by going to Baghdad during the United State’s infamous “Shock and Awe” campaign.  

Kathy was the perfect guest to help us explore our overarching question at Voices of Peace – How do we build a lasting, sustainable global peace? She knows firsthand about the violence in our world and she’s on a mission to transform that violence into peace.

Kathy’s work is inspiring, but, frankly, as I learned about all she is doing, I started to feel a bit guilty. After all, I’m not going to a combat zone any time soon. In our interview I asked Kathy to offer some practical advice for people like me — people who want to change the world by participating in the ways of peace, but who aren’t willing or able to follow her to places like Afghanistan and Iraq. She stated that people like me should “drop out of the national religion of shopping.” 

It may sound strange to call shopping our “national religion,” but I think Kathy was right for two reasons. First, religion has a social impact. Many scholars claim that the word “religion” derives from the Latin word ligar, which means “to bind.” Combine that with the prefix “re” and the word “religion” refers to the re-binding of humans. Religions seek to re-bind human beings by providing us a sense of unity. In that sense, shopping is a religious activity because it binds us together for a common cause – to purchase more stuff. As we race into the Apple store or Abercombie & Fitch, we gain a sense a connection with our fellow parishioners … I mean … shoppers. We unite in our common desire to purchase stuff, a desire originally given to us by the religion of shopping. Although this religion seeks to bind people together, there are always those who are left out. Shopping unites those who have a certain economic status, leaving out those of another economic status. This creates a division between “us” and “them.” The religion of shopping is also full of priests who model for us the clothes that are cool and if we can afford to buy those clothes, we receive a certain social status and identity. There are rituals to this religion, including Black Friday and Cyber Monday. In all these ways the religion of shopping helps us identify with our fellow shoppers who desire the same things we do: a sense of connection, fulfillment, and satisfaction. 

The second reason to name shopping as our national religion is that religions pattern our desires. We begin to care about the things our religion tells us to care about. When shopping becomes our religion, the things we care about most are the things our consumer culture (the “god” of shopping) tells us to care about: purchasing the hottest clothes and the latest iWhatever. Purchasing these items provides a temporary sense of satisfaction, but the religion of shopping can never really satisfy. It’s not supposed to fully satisfy, because it wants us to buy more and more stuff. Deep down we know this is true, so the religion of shopping leaves many of us feeling painfully empty because we can never purchase enough. To deal with that emptiness, this religion patterns our desires so that we compare ourselves with others and compete with one another as we grasp for higher social status. 

Speaking of competition, God forbid you cut in line while I’m waiting for Wal-Mart to open.

Here again we can start feeling guilty, but please don’t. There’s nothing inherently wrong with buying clothes from Abercombie & Fitch or purchasing an iWhatever. Of course, we should be concerned about the ethical and ecological impact of our purchases. (A great place to start is with Julie Clawson’s book, Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices.) But as Kathy said, the problem with shopping comes when it distracts us from what she calls our “number one priority, which is to try to ease the burden on the poorest people in our world, especially those who are stuck in warzones.”

Fortunately, there is a way out of our national religion of shopping. One place that points the way is the shared wisdom of the Jewish and Christian religions. Those religions bind us together and pattern our desires in a fundamentally different way than our national religion of shopping. The greatest example of binding together in a way that doesn’t create divisions between “us” and “them” or leave us empty is found in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Paul deconstructed the divisions of his culture when he wrote: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (3:28). If we are “one” with one another, then we feel a greater sense of fulfillment as we share a life of joy and suffering with one another. This patterns our desires in a radical way by changing the way we relate to our fellow human beings, especially those in need. For example, take a look at Deuteronomy 15. “Do not be hardhearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.” 

Jesus continued in the tradition of Deuteronomy by patterning our desires so that we care for the needs of our neighbors – especially those neighbors who are so often neglected – the hungry, the thirsty, the poor, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned (see Matthew 25). 

Peace starts by altering our patterns of desire so that we can do the things that matter most – identifying with the needs of others, especially the poor. This Christmas season let’s do something radical. Let’s drop out of America’s national religion of shopping. Let’s allow the Prince of Peace to pattern our desires according to the things that God cares about – caring for the needs of our fellow human beings and creating sustainable, all-inclusive communities. You don’t have to fly to Afghanistan to do that. All you really need to do is walk next door with an open hand. 

Adam Ericksen blogs at the Raven Foundation, where he uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Adam on Twitter @adamericksen.

Photo: Holiday shopping, © Infomages | View Portfolio / Shutterstock.com

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