With many more Americans struggling to pay for food and housing, the upcoming commercial holiday season may by necessity be a time for soul-searching and creative generosity.
For the past few decades, the day after Thanksgiving has been promoted as Black Friday, a one-day ritual of shopping frenzy. Underlying the news stories of people lined up outside big box stores hours before opening was the suggestion that if enough of us believed and bought and made a flagrant offering of our credit cards, retailers’ account books would mystically turn from red to black. Our faithfulness would be rewarded with the implicit promise of stuff enough for all and forever.
Since the 1990s, Adbusters magazine and others have waged a guerrilla campaign to change Black Friday into Buy Nothing Day. But after months of economic turmoil, buying nothing is a given for many people. Loading up a shopping cart with electronics isn’t an option, much less a temptation. When financial institutions crack at the foundation and temples to false gods crumble, the fleeting nature of materialism’s comfort that the Buy Nothing folks warn about is made manifest.
Even if our own situation seems secure, how can we not feel some fear and despair for those who are suffering—especially the poorest of the world’s poor, who risk starvation and bury far too many of their children even when our times are good? While we’re told wealth will trickle down, scarcity seems much more responsive to gravity, as the financial crisis among the rich nations threatens promised aid to developing countries. Some estimates are that the ranks of the hungry may grow by as many as 100 million people due to continuing record food and energy prices.
So how do we re-root ourselves in God to be vessels of perfect love that casts out fear (1 John 4:18)?
We could start with Thanksgiving, parting the thicket of harvest décor and gluttony and claiming the noble, even liturgical impulse at its core: Count your blessings and acknowledge from whom they flow. If this seems like just another forced Hallmark moment, don’t relinquish the basics: If you are reading this, at least two blessings are at hand—this breath and this moment.
This isn’t a sentimental exercise in denial, but rather an investment in God’s currency of grace. Reacquaint yourself with what poet Marge Piercy calls the “discipline of blessings” and “taste each moment, the bitter, the sour, the sweet, and the salty, and be glad for what does not hurt.”
If we let it, the momentum of gratitude might tumble us into generosity. If you have resources, look for ways to get gas cards and groceries to those who need them in your community. Or make an interest-free loan to someone who needs a leg up. To reach out to global neighbors, many aid and development organizations allow you to “buy,” through your donation, livestock, seed, mosquito nets, school and medical supplies, and much more for people in need. They will welcome your support as charitable giving tightens.
If your own budget is strained, don’t discount the wealth that is your time, talent, and presence. Make a volunteer commitment (to continue after holiday volunteers fade away) to your local food bank or homeless ministry. Make time to listen to the worries of others and to pray with them—and to share your own worries and be prayed with. Negotiate shared babysitting, help with home repairs, tutoring, or regular meals and companionship with another stressed family in your neighborhood. If you have practical skills for hard times, such as budgeting, résumé-writing, or cooking well with low-cost staples, join with others to lead workshops in your church.
Seek ways to make change—simplify your life; recommit to the way of Christ; find common cause with those working for food security, the rights of the poor, just trade policies, or increased aid to the world’s poorest countries. Take it one day at a time for, as Piercy writes, “there is no justice we don’t make daily/like bread and love.”
And let Advent be an opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with all the promises that a 401(k) can’t deliver. Prepare the way for the one who came to make all things new.
Julie Polter is an associate editor of Sojourners.