The Common Good

Materialism and Greed Might Ruin Your Christmas

Sojomail - December 22, 2005

Quote of the Week : More power to them
Batteries Not Included : David Batstone: Materialism and greed might ruin your Christmas
Sojourners in the News : This week's media roundup
Iraq Journal : CPT illuminates Iraqi human rights through hostage crisis
Building a Movement : The struggle for trade justice continues
Action Alert : Defend Colombian church and human rights leader Lilia Solano
Values for Life : Ten things you can do for peace this holiday season
Boomerang : Readers write
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"I tried to watch President Bush's speech, but I couldn't; there was no electricity."

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Source: Christian Peacemaker Teams

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Materialism and greed might ruin your Christmas
by David Batstone

Some Christians this season are boycotting retailers that choose not to use the phrase "Merry Christmas" in advertising. I have been fired up for some time about Christmas commercialism. But the target of my concern is not how a clerk delivers holiday greetings at the check-out stand.

The spiritual foes that I resist this time of the year are materialism and greed. I note the corrosive impact of hypercommercialism on family life, and I don't like it one bit. You can order in wood or plastic the baby Jesus in a manger who had no place to lay his head. But can you find a place for this baby Jesus in your home this Christmas? It's hard to find time to deliver tidings of joy and peace on earth when we're stressed about getting our shopping done before Christmas Day.

My wife, Wendy, and I opted out of the American Christmas package the year our first child was born nearly 15 years ago. In the years ensuing, we brought three more children into our lives. The Christmas tradition we have developed instead is of course not the only proper way to celebrate. Perhaps, though, our effort may spark the imagination of other parents to craft a more spiritual way to remember the birth of Jesus.

For the past 15 years we have put a priority on passing time together as a family during the Christmas holidays. We use the money that other families might spend on gifts and take a trip together. In our experience, getting away from home makes it easier to focus on the family. Staying at home offers too many distractions - for mom and dad to do chores, and for kids to run off with their respective friends.

The trips do not have to be exotic - one year we drove down the California coast to San Diego from our home in San Francisco and went to the zoo. Another year we went farther south to Enseñada, Mexico, where we could frolic in the surf. For the past few years we have driven four hours to the Sierra mountains near Lake Tahoe and played snow sports. Generous friends let us make use of their cabins. One year I had some work to do in Stockholm, Sweden, and we spent three weeks over Christmas and New Year's enjoying the shortest days of our lives - if we slept in too late in the morning we would miss the sunset.

To be honest, I am reticent to recount the Stockholm trip. We got lucky that year, and turned it into a great family opportunity. The Sweden trip took a considerable slice of family investment, but we cut back elsewhere. Like all families, we have to decide where to spend any extra income. We err on the side of creating experiences together, and forego expensive electronics (we don't get TV reception or have a stereo in our home) and new autos (both our cars were born well before the turn of the century). Over the years we have learned that the most significant memories are borne from participatory activities, not the destination.

When the children were young, Wendy and I selected our holiday spot. Now that the kids range from 8 to 15 years old, we have started bringing them into the decision. In early October, a call goes out to the family for proposals. The kids as well as the adults have to map out what our activities will be, and include an affordable budget. Everyone gets a vote on all viable (read: affordable) proposals.

We do buy each of the children one gift, usually related to the site we visit. The year we went to Enseñada, for example, most of the kids received a boogie board for surfing the waves. The kids use their own money to buy a gift for each other as well as for Wendy and I. Often they make creative gifts with their own hands. Our Christmas morning exchange is pretty quick and simple.

Note that we aren't overly righteous. It would be better for us to pass Christmas week with Habitat for Humanity building houses for the homeless, or volunteering in an AIDS hospice. I would be gratified if my kids do opt for such a sacrificial project in the future. But I am cautious not to push my kids too hard. It is countercultural enough to prioritize family time above material goods. One step at a time is a motto I often use to temper myself.

By and large, our kids embrace our family Christmas tradition. Periodically, one or more of them will question why they have to miss out on the gift bonanza that most of their friends reap in this time of year. I don't argue, but simply respond, "Our family has decided to adopt different values." On the other side of the coin, it was gratifying to hear my 13-year-old son say to me last week, "Grandma wants to buy me a gift for Christmas, Dad, and I don't know what to tell her. I don't need anything."

And isn't that the spirit that we sorely need to exercise throughout the year? The dominant culture constantly sends us the message that GE, Apple, Nordstrom, Electronic Arts, and other companies bring good things into life. But Jesus taught that God fills us with all good things, and sends us treasures that moth and rust cannot destroy. It's the kind of conversation that I like to have with my kids when we are away together during the final week of the year. We can retreat and express gratitude for the moments and places we take note of Emmanuel - God with us.

Whatever your family tradition, I wish a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all.

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Our voice continues to be heard in the fight for a moral budget. Just prior to its vote yesterday, the Senate removed several provisions from the conference report that the House had passed. Therefore, the House must now approve the Senate's version and could vote as early as Thursday or Friday, or as late as January or February.

This means we get another chance to appeal to congressional hearts and minds by asking our legislators to oppose a budget that hurts the poor. If you haven't already, please call your representative now at 1-800-426-8073 and sound the call for a moral budget!

Top stories:

Activists protesting 'immoral' '06 budget are arrested Winston-Salem Journal

Some on Hill want to 'save' Christmas, but others fight for the poor Catholic News Service

Budget cuts protested The Washington Times

Religious Activists Protest Budget as 'Christmas Scandal' CNS

Christian Groups fight 'immoral' Budget Bill The Coloradoan

More Sojourners in the news:

Christmas Saved by Congress The Toledo Blade

Making Room at the Inn for Hope Santa Maria Times

Bible-Based Protest 'Not Judeo-Christian,' Reverend Says

Basu: Nussle's budget sells out the vulnerable to benefit the wealthy The Des Moines Register

House passes health, labor budget The Washington Times

U.S. war tab zeroes in on half-trillion dollars Toronto Star

Perpetrating economic injustice in an immoral budget Suburban Chicago Newspapers

Chase Scrooge From Capitol Hill TomPaine.Com

Protest expected against Nussle-led budget proposal The Des Moines Register

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CPT illuminates Iraqi human rights through hostage crisis
by Celeste Kennel-Shank

Though the fate of the four Christian Peacemaker Teams activists kidnapped Nov. 26 in Baghdad is still unknown, some see a sign of hope in the release Sunday of German archaeologist and aid worker Susanne Osthoff.

As they await news on their team members, CPT workers in Iraq and Jordan called on the U.S. government for an end to detention and torture of Iraqis and fair trials for current detainees, they said in a statement Monday. CPT is a Chicago- and Toronto-based organization working to reduce violence in areas of armed conflict.

Responding to President Bush's speech Sunday, CPT said they believe that "the United States and Coalition Forces war has failed to bring peace and true democracy to Iraq."

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"Every day, freedom is like a miracle to me. If it hadn't been for Amnesty International, I would not be standing before you today." - Vera Chirwa, mother imprisoned solely for expressing her beliefs.

You are the best hope for millions of people around the world.

Make a tax-deductible gift to Amnesty International.


The struggle for trade justice continues
This past week's World Trade Organization meeting in Hong Kong ended in failure. The text of the agreement represents a profound disappointment and a betrayal of development promises by rich countries. Extremely damaging proposals on services and industry cancelled out progress on some aspects of agriculture. Developing countries were placed in an impossible position: accept a text which is seriously flawed or be blamed for the failure of the round. Ministers and commentators are assuming that another WTO meeting will take place early next year to finish off the deal.

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Defend Colombian church and human rights leader Lilia Solano

Lilia Solano is a friend of Sojourners who needs your help. Rose Marie Berger and Jim Wallis know her through her work concerning poverty and human rights. Please read this report from Amnesty International and send a message on her behalf:

The home of Lilia Solano, a well-known human rights activist, president of the Latin American Theological Fraternity, and member of the Micah Network, was invaded and her son assaulted in Bogotá, Colombia, by three people who identified themselves as police officers. Solano's home was searched while her 18-year-old son was threatened at gunpoint, tied up, and locked in a room.

Lilia Solano gave a keynote address at the 2003 convocation of the Micah Network in Mexico titled, "Globalization, That is to Say, When Poverty is Always With Us," and is president of the Evangelical Justice and Life organization. She received a series of threats in 2004 because of her commitment with the National Movement of the Victims of State Crimes and her denouncements of paramilitary groups.

Please write to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe ( and on behalf of Lilia Solano.

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What do you give the person who has everything?

Plant fruit trees around schools in El Salvador. The healthy snacks they provide will nourish low-income children.

Your gift of $10 will plant a tree in honor of a friend or loved one and help to reforest El Salvador.


Ten things you can do for peace this holiday season

1. Call or write to your congressional representative.

2. Write letters to the editor and send them to your local paper. Call radio talk shows and attend public forums and tell others what you think.

3. Encourage young people and children to express their opinions and feelings about a better world, especially through art.

4. Support public witness. Organize a vigil for peace with faith-based or other groups in your community.

5. Learn all you can about the Islamic faith, particularly the dimension of Islam supporting peace and nonviolence.

6. Commit to work against violence aimed at others because of race, creed, color, gender, religion, or nation of origin.

7. Learn about those countries which Western governments hold accountable for terrorist acts. Knowing the history, geography, accomplishments, and problems facing countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq will help us hold up the peaceful majorities that live in these countries.

8. Hold the media accountable for biased reporting by calling a local media outlet if you see evidence of unfair or slanted reporting.

9. Insist on maintaining and defending civil liberties. Working in your communities to use and protect these rights will guarantee that terrorism has not destroyed the fabric of liberty.

10. Educate yourself on alternatives to war.

Source: American Friends Service Committee

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Give the Gift of Hope. Give a gift animal from Heifer. We'll deliver your gift to a family in need, in honor of your loved ones. There's no better way to share the holiday spirit. Give a Heifer gift.

Shepherds announced a king, born in a barn to an unwed mother. Hope emerged from an unlikely source that first Christmas.... It still does! Discover unique, affordable, and fairly traded gifts from many corners of our world this Christmas at

Engage your congregation in the pursuit of social, political, and economic justice, along with community faith-building, through congregation-based organizing. Christians Supporting Community Organizing.

Wheaton College Professor Lindy Scott is running for U.S. Congress in Illinois' sixth District. Scott is running as a Democrat with policies that cherish life across the board. Those interested in participating in his campaign can check out his Web site or contact him through e-mail.

For parents and children: The Love Your Enemies Songbook - The Story of Jesus in Song, by Linda Day. Lovingly illustrated original melodies and lyrics. Includes narrated CD with vocals, harp, flute, percussion. Listen and order:

West Ohio Conference seeks a director of connectional ministries for new church development, local church discipleship, and strengthening connectional ministry. Application deadline is Jan. 15. E-mail or telephone 1-800-437-0028. For information, access


Readers write

Gloria Rule writes from Poland, Ohio:

Thank you, Christa Mazzone, for your Advent reflection ["Why I Got Arrested this Advent Season," SojoMail 12/16/2005]. How meaningful it was for me to reflect on my years of working for peace and justice for the poor and to know that new generations are carrying on this work. How sad that leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson can only find trivial things like the use of the word holidays to carp about when there is so much work needing to be done in the Christian movement.


Peter Glynn writes from Houston, Texas:

Increasing government intervention actually reduces one's ability to act according to individual conscience. It supplants the responsibility I am charged with as an individual to do my part in serving the poor and, instead, replaces it with a government caretaker. The government is perhaps the least efficient vehicle for this task. Aren't you really just saying that we can't leave this task to individual conscience because if we do people will not deliver? Maybe you should focus your efforts more on changing people's hearts rather than expanding redistributionist government policy. As a Christian I am highly critical of right-wing philosophy that seems primarily interested in personal peace and prosperity rather than sacrificial service to our fellow man. However, after reading Sojourners for quite a while, I am inclined to believe that this organization is equally extreme in the opposite direction. You all are as big a shill for the Democrats as the Religious Right is for the Republicans.


Jeff and Conny Paulsen write from Oshkosh, Wisconsin:

Thanks for a bright light emanating from your tax protest action for the poor. We have been living overseas in two very poor areas of the world, Pakistan and Tajikistan, for the last 18 years. Thank God that collective Christian action like yours to advocate for the poor in America does exist. It is too embarrassing to see the poor overseas looking to America as a beacon of hope for the downtrodden, and to know that America refuses to shoulder the burden and take care of its own poor. What a harsh and selfish nation we are in the midst of God's rich blessing.


Warren Huckabay writes from Sammamish, Washington:

While I admire and support all of the efforts made to change the federal budget so that those less fortunate are cared for, I'm having a difficult time accepting that protesters need to get arrested to make their point. I'm also having a difficult time accepting that the protestors were arrested for protesting. The facts will point out that the protestors were arrested for violating the rules regarding protesting and not for protesting. We should voice our objections to the running of government in a way that allows elected officials to change. Asking elected officials to succumb to the desires of those who violate laws or rules makes changing difficult for them.


Paul Erickson writes from Vancouver, British Columbia:

When I read "Redemption on trial in California" [SojoMail 12/7/2005], by David Batstone, I was reminded of two criminals who met Jesus. When they were being executed, one said "get me off" and the other said "we are here justly." Jesus told the latter that "today you will be with me in paradise." The Apostle Paul said, "If I have broken the law, then execute me." His contention was that he had not broken the law, but understood the importance of the sanction if he had. I wonder if you will ever come to understand the dramatic difference between Jesus' and Paul's notions of justice and mercy and the ones you propound continually here in Sojourners.


George Marsh writes from Howard, Ohio:

Saint Luke's telling of the crucifixion of Christ (Luke 23:39-43) suggests a reason not to execute criminals. One of the two criminals claimed that both deserved execution. He then asked to be remembered by Christ, who promised that the "good thief" would be with him that day in paradise. Citizens in democracies could infer that so-called capital criminals deserve time, even a lifetime, to ask for similar consideration as the good thief.


Boomerang is an open forum for all kinds of views that do not necessarily represent those of Sojourners. Want to make your voice heard? Because of the volume of letters we receive, concise responses that include a name, hometown, and state/province/country are the most likely to be published. We reserve the right to edit for length and clarity. E-mail:

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