A predominant message of this holiday season seems to be both loud and clear: Our value as human beings is often dictated by our capacity to consume.
While the average North American consumes approximately twice as much as 50 years ago, we are significantly less satisfied with the quality of our lives, which is — of course — contrary to the mass “this stuff will make you happy” messages we receive on countless occasions each day. Nevertheless, we continue to embrace a culture of consumerism, for we consume at staggering rates, not only in an attempt to make right our perceived wrongs, but also because we are led to believe that such devotion contributes to the wellbeing of society. As Victor Lebow states, “Our enormously productive economy ... demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption ... we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.” According to the most vocalized narratives that affect contemporary life, to be a human of significant value in North America — especially during the month of December — is to be a committed and consistent consumer, even if it leads to our personal and public self-destruction.
To appraise human value based upon rates of consumption is, in many ways, a form of dehumanization. In specifics, mechanistic dehumanization is a way in which powerful systemic processes — such as our “enormously productive economy” — strip away the dignity of human life by plugging us into a globalized mechanism of production, consumption, and waste. Our culture of consumerism — and the pressure to faithfully adhere to it — has a direct impact upon our sense of personal value (not to mention our public health), for the desire to belong and be validated in society seems directly related to whether we consume more stuff. And so, because the highest rates of consumption typically occur during the final weeks of the calendar year, and due in part to our longing for communal acceptance, December is in many ways a month of dehumanization, for mass consumption seems to be the accepted price of social admission.
In what can be described as an ironic twist in the context of how many tend to experience the month of December, the biblical narrative records Jesus as coming into the world as anything but a prime candidate for spending power, yet as God incarnate, Jesus reveals what it truly means to be human. As shared in the New Testament, Jesus was born in a barn as a homeless refugee to an unwed teenage mother, which would earn him the label of “economic liability” in our current day and age, yet Jesus embodied the characteristics of human dignity, respect, and compassion for others. And so, the birth of Jesus celebrated on Christmas reveals a dramatic repeal of how we often determine human value in our contemporary consumerist culture, for in Jesus we are shown not only that all humans are valuable, but once again we are promised that being human is far more than what one is able to produce, consume, or waste. In contrast to our current social conditions, the Jesus’ arrival on Earth shows that all people — regardless of their economic status — are of divine value, contribute to society, and are fully deserving of lifelong dignity, care, and respect. As a result, the “joy to the world” we receive this December is a radical affirmation of universal human worth.
As the final month of the calendar year comes into full swing, the time is upon us to embrace what it truly means to be human and resist the dehumanizing pressures that often seduce us into economic decisions that are contrary to our personal and public well being. While it may be tempting to kneel at the altar of accumulation, in doing so we forget who we truly are, lose track of what matters most in life, and become enslaved to the ongoing search for the next biggest and brightest thing to stuff into our already cluttered lives. In other words, consumerism breeds bondage, even in a so-called “free country,” for in our search to own more stuff, the search for more stuff owns us (in addition to the countless exploited workers who often produce the stuff), and in the process of consumption we are the ones who end up being consumed. As mourned by Elile Gauvreau, “I was part of that strange race of people aptly described as spending their lives doing things they detest, to make money they don’t want, to buy things they don’t need, to impress people they don’t like.”
Instead of incarcerating others and ourselves in the search for more, and rather than trying to justify our human existence through the quest to consume, perhaps the time has come to journey toward Christmas not with an outpouring of spending, but with acts of generosity and compassion that affirm the humanity of others in response to the assurance that all people —including ourselves — are of infinite value. Perhaps it is time to recognize the critical difference between human needs and wants, and in doing so, to embrace the crucial need of life-giving deeds that build up rather than tear down. Perhaps it is time to affirm the life-freeing reality that we do not need valuable things in order to be valuable beings, nor do we need to acquire goods in order to be affirmed as good. And ultimately, perhaps it finally is time to have the security, strength, and freedom to refuse the desire to always consume something new, but instead live inspired, and in doing so, always be made new.
In contrast to the more prominent messages often announced during the holiday season, a more provident proclamation of affirmation and restoration can be heard breaking through the noise. We are set free from the chains of consumption, for we are being made new, today and always, and in such liberated living we are truly being human, this December and beyond. While some may try to convince us otherwise, a more valuable and lasting gift does not exist, and thanks be to God, this gift of grace, love, and acceptance is offered to us all, today and always, totally free of charge.
Brian E. Konkol is an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and serves as chaplain of the College at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn.
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