When my wife and I moved to Detroit in November of last year we just missed Halloween and everyone was gearing up for Thanksgiving. Being from the UK, I always viewed Thanksgiving as a kind of training day for Christmas. All the good parts, like family and eating too much food, coupled with all the bad parts, like family and eating too much food.
But the part that I didn’t know too much about was Black Friday. It’s the day after Thanksgiving when stores begin their annual sale season. Think the Boxing Day Sales’ bigger, angrier brother. It has become such a big event that people camp out earlier and earlier. In fact, some stores open their doors on Thanksgiving itself. It seems that we’re only a couple steps away from the pre-pre-next-year’s-Black Friday sales.
But how should we react to a day like Black Friday as followers of Jesus?
This Jesus being the one who once told someone that to find a life that was complete and fully alive, they needed to give away all their possessions, not collect more.
As I thought about writing this post I asked myself: what about the young, single parent who is struggling to make ends meet for their kids?
What about people like them, for whom Black Friday offers an opportunity to buy their kids a new pair of shoes that don’t have holes in them at a price that they can finally make work in her tight budget. Looking at it like this, could Black Friday act as a small, yet cherished lifeline for many?
Perhaps. But I couldn’t shake the idea that I only used it as an excuse to allow me to justify my consumerism because ultimately, I like stuff. Typically, when Christians react to something that we think is sinful, damaging or standing against what Jesus stood for, our initial reaction is to boycott it. And yes, we could boycott Black Friday and a culture of aggressive consumerism, but what good would this really do?
Is there a better way? Is there a way of viewing Black Friday – and days like it – to not only show the world where we stand, but to offer a position so beautiful and freeing that the world will want to stand with us?
When Jesus lived, he humbly relied on the generosity of others. And not just because he was anti-stuff. In the wilderness Jesus told Satan that he didn’t need food because God’s word was enough. His point wasn’t that the spiritual realm is more important than the physical – in fact his point was that the two are intrinsically linked. When Jesus told the rich young ruler to give up all his possessions, he wasn’t saying that we too need to give up all our possessions.
For Jesus, a lack of physical ‘things’ wasn’t the final word. The final word was love and because of this he understood that the desire to have more stuff, more power and control, was a major hindrance in our ability to love others and be generous.
He understood that selflessness, as counterintuitive as it may seem, is the only way to a complete and full life.
When our headspace is consumed with filling our physical spaces, we’re going to be less empathetic and less willing to be generous to those who have nothing.
As it’s written in both Matthew and Luke, no one can serve two masters.
For Christians then, instead of living with the underlying shame of wanting the latest iPhone, a better set of questions to ask are: how are our consumer habits furthering the kingdom here on Earth? Do they help or hinder my ability to support the poor? Are they consuming my mind so much that I’m unable to live generously with the resources that I already have?
As author Laura Hartman helpfully shows us in her book The Christian Consumer, some helpful questions to ask about our personal and communal consumer habits should revolve around the ideas of “avoid sin, embrace creation, love the neighbor, and envision the future.”
Willpower won’t change our habits. We must relearn what’s important by questioning what we desire at the very deepest levels. Boycotting Black Friday won’t do that.
Let’s not just focus on why consumption is bad but work out what good consumption looks like. Let’s also notice the perverseness of celebrating one day a year to be grateful for what we do have, bookended by days devoted to getting more.
And then let’s be truly thankful that we have more than enough for ourselves, and more than enough to share.