Black Friday

Black Friday

Black Friday. For some, it’s a chance to purchase things for their family that they wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise. For others, it’s a tradition where they accumulate more stuff that they don’t need, for no apparent reason. And then, for one group in particular, it’s a time to fight and trample—sometimes to the death—anyone who gets in the way of desired material goods. This is consumerism at its ugliest, and this is sinful.

The problem is not individuals who choose to participate in Black Friday. Rather, it is a much larger problem rooted in our systemic sin of consumerism, and Black Friday is only the most visible demonstration of that. (Side Note: If we look at the Gospels, we see that Jesus was more critical of systemic sin than personal sin, but that’s a topic for another day.)

I love the way that Brian Zahnd put it in a tweet earlier today: “Consumerism is impatience. … America is impatience. … Advent is learning patience.” Isn’t it interesting how our most thankful day of the year, rather than spurring us into the patience and peace of Advent, spurs us into our ugliest day of consumerism? It’s almost as though Black Friday completely cancels out Thanksgiving.

Advent teaches us patience because the birth of Christ illustrates that the Kingdom of God often does not come in the ways we most expect. And because the Kingdom of God offers an alternative society for humans while on earth, it is free from the many systemic sins we unknowingly participate in in our culture. Once again this systemic sin is not Black Friday in itself, but the larger problem of consumerism, which is rooted in restlessness and ingratitude.

So how do we rebel against the systemic sin of consumerism? As citizens of the Kingdom, we are not called to a loud rebellion, but a quiet one. Not a rebellion where we rail against things, but a rebellion where we intentionally choose a more excellent way.

One of the ways I have chosen to rebel against the tide of consumerism lately is the ancient practice of the Friday Fast. This was once a widespread practice among Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, but it is not commonly practiced today, except in some Catholic, Anglican and Eastern Orthodox communities. Ways of observing the Friday Fast vary, but I like the way that Brian Zahnd presents it, as observed at the church he pastors in St. Joseph, Missouri.

BZ calls his congregants to fast a meal once a week (typically the noon meal on Fridays) and take the money they would have spent on that meal (roughly $5) and put it in a collection that is then is distributed to those in critical need in the community. This ritual is more than just about fasting a meal, but rather, it is a quiet rebellion against the tide of consumerism. It’s not about the day or meal or the amount of money; it’s about intentionally interrupting your normal cycle of consumption, as a reminder that “life is more than food …” (Luke 12:23).

Last night, two of my friends slept on the sidewalk in front of a store for Black Friday, as many do. I asked one of them if they did this for the discounts, or the experience, and he said it was more for the experience than anything else, and I actually really like that idea.

But the more I thought about it, the more I noticed the glaring irony. On Black Friday, many people mimic the poor. They do this unknowingly, but for one night, they enter into their world of having no place to lay their heads. But there is one fatal flaw: they aren’t doing this to practice solidarity with the poor, but to display the ugliest of humanity in the form of consumerism.

With the Friday Fast, we also experience solidarity (in true form) with the “least of these”, and make a quiet—yet tangible—difference in our communities at the same time.

I think it’s important to couple the fast with the monetary donation (to someplace where it will be used to care for the poor), because giving money without fasting often causes one to miss the moment of solidarity and reflection, which is what we need the most.

I also think it’s important to make this a weekly ritual. This may sound legalistic to some, but the truth is, if we just do it “here and there”, it won’t be long before we forget it entirely. I’ve been trying to establish this ritual for a month now, and I still forget about 50% of the time. To make things a bit more flexible, I don’t regulate this practice to Friday alone. Sometimes my schedule has me around people on Fridays where a meal is being shared, and I don’t want to be the holier-than-thou “I’m fasting” Pharisee at the table. And from the Gospels, we can see that sharing a table was extremely important to Jesus.

The Friday Fast is flexible. It doesn’t put us in better standing with God. But in a world—and a Church—that is becoming more and more given over to consumerism, I believe that the Friday Fast is our opportunity to quietly rebel, and keep Christ at the forefront of our awareness in the 21st Century.

Editor’s Note: It should be noted that this is just one method of quiet rebellion against consumerism, and is in no way presented as the “superior” method. Rituals are only good to the point that they do not become routine, done from a place of obligation rather than passion.

Gray Thursday

Today is Gray Thursday, known in some circles as “Thanksgiving”.

Earlier today, I was driving from one relative’s house to another—through Austin suburbia—passed miles and miles of empty parking lots and darkened storefronts. It reminded me of a simpler time, a time when we weren’t such consumers, and could actually go a day without buying stuff.

But all of that is changing now. A few select stores have been open on Thanksgiving for years, giving workers a day off to be with their families before the most exhausting day of the year. Last year, many stores decided to begin Black Friday at midnight. Because they were met with such success, many stores decided to open on Thanksgiving evening this year—hence, Gray Thursday.

One of the leaders of Macy’s made it quite black and white: “Our midnight opening was so successful last year, so this year, we’re opening even earlier.” In other words, “We made a crapload of money last year (at the expense of our employees and their families), and we want more.”

I’m not here to condemn anyone; that’s pointless. I’m not so much concerned about people who go shopping as I am the sinful system where money is our primary motivator, and we’ll sacrifice things once held sacred to obtain more of it.

Rather than condemning people, we should grieve. Not because people are going shopping tonight, but because something is fundamentally wrong with our world. All is not well, all is not right. Denying this reality would be foolish, and trying to fight it is a waste of time. Instead, we can remember, we can grieve, and we can invite people to enter in to an alternative society that is free from the chains of mammon and consumerism. This alternative society is the Kingdom of God, and Jesus is the Door. Jesus is the answer to the pain that Gray Thursday brings to families.