Wednesday, December 1, 2010
Christmas, Caesar & Consumer Capitalism
On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The god we are really serving in the celebration of Christmas is global capital.
Richard Horsley in Christmas, The Festival of Consumer Capitalism (2003)
During this season of sipping gingerbread lattes while we all listen to the Lyndsey Lloyd-Wallace Christmas album, we have a precious opportunity to celebrate the majesty of God’s creation and to remember the strange atmosphere surrounding God’s birthday: the mangy shepherds, the sheep feeding manger, the knocked-up teen virgin and the pregnant cousin on Medicare. This is the season that is supposed to remind us that the down-and-out, jobless, shameful, dishonored, overlooked and decrepit are the ones entitled to ride shotgun and who get to choose where we are all going to dinner in the kingdom of God. Truly, if this is how God comes into this world, then the Hollywood celebs, corporate titans and bank executives are all out of luck. This is a time to quiet our hearts and align our investments with what God values.
Somehow, however, the Christmas season has evolved into an anxiety-driven, pressure-filled shopping binge. Sure, this baby boy in a manger is still wrapped in swaddling clothes, sharing the street corner with the Jewish dradle and Muslim star, but his followers just keep on sliding that credit card and clicking that mouse, consumed in a frantic search for the perfect gift for everyone. And, every year, right about this time, to stave off this Great American Frenzy, I take a half-hour and read Richard Horsley’s Christmas, The Festival of Consumer Capitalism to blanket the season with perspective and clarity.
Horsley’s work is dedicated to researching the context of empire in which the biblical documents were produced and then holding up his own findings to the light of our contemporary Christian situation. As it turns out, there are many similarities between the Pax Romana and the Pax Americana. Both empires boast of the many benefits of citizenship and offer freedom and protection for those who devote unquestioned loyalty to its way-of-life. In other words, both offer salvation for the world through their militaries and markets.
It was Horsley, a professor of religious studies at UMass Boston, who first introduced me to the concept of the emperor cult, which Rome used in the eastern colonies to ensure allegiance by proclaiming Caesar as the “lord” and “savior” of the world. They bowed, paid monetary tribute and lived by the intimidating narrative of world domination over anyone and everyone who stepped out of line. As it turns out, the New Testament is a lot more dynamic than any of us thought: it was those bad-ass Christians who boldly refused to worship Caesar’s false framing of the world, giving every ounce of their loyalty to another “lord” and “savior,” a Jewish peasant rabbi named Jesus from a backwoods town called Nazareth.
We might call the earliest context of Christianity, The Rival Narratives of the Cross. The Romans used the cross to scare the hell out of people. Public crucifixions were consistent reminders of what happened to those who second-guessed the way of the Empire. Most people were saturated in fear, monotonously existing on autopilot. The Christians, on the other hand, pointed to the cross as the only way to everlasting life. By this they meant that unless one was prepared to die for pledging allegiance to an alternative Story, they weren’t really living. They proclaimed “the gospel” (a Greek word euangelion, stolen from the Roman political lexicon: the announcement of what Caesar had done to make life even better for the people of Rome) of God’s Dream for the World: everyone—regardless of ethnicity, gender, resume or rap-sheet—was accepted and invited to join this healing mission through intentional acts of enemy love, forgiveness, humble service, racial reconciliation, simple living and abundant sharing. It was an Adventure reserved only for those social misfits who were willing to reject Caesar’s counterfeit policies and procedures.
Today’s symbol of empire is no longer the cross (although it seems that folks in many parts of the world associate the US with water-boarding), but instead the plethora of easily recognized corporate logos. According to Horsley, although 75% of Americans claim the Christian label and we have a deep history of Christian church attendance, in actuality, consumer capitalism is the true religion of the United States. And Christmas is its greatest holiday, (followed up by the one-day food orgy Superbowl Sunday 6 weeks later):
Americans consume the vast majority of world resources and Christmas provides not only a dramatic spike in the retailing that dominates the US economy, but a powerful motivation to the whole enterprise of consumption of goods quite apart from human needs.
Let’s face it, we spend a lot of time shopping and eating…and talking a lot about shopping and eating. As journalist Matt Taibbi writes, “the only thing Americans really know how to do anymore is eat huge quantities of Doritos and buy shit on the internet.”
Horsley points out that widespread nominal Christianity and widespread shopping exist together in the United States today because of the overwhelming failure on the part of Christians to recognize that following Jesus, from the very beginning, was about concepts of loyalty, allegiance & commitment, not “belief” as in mental assent (this is the real meaning of the Greek word pistis which is usually translated as “belief” or “faith in”). Of course, American Christianity is almost unanimously equated with a set of right beliefs about God and Jesus. It is a “religion” which almost unanimously means something that people subscribe to in order to heal the soul or find personal solace or guarantee eternal life in heaven. Horsley writes:
The modern religious fetish of religion as belief similarly prevents recognition of consumer capitalist holidays as the imperial religion that constitutes power relations today. Belief, however, is as irrelevant to Christmas as it was to the Roman imperial cult. Several features of Christmas, of course, require a certain "suspension of disbelief." Yet despite pervasive disbelief (e.g., in Santa Claus or in ads), the symbols and images of Christmas are highly effective in achieving the desired result: the massive purchasing of (unneeded) commodities for the orgy of gift giving and consumption. What does belief matter when the powerful presence of spirit and image is so pervasive that consumption is simply unavoidable? One participates like everyone else, with no real choice or faith-response involved.
When “consumption is simply unavoidable,” as it most certainly is during the holiday season in American culture, it becomes the idol or addiction that must be resisted critically and creatively. It is what two of my favorite prophetic pastors, Dale and Stacy Fredrickson, call “living in the tension.” Of course, the severe tension in the Pax Americana is that Christian churches overwhelmingly support “the orgy of gift giving and consumption” as a legitimate way of celebrating Jesus’ birthday, in addition to attending candle light church services, charitable giving and an overall spirit of joy and generosity (with even some folks fighting to keep Christmas a "Christian holiday"). This was not always so. In fact, the Congregational churches of New England banned the celebration of Christmas until well into the 19th century because of its inherent overindulgence and carousing.
Many Christians are creatively “living in the tension” of the Christmas season. Some churches are hosting alternative shopping malls featuring goods produced in the Third World (etc) and others are substituting consumer gifts with the sponsorship of goods and services delivered to the globe’s most desperate inhabitants. My sister-in-law has sparked a “thrift-store-only” rule with a modest spending limit for each family member. Some are just checking out of the whole consumption ritual altogether, fasting from malls and internet retail sites.
Consumer-driven Christmas is an anomaly to prophetic Christians. The Jesus born in a feeding trough and executed on a Roman cross beckons followers to “store up heavenly treasures” (like sharing, caring and bearing) and “receive little children” (those with the least status in society). The system of consumer capitalism that pervades our lives must be both recognized and rejected for the deceptive lies it breeds (“For everything else, there’s Mastercard.” Seriously?). After all, the greatest gift we have to offer the real “lord” and “savior” is not in our wallet. May we have the discernment, courage and discipline to confront Caesar’s counterfeit festival and replace it with a more authentic celebration of life, love, simplicity and solidarity.