The $100 Christmas
If we in religious communities are going to do anything about it, we have to recognize just how strong the consumerist ethos is. It has taken root in all of us, basically unchallenged. Fertilized by a million commercials, it has grown into what we call a wolf tree where I live, a tree whose canopy spreads so wide that it blots out the sun, that it blots out the quiet word of God. Churches, obviously, do not have the power to compete head-on, and few of us junkies are ready to go cold turkey. But increasingly there are signs that people are asking deep questions: "Isn't there something more than this?" And the churches can help build this momentum in important ways, beginning with those things it has the most psychological control over.
Chief on this list is the celebration of Christmas, not only the most beloved of church holidays, but also the most powerful celebration of consumerism. Just how powerful can be judged from the fact that it has become a major gift-giving holiday in Japan, despite the conspicuous lack of Christians there. And it is not entirely well-understood. A few years ago, in Kyoto, one department store filled its center window with an enormous effigy of a crucified Santa Claus.
Christmas is a school for consumerism—in it we learn to equate delight with materialism. We celebrate the birth of One who told us to give everything to the poor by giving each other motorized tie racks.
A few years ago, with a couple of friends, I launched a campaign in our Methodist conference in the Northeast for "Hundred Dollar Holidays," recommending that families try to spend no more than a hundred dollars on Christmas.
When we began, we were very long-faced, talking a lot about the environmental damage that Christmas caused (all those batteries!), and the money that could instead go to social justice work, and so on. But what we found was that this did not do the trick, either for us or for our fellow congregants.
What did the trick, we discovered, was focusing on happier holidays. Though we continued to stress the $100 figure as an anchor for families pushed and pulled by the tidal forces of advertising and social expectation, we talked about making Christmas more fun. The poster we used suggests many alternatives to a store-bought Christmas, things that involve people doing things for each other and for creation.
We were amazed at how well this worked, even on the limited scale on which we were trying it out—many people thanked us for "giving them permission" to celebrate Christmas "the way I always wanted to celebrate it." It taught me a useful lesson: that the effect of consumerism on the planet is mirrored precisely in its effect on the soul; that finding true joy means passing up momentary pleasure; and that joy, that deep bubbling joy, is the only really subversive force left in our society. The only way to make people doubt, even for a minute, the inevitability of their course in life is to show them they are being cheated of the truest happiness. And Christmas is a good school for this education, because it can be such a wonderfully giddy party for the birth of a baby.
It also turns out to be a pretty radical idea. The retail economy is massively geared toward "the fourth quarter," banking annually on the fact that people will rush into stores to buy things they don't need. So to question the wisdom, and the pleasure, of that consumption is to question an awful lot about our consumer society. We had several newspaper columnists attack us on the grounds that, while we might be right, we would also undermine the sacred economy. And it gave us a good opportunity to write back and say, Surely American consumer capitalism, defended always as the most rational of all systems, doesn't demand the corrupted celebration of Christ's birth in order to make ends meet.
Great American TV turnoff
Another practical idea involves a feature of our lives even more entrenched than Christmas, and that is television. It has become the essential anchor of the growth culture, our endless moral tutor. Children spend more time staring at it than they spend in school; when asked if they wanted to spend more time with the tube or with their father, more than half chose TV. New research indicates it makes us fatter and less physically healthy all the time—but it also, and more profoundly, changes the shape of our minds. Are you worried about a decline in family values, in community spirit? Then you are worried about television.
The debates over things like violence on tv miss the point, I think. I wrote a book once that involved watching everything that came across the largest cable network then in existence on a single day. I had 2,400 hours of videotape by day's end, and I spent a year looking at it, asking myself: What would the world look like if this was your main source of information? If you distilled all those thousands of game shows and talk shows and sitcoms and commercials down into a single notion, it would be this: You are the most important thing on the face of the earth. Your immediate desires are all that count. Do It Your Way. This Bud's for You. We are led daily, hourly, into temptation.
And there is something else: television and its attendant technologies create a constant buzz around us, an unrelenting torrent of image and sound that make it difficult for us to think for ourselves anymore—to rise to occasions. That's one reason I am a board member of a group called TV Free America, which every year sponsors a turnoff week in schools around the nation. Last year 3 million kids took part. And increasingly the idea is spreading to churches. Not only are the turnoffs endorsed by the American Medical Association, the Children's Defense Fund, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, but also by the Congress of National Black Churches, the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, and the Family Research Council. Last winter the pope called for TV-free Lent, a campaign we are just beginning here.
Again, the emphasis will not be on renunciation; it will be on the great pleasure that comes when you turn off the television and rejoin the living world. And on the opportunity to reflect—to think—in the stillness of the unplugged world. Solitude and silence and darkness have always been key parts of the religious life, but they have been banished by tv. We need to reclaim them, and in so doing break the materialist enchantment that now holds us in its thrall, shrug off some of the witchcraft that makes us long constantly for things that will not satisfy us.
The center of our lives
These questions about consumption, like the questions about the new environmental damage, get near the deepest theological questions. If we were built, then what were we built for? We know what hawks were built for—it's announced in every fiber of their bodies. But what about us? Why do we have this amazing collection of sinews, senses, and sensibilities? Were we really designed to recline on the couch, extending our wrists perpendicular to the floor so we can flick through the television's offerings? Were we really designed in order to shop some more so the economy can grow some more? Or were we designed to experience the great epiphanies that come from contact with each other and with the natural world? Were we designed to witness the goodness all around us, and to protect and nourish it? Just as "the environment" is a context, not an issue, so is "consumption." It defines at the moment who we are—and who we aren't.
This is a profound moment for religious people. On the one hand, our species asserts itself as never before. We have grown large enough to alter creation—whether by the single great explosion of a nuclear weapon, or the billion muffled explosions of pistons inside engines spewing out carbon dioxide. As Oppenheimer said on that New Mexico afternoon testing of the A-bomb, we have become as gods. And not just the nuclear engineers—anyone with a car, anyone with a credit card.
Yet, at the same moment, we have acquired the intelligence to see what we are doing—not just the scientific understanding of things like the greenhouse effect, but the dawning ecological understanding of the way that everything is linked to everything else, that creation is a fabric far richer than any of our predecessors could have understood (though, of course, they may have sensed it more deeply than we do). The age-old struggle between God and mammon, always before a personal and never-ending battle, now has a time limit and a bottom line.
It is really an issue of who or what we put at the center of our lives. In the environmental debates, there has been a lot of discussion about anthropocentrism versus biocentrism versus theocentrism. Most of this debate seems empty to me, assuming as it does that most of us put any of these things at the center. If we followed any of them in a sincere fashion, we would be well on the way to solving our environmental and social problems. Anthropocentrism, if we really placed humans at the center of our concern, would lead inevitably to the kind of sharing necessary to heal the environmentally destructive gaps between rich and poor; were we truly anthropocentric, we would feel grave shame at our own overconsumption. But, of course, we are not. We are me-centric. We are I-dolatrous. That is what consumer society has schooled us to be.
The question now is, how can we break out of it? Some have criticized secular environmentalists as "pagans" because they profess a biocentrism, a view of the world that puts all living things at its center. But they are far closer to orthodoxy than most of the rest of us who still put ourselves at the sweet center. We need to put God there. And then we need to realize that this involves more than the smug announcement that we have done so.
Having God at the center imposes certain limits on our behavior. If we are not to wreck God's creation, then there are certain things we simply must not do; we simply must not continue consuming as we now are. And there are certain things we must do; we must share our bounty with those of the rest of the world, finding somewhere a middle ground so they don't follow our path to consumer development. These things are in one way extraordinarily difficult. But we know the deep and certain joy they can bring, and so we can say with some confidence that at least they are possible. At least they are worth a try.
And we will know if we are succeeding by the evidence all around us. Creation will let us know if we are rebuilding our house, restoring its foundations. Are species continuing to die out? Is the temperature continuing to climb? Our communities will show us if we are really changing. Are the numbers of absurdly rich and absurdly poor beginning to decline? Are we rebuilding institutions other than the mall, places like schools and parks and churches? The environmental crisis is so deep and so fundamental that our response will reveal who we most truly are.
In the meantime, I'm looking forward to Christmas. There's one more tradition we always observe, one begun many centuries ago by Saint Francis. We take some bird seed out into the woods near our homes, and spread it far and wide. The minute we leave I have no doubt that jays and squirrels and chickadees and shrews descend, happy to have their day's food without a day's work. This is such a joyful morning that all creation deserves to share in the celebration!
-Bill McKibben, a professional writer from Johnsburg, New York, is the author of The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job, and the Scale of Creation (Eerdmans), The Age of Missing Information (Plume), The End of Nature (Random House), and Hope, Human and Wild (Little, Brown).
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