Christmas is just a few days away and for people like me, the race is on to find those last-minute gifts on Amazon and pray that they will arrive on time. I do this every year; I think, “Oh I have plenty of time”, and then the looming specter of Christmas appears and I’m thrown into a panic. I’ve never been particularly crazy about the Christmas season, especially as it is celebrated in American culture. It’s just too stressful. There is so much pressure to have good cheer and to be obnoxiously joyful despite whatever reality you may be dealing with, and to pick the perfect present so your family and friends know how much you love them. It feels fundamentally inauthentic to me and so I get grumpy and cynical. It’s tradition.
Nothing makes me more uncomfortable than the swirl of consumerism surrounding the entire season of Christmas. I know that everything that can ever be said about the destructive relationship between Christmas and money has already been said, but I’m going to say it anyway. I think it’s an important conversation for us to be having, particularly in light of a 2016 that has been, in a word or two, a nightmarish dumpster fire. Just this week we’ve seen atrocity and horror in the city of Aleppo, the assassination of a Russian diplomat, continued nonsense and dangerous rhetoric from the President-elect, and a string of violent attacks across Europe. And that’s just the stuff that’s made the news. So, as I anticipate the celebration of Christ’s coming into this broken world, I’m wondering, what is our response? Are we to ring in the arrival of salvation, personified in the vulnerability of a child, with debauched and wanton expenditure, and the monetization of our dearest relationships? Or is there another way?
My first semester at seminary came to a close last week, and I found myself, for the first time in months, able to read a book of my own choosing. I decided to reread Paul Tillich’s The Courage To Be, which might not be the kind of escape I was initially looking for, but which nevertheless brings me joy. In the early part of the book Tillich describes three primary types of anxiety and the corresponding periods in history when each type was dominant (to be clear Tillich’s view of history and the corresponding anxieties are reflections primarily through a Western lens): the anxiety of fate and death and its expression at the end of ancient civilization, the anxiety of guilt and condemnation predominant in the middle ages, and our modern expression of the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness. As I read Tillich’s description I wondered if this was still the true expression of anxiety for our time. Is it a fundamentally spiritual anxiety that we see infecting our politics, economics, and relationships? The pull towards nationalism and fundamentalism on a national scale seems to confirm this, and Tillich’s words seem to describe so much of our political landscape:
“The anxiety of emptiness is aroused by the threat of nonbeing to the special contents of the spiritual life. A belief breaks down through external events or inner processes: one is cut off from creative participation in a sphere of culture, one feels frustrated about something which one had passionately affirmed, one is driven from devotion to one object to devotion to another and again on to another, because the meaning of each of them vanishes and the creative eros is transformed into indifference…
…Then man [sic] tries another way out…he tries to break out of this situation, to identify with something transindividual, to surrender his separation and self-relatedness. He flees from his freedom of asking and answering for himself to a situation in which no further questions can be asked and the answers to previous questions are imposed on him authoritatively” 1.
Tillich’s assessment seems to me all too familiar as I consider the rise of the radical right, the proliferation of “fake news”, and the general defensiveness on all sides of political, religious, and cultural ideologies. The authoritative imposition of meaning on individuals seems to me to be a phenomenon encountered on both sides of our political and religious discussions, and I have myself felt the anxiety associated with this desire to have questions answered in a way that supports my particular community. This desire to combat the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness drives so much of our interactions as citizens, family members, and consumers. And, it is this final category where I believe our battle with emptiness comes into direct and powerful authoritarian conflict with our spiritual lives, and with our “celebration” of Christmas in particular.
In Tillich’s estimation, people who have had beliefs breakdown or worldviews blown apart are driven to devotion after devotion as the objects of their devotion inevitably prove to be lacking. However, it seems that the power of consumer culture and the idol of wealth is that where other objects of devotion seem to have limits or boundaries, our devotion to wealth and consumption simply draws us in deeper and deeper by offering more, ever more. We don’t seem to hit that wall wherein we experience the true emptiness of wealth and consumption because we have been convinced that there is no such wall. There is always more to be had, more to buy, more to accumulate. It’s a kind of fail-safe in the economic system; if you don’t feel fulfilled than just keep consuming more.
Not only that, but our economic system and the producers of goods actively facilitate the kind of anxiety we are discussing so that a solution can be sold to compensate. William T. Cavanaugh, in his book Being Consumed, says:
“This is more than just a continuing attempt to make a product better; it is what the General Motors people called ‘the organized creation of dissatisfaction.’ How can we be content with a mere two blades when the current standard is five? How can we be content with an iPod that downloads two hundred songs when someone else has one that downloads a thousand? The economy as it is currently structured would grind to a halt if we ever looked at our stuff and simply declared, ‘It is enough, I am happy with what I have.’’ 2
The anxiety of emptiness has become a tool of marketers and producers and is used against us as a way of propping up a fundamentally empty idol. And yet, it is this idol that we lift especially high as we celebrate the coming of Christ into the world. Let me be clear, I am in no way criticizing our desire to give good gifts to our friends and family. I am not suggesting that we all renounce wealth and material goods. I am simply asking that we examine the cognitive dissonance between commemorating the birth of Jesus (who spoke far more about the dangers of wealth and unjust economics than he did any other topic) with devotion to the principles of consumption. I think we may be missing the point. We consume at astronomical levels to honor the Christ who said, “…it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” This is something I simply cannot reconcile, and yet I do this very thing every single year. I stress and agonize over what gifts to get for family and friends, making up arbitrary dollar amounts in my head that, somehow, are supposed to accurately convey my feelings of love and affection. I spend money that, frankly, I don’t have because I would be ashamed to say I can’t afford that. I day-dream about the gifts I might get from others, and feel disappointment if I do not receive what I expected. I contribute to an inequitable and immoral economic system that targets particular communities, and makes silent the voices of the oppressed. And yet, in the midst of this I sit in the pew and sing praises to the Christ who has been born in a manger, and who’s life and call will challenge me to a radical reexamination of my world and my place in it. For the love of God, there must be a better way.
I have been watching coverage of the siege of Aleppo and wondering what it means for me to be a Christian, at Christmas, in this particular time in history. Is there, perhaps, some greater responsibility calling out to us from the story of the Nativity, the flight to Egypt (this story should give us all shivers right about now), and the slaughter of the innocents? Can I celebrate Christmas in the way I always have if I am aware of the incomprehensible suffering of the Syrian people, or the suffering of those neighbors nearest to me? After all, what is it that I am celebrating? Christmas is not a birthday party. Christmas is the declaration that hope has entered a broken and frightening world in the person of Jesus. That “…a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Christmas invites us to participate in the saving work of God, as the hands and feet of the very Christ we celebrate. This invitation is to serve, and to serve those among us who need it most. This requires generosity, but unlike the false generosity of consumption and wealth, the generosity exemplified by Christ is sacrificial and self-emptying. This generosity seeks justice and is generally unconcerned with our own comfort. This generosity is hard, but it is what we are called to do.
This is what Martin Luther spoke of in his famous Christmas sermon on the Nativity:
“There are many who are enkindled with dreamy devotion, when they hear of such poverty of Christ, are almost angry with the citizens of Bethlehem…and think, if they had been there, they would have shown the Lord and his mother a more becoming service, and would not have permitted them to be treated so miserably. But they do not look by their side to see how many of their fellow men need their help, and which they let go on in their misery unaided…Why does he [sic] not exercise his love to those? Why does he not do to them as Christ has done to him? It is altogether false to think that you have done much for Christ, if you do nothing for those needy ones.”
Ouch. So, as we gather with our family and friends this Christmas, and as we sit in the pews on Christmas morning, consider the ways in which you might declare the hope of Christ in the world. How does our celebration of the birth of Christ inspire us to embody that hope in our own lives? Can we take a break from our culturally-crafted-consumer-Christmas and consider instead where it is that hope and light are needed? How can we engage a world as people emboldened by the compassion, mercy, simplicity, and justice of Christ? I think that if we begin to reframe the ways in which we celebrate and remember Christmas, we may find that the anxiety and fear that pushes us ever deeper into the idolatry of wealth and consumption begins to fade, and that we discover instead the true implications of the Christmas story; hope, generosity, love, and justice.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have presents to wrap…
1.Tillich, Paul. The Courage to Be. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1952. Print.
2.Cavanaugh, William T. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2008. Print.
3.Luther, Martin. Sermons Of Martin Luther The. Ada, MI: Baker Group, 2000. Print.