Today is the biggest shopping day of the year—the opening shot in the annual “war on Christmas” (thanks Bill O’Reilly!). It’s a day when Americans amp up their insane infatuation with shopping. Children make their lists, parents mark up ads like battle plans, and everyone prepares for a victorious day of bargains. It’s all very militant—hordes of shoppers wielding credit cards and cell phones as weapons, their SUVs as tanks… prepared to push over the slow or small as the doors open and the sales begin.
A new documentary was just released (in select cities) that examines the absurdity of this cultural rite of passage. It is called What Would Jesus Buy? and follows Rev. Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping on their Christmas protest bus tour of 2005. The film, produced by Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), is a comedic indictment of both over-consumerism and over-corporatization in America. I recently interviewed Spurlock and the film’s director for an article for Christianity Today. You can read that piece here.
But as much as the film is interesting, valuable, and at times provocative, I’m not sure it ever really considers the question which is its title. What would Jesus buy? What would he think of our consumer culture? Of corporations like Starbucks, Walmart, and Disney (the veritable “Axis of Evil” in WWJB). The obvious answer—and the assumed point of view of the movie—is that Jesus would hate all things consumer, outsourced, and globalized. And he would especially loathe big corporations.
But is it really as simple as that? The movie cites the biblical story of Jesus overturning the moneychangers’ tables in the temple as a justification for why Jesus must hate greedy capitalists. In my mind, however, that story is less an indictment of money-changing in general as of the fact that it is being done in the TEMPLE. The problem for Jesus is the defilement of the temple by commercialism –the desacralizing of the holy by way of quotidian materialism.
In a way, then, the commercialization of Christmas does fit into this reading of Matthew 21:12-13. The sacred sacrament of Christmas does seem to be tainted by our seasonal orgy of over-spending and manic obsession with giving and getting things. This is not to say that we should stop shopping and/or giving gifts to each other on Christmas. Just that we should be mindful of when this consumer orientation overwhelms the better aspects of Christmas—namely, the reflection upon and worship of the newborn savior.
Okay, so we can agree on that. Over-commercialization is bad when it overtakes something sacred (whether it be Christmas or Christianity in general). Heaven knows that consumer Christianity is a huge problem. Christian music, Christian books, Christian movies, t-shirts, videogames, aprons, slippers, votive candle holders, keychains, coasters, cutlery, etc… Would Jesus buy Christian products if he were here in our world today? I don’t know. But I’m quite certain he would buy products. I think it’s a stretch to assume that Jesus would live a hippie life on a commune with home-grown food and no transaction with the dirty little capitalists all around him.
On the contrary, Jesus seemed to be in the business of loving people despite their position in the culture or economy. This includes tax collectors, merchants, prostitutes, and today it would include fat cat CEOs, white collar corporate hacks, blue collar union leaders and immigrant slave laborers. This is not to say he wouldn’t chastise people for greed or exploitative employment policies (and greed, may it be said, is NOT a vice unique to the white collar hegemony), but it is also not to suggest that Jesus would love them but not buy their products. It seems to me that one would follow the other. I can’t imagine Jesus saying to a Walmart executive, “I love you, but I’d never spend a dime at one of your evil stores.” This is the sort of “love the sinner, hate the sin” rhetoric that sounds nice but makes Christianity sound like a conditional, fickle farce.
I’m not saying Jesus would shop carelessly—spending mounds of dough on lattes and overpriced designer doo-dads. I’m just saying I don’t think he’d be an ad-busting, culture-jamming, anti-consumerist zealot. But I suppose we shouldn’t even be wondering about these things. Jesus and “what he would do” about this and that is such a disgustingly overused gimmick. The limits to what you can imagine Jesus doing or supporting are only limited by how much you need some sort of holy sanction for whatever opinion you are championing.
I don’t know what Jesus would buy, but just like he’d be angry when his name is slapped on a pair of socks and sold to Christians for $10, I’m sure he’d likewise be pissed at his name being so cavalierly invoked to sell America on anti-consumerism.