Battles over Sacred Time and Space
For those who doubt that “commercialism” is a religion (of the third epoch of civilization), it may be useful to view its contemporary manifestation in terms of the battle for time and space in people’s lives.
The institution of the Sabbath (which is a day reserved for God) is an important part of our Judeo-Christian heritage. This is a battle over time. How much time should be reserved for devotion to God and how much should be given to the working world? Proponents of traditional religion are zealous to preserve the day of worship. Commercial and business pressures are equally insistent on maximizing production and sales throughout the week.
Today’s corporate and professional culture insists upon a person’s willingness to work long hours for the firm. If he or she refuses, there are no promotions. One must show loyalty to one’s employer by putting work above family and personal concerns.
Another question has to do with keeping stores open on Sunday. Retailers are under great pressure to use their facilities on weekends when customers are available for shopping. To close one’s store for religious reasons means that one’s competitors may gain a sales advantage.
This was an issue with Stanley Kresge, founder of K-Mart. The Kresge family was deeply religious. When K-Mart management reluctantly adopted Sunday shopping, Stanley’s mother stood up at the company’s stockholder meeting to denounce that decision. Which came first, God or money? Unfortunately, business being what it is, money had to come first in this case.
Most religious holidays have been turned into commercial holidays - days when a person is required to buy gifts to show love to family members. The Christmas shopping season, which starts on the days after Thanksgiving, is a retailer’s big opportunity. Radio and television commercials induce feelings of guilt in individuals who have not yet completed their shopping list. (See the Christmas holiday as it has changed in world history.)
While Christmas is the most important commercial holiday, others such as St. Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and Halloween help sell products such as greeting cards, jewelry, beer, and clothing. The candy industry has promoted the idea of “sweetest day” when people are supposed to buy boxes of candy for their grandparents.
Christmas as a commercial holiday has a sacred scripture in the form of Charles Dickens’ novel, A Christmas Carol. What’s important here is the character of Scrooge. The character in Dickens’ novel was a misery man who refused to grant his employee time off from work to celebrate Christmas with his family. This was a theme congenial to traditional religion but not to the capitalists who dominated the age. Accordingly, “Scrooge” has become a person too selfish or cheap to buy Christmas gifts for others. The business community wants eager consumers but not persons who require much time away from work.
There has been some reaction to commercialism as a religion. Pope John Paul II denounced this influence in today's world. Otherwise, the religious community has mostly been silent, perhaps out of a fear of seeming old-fashioned and out of step with contemporary trends.
Interestingly, the man who is generally regarded as most responsible for creating the consumer culture, Henry Ford, was also among those most outspoken in support of giving workers more free time. He voluntarily gave his own workers an 8-hour day in 1914 and a 5-day week in 1926. Ford viewed this as a time to consume products such as automobiles. However, persons of a different inclination could fill this time with pursuits of greater spiritual worth.
There is a movement among avant-garde managers and professionals to renounce the consumer society and embrace “simple living”. Like dieting, this is good for one’s health. Individuals who resist the lure of credit cards and shopping malls gain greater personal freedom. Sometimes this is presented as an issue for professional women - how to balance the competing demands of work and family life.
Most Americans are given little choice in the matter. If they want a job, they have to accept the employers’ conditions. It’s only the select few, with skills in high demand, who can afford to bargain over such issues.
John deGraaf, a Seattle-based producer of documentaries for public television, has built a movement around making Americans aware of their own shortage of free time in comparison with European workers. It’s called “Take Back Your Time Day”.
In 2004, this day fell on October 24th - nine weeks before the end of the year. The date was picked to highlight the fact that American workers average nine weeks less free time than their European counterparts. On “Take Back Your Time Day”, proponents of more leisure in the United States held seminars and events around the country to promote greater awareness of leisure as a social and personal good.
So much for the struggle over time. What about space? The Gospel of Mark tells how Jesus “went into the temple and began driving out those who bought and sold in the temple. He upset the tables of the money-changers and the seats of the dealers in pigeons; and he would not allow anyone to use the temple court as a thoroughfare for carrying goods.” (Mark 11: 15-16) The temple was a sacred space reserved for worship of God. Commercial enterprises were not allowed there.
Today, some would fault the church for sponsoring Bingo games and other money-making activities. The greater struggle, however, is between the competing lures of the church and the shopping mall. Which place will win young people’s hearts?
There is a flamboyant preacher known simply as “Reverend Billy” who is taking his anti-consumerist religion into the shopping malls. He presides over an organization known as the “Church of Stop Shopping.” Recently, this man and his followers strode through America’s largest shopping mall, the Mall of America, during the Christmas season. According to a news report, they “stepped onto a stage and raised their voices in a joyful chorus:
The Reverend exhorted the gathering crowd to shun Starbucks, the Disney Store, the Gap, and consumerism in general. Amazingly, mall security was nowhere in sight. So the Church of Stop Shopping took a tour of the mall’s first floor, chanting ‘Start Living, Stop Shopping!’ and handing out leaflets. The rode up and down a bank of escalators, singing heartily and wrapping up the occasional shopper in their cinematic spectacle. On the second floor, they entered an Abercrombie & Fitch and bounced happily to the store’s mood-setting techno music. The young employees flitted about nervously, and security arrived to escort the triumphant congregation back to their buses.” The Reverend Billy had a parting question for mall visitors: “What would Jesus buy?”
To those who would compare the Reverend Billy with Jesus overturning the money changers’ tables in the temple, it’s fair to point out that the temple in Jerusalem was a place reserved for worship of God. In contrast, the Mall of America is one of many "temples" devoted to shopping and the American “religion” of consumerism. So, the Reverend Billy was definitely invading a rival religion’s space. Even so, he was making a valid point that shopping occupies too large a place in contemporary culture. He was using the tactics of entertainment to make this point.
All in all, the Reverend Billy, John de Graaf, and others are actors in a significant religious struggle reflecting the clash of civilizations.
the Reverend Billy at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota
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