Just a couple thoughts to offer today. I’ve had a chance to think in the last year or so about this “freedom” Americans often claim our army is fighting for. I hear it everywhere in our society as a phrase to clobber both naive pacifists and traitorous liberals with different ideas about how Iraq should have been handled. As I’ve wrestled with what this is all about, I’ve done my best to keep my ears peeled eyes open for others working through this same issue. I happened to come upon an interview online of one of my mentors-through-proxy (Internet and books substituting for face to face interaction) Stanley Hauerwas that shocked me. I didn’t know what to make of it at first, but as time has passed, it’s making more sense to me. Check it out;
“In his reflections on Sept. 11, Hauerwas uses the term ‘American imperialism’ matter-of-factly. He’s not afraid to humanize those who flew jets into buildings on Sept. 11, and to point out what he calls ‘the loneliness of the American people,’ a loneliness he says is tied to their pursuit of happiness.’On Sept. 11, Americans were confronted by people ready to die as an expression of their profound moral commitments, Hauerwas said in his Silk Hope talk earlier this year. ‘Their willingness to die stands in stark contrast to a politics that asks of its members in response to Sept. 11 to shop.’
‘Americans are, for the most part, good, decent and hardworking people, but so were the people that supported the Nazis.’ Hauerwas said he worries about ‘how goodness can become deeply corrupted by its innocence….most of the time innocence is deeply immoral because it is such a lie not to acknowledge that we live in a very complex world that we benefit from, and we don’t have to acknowledge the havoc our benefits depend upon.’
While those who loathe the United States are willing to die as an expression of their hatred, Hauerwas said U.S. citizens have no comparable moral conviction on which to base their lives. “A people who have been bred to shop then can quickly become some of the most violent people in the world,” Hauerwas said, “exactly because they’re dying to have something worth dying for.”
Before you get too upset (like I initially did), read the quote five or six times, then take a couple hours (or months) the chew on it from time to time. I’ve come to see it as deeply insightful over time. The question he raises is relevant; what does “freedom” represent in America, and at what cost is that American freedom perpetuated?
Example after example in the last few months has proven to me Stanley’s suggestion that “freedom” in our society directly translates to “shopping.” If it does not, what is the comparable conviction Americans have to bring that they’re willing to fight for? The right to vote? Maybe so, but check out the percentages of folks that exercise that right when the time rolls around. Right to freedom of religious expression? How many American folks are really, I mean really, deeply invested with the whole of their lives in the religion (often Christian) they claim? Precious few.
So what IS the mark of American (and by extension, Western) society that takes up most of our attention, time, energy, thoughts and dreams?
I’d suggest it’s cash money, the jobs it takes to get more, the marketing that competes for us to exercise our right to buy their stuff, and the sheer amount of stuff we can buy with that cash.
Our “holidays” of Christmas and Easter are perfect examples of this. If those who claimed to be Christian truly deeply valued and respected the two most holy celebrations of their year, they would be up in arms about the mockery our secular society has turned them into. Heck, witches and black-magic practicioners should be pissed at how secularism has changed the height of their year (Halloween) into an avalanche of candy and cute little costumes. In short, consumerism has taken every day holy and sacred to competing traditions, subverted them, and marketed them under completely different pretenses and seeking different ends. So now we have Santa Claus (the original Saint Nicholas has to be rolling over in his grave), The Easter Bunny, Thanksgiving football and excess amounts of turkey and stuffing, and Valentine’s Day (a boon for the diamond and Hallmark card industries) as examples. More examples exist, and they all reveal the central value our society upholds; money, what it takes to get it, and (for marketers) more and more innovative ways to convince consumers they need to spend it on YOUR product.
Which brings us to Black Friday, the official holiday of the hallowed First Day of Christmas Shopping, the most profitable day of the year for businesses and the height of capitalism. The day where we consumers camp out at our Best Buys and Kohls and JCPenneys and shopping malls so that at midnight or 4 am or 6 am (whoever opens first) we may spend our money on things we don’t need. But we have the right to!
Nobody tells me where I can or can’t spend my money, not no A-rabs or dem Chi-nese or nobody!
And THIS, my friends, is why Stanley Hauerwas is so spot-on in his diagnosis of our society. We have nothing to fight for in our society but a vague notion of freedom in need of definition. And the definition has come to mean the right to shop. We claim freedom of choice, yet our naivete about our individual capability to make good choices as if we weren’t slaves to marketers reveals not only that we aren’t free, but that we’re overconsumed and cynical and bored. The system keeps us entertained but unfulfilled, and we are shocked by the possibility that someone would give up that right and fight to recover another vision of what life is to be about. It’s a clashing of civilizations, the dominant one secular (NOT Christian) and competing visions daring to suggest their commitment is more life-giving and worthy of sacrifice.
This is a series of unfinished and slightly incoherent thoughts, I’m sure, but Black Friday in all its glory shoved me back to the place inside me Hauerwas twisted into a mess with his comment. I’d encourage you to wrestle with it.
In closing, I’ll leave you with one of the most prophetic bands I know of around these days, “The Cobalt Season”, and some of the lyrics from their deeply honest lament/hopeful song “Like Jesus“;
And friends, Romans, countrymen
Won’t you lend me your ears?
This Holy American Empire
Gotta tell you it’s crumblin’ down
To the ground
’Cause everything’s for granted
And nothing is for sure
So let’s grab a Starbucks baby
And let’s spend a little more
Forget about the dreams we had
Just work and sleep until we’re dead
Are we blind to what’s ahead?
Oh Lord, how long?
When memory’s for granted
Nothing is for sure
And history goes round and round
As we long for something more
We lie and wait for better days
With hope and fear and joy and dread
Or just ambivalence to what’s ahead?