|EthicsDaily.com recently carried a Religion News Service story about a new church movement called the "Advent Conspiracy."
It appears to be the initiative of a local Portland pastor in response to American consumerism's captivity of the meaning of Christmas.
An earlier essay on the same site voiced similar concerns. Sam Davidson, co-author of New Day Revolution: How to Save the World in 24 Hours, expressed alarm at American consumerism's power. In the piece he offered a few of the tips found in his book that can help Christians "use this time of giving to truly focus on others, making sure that we stay a little less greedy as we try our best to remember the reason for the season."
Davidson's suggestions include "want differently … make it about someone else; decorate wisely … conserve energy and natural resources; give twice … donate a portion of the sticker price to a worthy cause; and, holiday recycling … reuse resources."
Likewise, the pastor in Portland, Rick McKinley of Imago Dei Community, urges his parishioners to resist consumerism and give gifts like God does. Impressively, the Advent Conspiracy consortium of churches plans to send a quarter of the dollars not spent at the mall to clean water projects around the globe.
These ideas for Christians are splendid alternatives to the kind of gift giving promoted by a market that seeks to make sure it's always around by making the individual the moral center of economic exchange. They resist a form of politics that displaces economic activity in the form of gift-giving from other to the self. Minimally, they seek to love the neighbor as the self.
The Advent Conspiracy is on to something. In the attempt to be faithful to the true meaning of Christmas, we use Advent and Christmas time to reform our ordinary habits of consumption. These are habits we maintain, let's say, during Ordinary time on the Christian calendar.
In other words, we try to change the influence of an individualistic, highly competitive, highly consumptive and touted successful economy. The rub is this: it's an economy which we Christians vigorously support, sustain and benefit from during "ordinary" time. Our motives are confused as to whether we do this because it just doesn't seem right to subject Christ to our ordinary-time consuming-spending selves at Christmas, or because Christ commands us not to tolerate for others what we won't tolerate for ourselves.
Yet, through practices like those of the Advent Conspiracy, we submit to a beautiful model of Christian discipleship that understands God's desires for our economic relationships with one another. We realize that getting, getting and getting does have moral consequences.
The upside of an Advent change in attitude is, then--we American Christians get a reprieve from our own greed, and many of those in desperate situations get a little help. The downside is--we become Advent Christians, just as there are Sunday Christians.
Further on the downside, the possibility arises for a great injustice. Our virtuous resistance threatens to pull the labor market rug out from under the feet of the working poor. It could very well be that altering our spending and consumption could be like building a livable structure during the year and then turning off the power at Christmas.
Though I found no direct data to confirm this belief, perhaps we could infer it through reasonable consideration. If nearly 80 percent of Americans self report to be Christian and if nearly 20 percent of Americans earn over $140,000 a year, then it stands to reason that many of those at the top of the economic ladder are Christians.
It's not too farfetched to conclude that we--those with discretionary incomes-- who have the option to alter our spending habits in order to be more faithful disciples of our Lord Jesus also are not the ones working several jobs at poverty-level wages just to get by.
The bitter truth is this: during ordinary time, American Christians morally justify our over-consumptive economic habits by the low-wage jobs they produce for the poor. We then pat ourselves on the back for the trickle down benefits of our successes. This is the strange moral logic of modern capitalism.
Yet, are we now admitting that Advent exposes this logic as a lie? Furthermore, are not the ideas proposed by McKinley and Davidson more than simply "options" for charity?
Indeed they are, for their ideas are character-forming economic practices. They are the economic practices of ordinary Christian discipleship. They authentically seek to pull back the curtain of greed, lust, self-interest, gain, unlimited wealth, success, distraction, and addiction from the economic stage so as to reveal God's true intention for economic relations.
They are both spiritual and moral ideas, at the same time!
I want to encourage the Advent Conspiracy and Davidson's readers to consider a more honest scenario for change.
So as to not perpetuate the injustice of which we are complicit and now seemingly repentant, churches should call for an in-depth analysis of the potential effects on the working poor when merely half of American Christians--40 percent of the population--do decide to join the Advent Conspiracy. It would require the help of a few good economists and business people and would look at the effects of lowered service and commodity demand on local economies, local GDP's and jobs production.
The real gift exchange this Christmas could very well come in the form of churches who supplement the change in their economic habits with wage equivalency gifts to the working poor who are no longer needed by companies facing product surpluses due to the loss of a large base of once reliable consumers.
Because this conspiracy has the potential to function like a boycott of the poor, the Advent Conspiracy must be honest with the full scope of the culture of selfish and nihilistic consumption. When it is, it will recognize that the Jekyll and Hyde economic practices--though done for faithful reasons--might just have tragic and unjust consequences.
Andy Watts is an assistant professor of Christian ethics at Belmont University.
Five Lessons for Advent Bible Study