Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Mark Johnson: It’s time to rehab the ‘big guy’
and return to the ways of Christmases past
By Mark Johnson
We shouldn’t blame the big guy. He’s been around longer than all of us, and we might cut him some slack for being a bit overweight, hard of hearing and maybe even a touch senile. But, we must admit: The world has passed by him as quickly as it has passed us all. The powers of big business and technology have remapped our world with blinding speed in its disregard for an old-fashioned Christmas.
Toys (and whatever else we buy this year) are not made at the North Pole. They are manufactured in China, Indonesia and Taiwan. They are not crafted by elves sipping hot chocolate, but by the world’s working poor laboring long hours for mere dollars a day. They are not delivered joyfully on a magical night with flying reindeers, but mass produced in factories 24/7 to be carted on ships and carried by trains and trucks churning out, not stardust and snowflakes, but fluorocarbons and environmental filth.
In this ever-increasingly complicated world, Americans will spend an estimated $475 billion on holiday gifts, decorations and parties. This staggering sum is just a small part of the discretionary capital available to us. We value a good deal, but only momentarily pause to wonder how our buying habits might affect the stranger on the other side of the world. If we slowed our spending, we might further damage the world’s delicate economic interdependence. But our vaulted purchasing power fuels the very forces that led to inequity, exploitation and oppression.
We are all part of this larger system; breathing the same air, trading goods and services, shopping for a bargain, and being caught up in what some theologians and ethicists have identified as “product-needs subjectivity” and “individualistic, highly competitive…nihilistic consumption” that overwhelms what we truly need with an exclusive focus on what we merely desire—even to the point of no longer being able to tell the difference. This redefinition is supported and reinforced by unrelenting images found on every conceivable flat surface, from the prolific digital screens overtaking our lives to the slick inserts in Sunday’s paper.
The sad reality is how this narrative is as fictional as the mythology of a worldwide benevolent visit on Christmas Eve. Our hearts were not created by God to be fulfilled with just material stuff. When our stuff does not help us become more compassionate, generous, forgiving, loving and helpful, it’s just getting in the way. Lives are happier when they give more than they consume, when they quit being judgmental and believing themselves superior, when they become less selfish and self-centered.
This is the danger in our celebration of Christmas for many Christians. They throw the party for themselves and forget it’s the birthday of the one they claim is the Savior who died for the world. It’s time to rehabilitate the big guy, once known for his kindness to the poor and his hospitality to the stranger. His greatness was not because he lavished attention upon his own friends and family, but because of his courage to reach out to the forgotten nobodies of the world.
In this ancient tradition, there is still much hope left in the world.
Mark Johnson is the senior minister of Central Baptist Church in Lexington. He is a graduate of the University of Kentucky and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and earned his doctorate in ministry at the Lexington Theological Seminary. Mark has served as president of the Interfaith Alliance of the Bluegrass and is on the executive council of the Kentucky Council of Churches.