Today is Thanksgiving. It is a time to gather with family and friends and give thanks and show our gratitude for the many blessings we have received. It is also time to reflect on the fact that many people are not so blessed and to devise actions plans to alleviate human misery and suffering. God’s bounty is meant to be gift for all, not for the 15 or 53% who are not takers.
Have you noticed that Black Friday has morphed into Black Thanksgiving evening? What a consumerist abomination. Employees will not be able to enjoy a full day with their loved ones. Walmart workers who cannot afford to lose pay or their jobs are threatening to strike. I went to Home Depot to get squirrel shields for my bird feeders yesterday. Throughout the store I saw big skids wrapped in black plastic with signs not to open until 5 AM on Black Friday.
Deuteronomy 8 sets the tone for Thanksgiving gratitude:
For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land of flowing streams and pools of water, with fountains and springs that gush out in the valleys and hills. 8 It is a land of wheat and barley; of grapevines, fig trees, and pomegranates; of olive oil and honey.9 It is a land where food is plentiful and nothing is lacking. It is a land where iron is as common as stone, and copper is abundant in the hills. 10 When you have eaten your fill, be sure to praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.
11 “But that is the time to be careful! Beware that in your plenty you do not forget the Lord your God and disobey his commands, regulations, and decrees that I am giving you today. 12 For when you have become full and prosperous and have built fine homes to live in, 13 and when your flocks and herds have become very large and your silver and gold have multiplied along with everything else, be careful! 14 Do not become proud at that time and forget the Lord your God, who rescued you from slavery in the land of Egypt. 15 Do not forget that he led you through the great and terrifying wilderness with its poisonous snakes and scorpions, where it was so hot and dry. He gave you water from the rock! 16 He fed you with manna in the wilderness, a food unknown to your ancestors. He did this to humble you and test you for your own good. 17 He did all this so you would never say to yourself, ‘I have achieved this wealth with my own strength and energy.’ 18 Remember the Lord your God. He is the one who gives you power to be successful, in order to fulfill the covenant he confirmed to your ancestors with an oath.
Be grateful for what the Creator has done for you. Do not forget. Meister Eckhart says that if our only prayer is “thank you” we will have prayed deeply.
Unfortunately, our gratitude must be tempered with asking for forgiveness. We stole the land form the original inhabitants in the name of the God who blessed us (and not them!) Bill Cosby had a great analogy in the 60s. He said that saying we discovered America is like a person walking out of Yankee Stadium, spotting a new Cadillac he likes, stealing it and then telling the police, “I discovered it!”
The rank consumerism which has reared its ugly Black Friday head should drive us to examine our consciences.
Timothy would be the bane of the Black Friday greed mongers:
Yet true godliness with contentment is itself great wealth. 7 After all, we brought nothing with us when we came into the world, and we can’t take anything with us when we leave it. 8 So if we have enough food and clothing, let us be content.
9 But people who long to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows.
We should not be trying to acquire more. We should be content with what we have. In fact, we would be a lot more content if we gave away much of what we have so others could be clothes.
Thomas Merton, 20th century monk, warns us repeatedly about consumerism:
Also, though we still pay lip service to the old myth that what is good for the market is good for everybody, as a matter of fact the development of new products and the marketing of commodities has really little or nothing to do with man’s real good and his real needs. The aim is not the good of man but higher profits. Instead of production being for the sake of man, which, while proclaiming its humanism and pretending indeed to glorify man as never before, is really a systematic and almost cynical affront to man’s humanity. Man is a consumer who exists in order to keep business going by consuming its products whether he wants them or not, needs them or not, likes them or not. But in order to fulfill his role he must come to believe it. Hence his role as consumer takes the place of his identity (if any). He is then reduced to a state of permanent nonentity and tutelage in which his more or less abstract presence in society is tolerated only if he conforms, remains a smoothly functioning automaton, an uncomplaining and anonymous element in the great reality of the market. (From Contemplation in a World of Action)
Merton’s teachings on greed and consumerism can help us lead more contemplative lives based on Gospel values amid the woes of economic turmoil and the blessings (curses) of returning prosperity. If Merton were writing today, he would have some important messages for us.
Merton eschewed materialism, greed, and consumerism:
The great sin, the source of all other sin, is idolatry and never has it been greater, more prevalent than now. Yet it is almost completely unrecognized precisely because it is so overwhelming and so total. It takes in everything. There is nothing else left. Fetishism of power, machine, possessions, medicines, sports, clothes, etc., all kept going by greed for money and power. The bomb is only one accidental aspect of the cult. Indeed, the bomb is not the worst. We should be thankful for it as a sign, a revelation of what all the rest of our civilization points to. The self-immolation of man to his own greed and his own despair. And behind it all are the principalities and powers whom man serves in his idolatry. (Naomi Burton Stone (de.), A Vow of Conversation, (New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1988, 174-175, April 17 Holy Saturday).
Giving into greed is self-immolation that leads to angst and alienation. Furthermore, Merton believed that greed is the root of violence:
A society that lives by organized greed or by systematic terrorism and oppression (they come to much the same thing in the end) will always tend to be violent because it is in a state of persistent disorder and moral confusion. The first principle of valid political action in such a society then becomes non-cooperation with its disorder, its injustices, and more particularly with its deep commitment to untruth. Satyagraha is meaningless if it is not based on the awareness of profound inner contradiction in all societies based on force. (Merton, Thomas. Gandhi on Nonviolence (New Direction Books, 1964).
Merton, who was once forester of the monastery because of his deep love of nature, would also be calling for us to examine the carbon footprint of rank consumerism.
Merton came out of solitude to challenge war, nuclear weapons, consumerism, and racism. Today he would be speaking truth to power about climate change. Merton felt an deep intimacy with nature and would bemoan the greenhouse gases produced by gross consumerism. He might even be on tour with Bill McKibben. He would be the Monk on the Bus telling us that we must care for creation. Mining and burning the carbon that remains in the earth will elevate the CO2 levels to destructive levels. Earth would no longer be the earth we have known and life would be unsustainable. (See, http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/global-warmings-terrifying-new-math-20120719)
Kathleen Deignan captures the essence of Merton’s love for creation:
Merton was learning to see that God shines not on creation but from within it, gently speaking in ten thousand things one divine wisdom. And it was such wisdom articulated by Catholic authors that led him to seek baptism in the Church, and soon after to ask admission to the Franciscan Order. But the Franciscans were not ready for Merton, and their refusal sent him to the Trappists whose hospitality was hospice for his wounded and disoriented soul.
When Merton arrived at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in 1941 he was deeply contaminated by “the world” virus that had left him nearly crazy, in need of healing and recovery–in need of rebirth. He would later describe the soul-sickness he shared with his contemporaries to be an auto-immune disease of the spirit infecting the whole planet: “we destroy everything because we are destroying ourselves, spiritually, morally, in every way.” He sensed our violence to be symptomatic of a collective self-loathing, especially in the affluent world where we have numbed and drugged, with the artificial stuff of things, our deepest hungers for communion with creatures, the cosmos, and divinity. (“love for the Paradise Mystery,” Cross Currents, 2009)
The bottom line is that the consumerism represented by unconscionable Black Friday hype is destroying us as human beings and the fragile planet we call home. I signed a pledge not to shop on Black Friday or, now, Black Thursday. I will have to keep reminding myself that my pledge includes online shopping. Oh well, football games will satiate our consumer-driven need for bread and circuses. Caesar would be proud of our complicity in the destruction of our souls and our planet.