Reasoning Through the Season

It’s about that time again. Time for certain groups of people to make sure we all know whom we can thank for the Thanksgiving-to-New-Year’s orgy of shopping. I speak, of course of those ubiquitous buttons that remind us that “Jesus is the Reason for the Season!”

On some level, I appreciate the message that I want to read into this little declaration: chill out, for God’s sake (literally, I suppose), and ditch this assumption that a kid was brought into the world on angel song and with the adoration of foreign kings, so that we could get a great deal on that sweater for Uncle Fred. Even better, take that assertion one step further, and drop out of the present-buying frenzy altogether. Instead, if you’re of the religious persuasion that celebrates the story of Jesus, spend the day with your family, have a nice meal together, invite someone who needs it to share your warmth and your food and your conversation. If the cheery little mark of identity is worn to convey that sort of message, well then, more power to its bearer.

I’m guessing, however, that the accessory doesn’t really lead to such apparently unfashionable actions. In fact, when I catch a glimpse of this particular button, it usually sets my teeth on edge.

Multi-faceted reason number one. The occasions on which such campaign gear is sighted may be different for other people; for me, however, it normally comes into my field of vision when worn on the brand-new sweater of a thoroughly bourgeois lady or teen, who also displays make-up, hair, and nails so perfect that I never fail to feel slovenly in comparison. Appearance isn’t enough to convict anyone of anything; I’m willing to admit to that. But this well-dressed individual is also usually piling her cart high with merchandise unessential for daily living: action figures, GameBoys, fancy soap kits, a few Bratz dolls. Admittedly, I don’t get out much, and I try to do so even less during the holiday frenzy–so maybe I only run into the consumption-prone partisans of proper holiday ideology; maybe my polling practices are skewed, and the majority of button bearers are out ladling soup to hungry people at a half-way house.

I’m always tempted to ask this representative of Christian promotion, however, what the button means to her. Does it affect her daily life, especially during this particular season, whose celebration, if we take advertising as an indicator, seems to grow longer every year? It’s the same sort of question that begs to be vocalized every time an impatient driver bellows past, cuts me off, and finishes the maneuver with a less than friendly hand gesture and a head twisted back at me in eye-popping rage–all the while sporting a shiny Jesus fish on her bumper.

After the good consumer checks out, then, and wraps up her presents and goes about the rest of her business, what else does the fact of Jesus’ inauguration of this season encourage her to do? Even in the midst of the ample amounts of money she’s just spent, on things that will be forgotten in a matter of months, I’m willing to be less condemnatory if she also goes out, guided by enthusiasm for the Nazarene, and does her best to memorialize some of his more (in)famous actions undertaken in the Middle East. Feeding the homeless, lovingly touching some unwashed unfortunate with a skin disease, publicly inviting the scum of the earth to hang out: wouldn’t this weird behavior be great, especially if she threw in free health care, with no questions asked? She gets double bonus points if she’s willing to ignore the state of her lawn and to hop onto a ratty plebeian bus to accomplish all of this do-gooder activity.

Another series of concerns. How exactly does such a Jesus booster define “the season?” Early winter? Various pagans were already living it up for the solstice well in advance of Jesus’ appearance in a manger, so that can’t be right. The rededication of the temple that led to Chanukah came along well before Jesus did, and the celebration of Buddha’s enlightenment under the bodhi tree, as far as I know, contains no mention of the Nazarene. So, then, is “the season” limited to December 25–or are the button wearers just appropriating everyone else’s claims to the long period of lamp-lighting, party-giving, and clearance sale-ing, and declaring it all to be their indivisible property?

Is the donning of this accessory, in other words, more an assertion of what side this person is on–a back-up of the claims that trusty Jesus fish makes all year ‘round: that its bearer is on the winning side, and everyone else is damned? Is the button wearer saying that this holiday is mine, and not anyone else’s, that outsiders have no right to join in the carol singing or gift-giving that a large part of the non-Christian world has appropriated as its own? If so, then this partisan is drawing up battle lines that are worrisome enough in themselves.

When you combine this decidedly un-Jesus-like attitude, however, with the consumerist practices described above, the slogan’s claim of having it all figured out becomes even more dubious. You are not only participating in something about which I’m sure Christ would have had a great deal of criticism to offer. By supporting those multinational manufacturers, the sweatshops they run, the natural resources 0, HDMI, and 8. they suck up, and the landfills to which their products contribute, you’re also buying (literally) into the structures of oppression, domination, and general cheapness against which the Nazarene battled. Instead, then, of being in the world, but not of its status quo, you’ve declared your acceptance of and participation in that very world’s governing structures. To make matters worse, you’ve somehow justified your worldly participation by sanctioning the whole farce with the stamp of a moral guy and his god–both of whom seemed, according to many of the accounts their followers have of them, to enjoy overturning power structures and the people who were comfortable inside of them. So you paradoxically engage in the same types of activity as do the heathen you disrespect, while slapping a label on yourself to differentiate you and your posse from them. You then tell those others that they have no right to, in this case, the consumerism they’ve always practiced, just because they aren’t wearing the button that you are.

It seems, then, that the badge-wearers want to celebrate Christmas as at best the remembrance of a biological event: the birth of a baby, neither the date nor the place of which, incidentally, we really know. If this is all that Jesus-is-the-reasoners are doing–even if not consciously defending the borders of their own clique–they’re hardly beginning to get at the much larger significance of the life and death into which this baby was said to have grown.

A weird observation. Oddly enough, it’s usually from non-Christians—or those who don’t advertise themselves as prone to a particular religious view—who seem keyed into that larger significance. In addition to efforts such as Democracy Now!, Doctors Without Borders, anti-globalization activism, and so on, one particular individual seems to work out of some of the same assumptions, aims, and, dare I say it, love for the world, that the itinerant Jewish preacher might also have claimed as his own. Now, I’m not saying that they’d agree on the same ultimate goals, the same god, or their understanding of just what was being worked out in the individual life of one or the other of them, for example. Jesus was about much more than getting people to stop shoring up the treasures of this world. But when I think of another notable person who ruffles the public and makes it irritated about having to face up to its comfortable complicity in structures of cheap meaninglessness and global harm, I keep coming back to Billy Talen. His entertainingly disruptive preaching and his demonstrations against the ills of consumerism bear an uncanny resemblance to Jesus’ throwing a horde of money-changers out of the temple and calling out the self-righteous on their unfriendly ways

Talen and his Church of Stop Shopping call attention to the oppressive working conditions and environmental degradation, not to mention the waste of our brain and soul power, we support when we purchase so much useless crap. Is that why passersby and shoppers of the Christian persuasion get huffy when they encounter him? Do police come in to slap on the cuffs because he’s not “preaching Jesus”? Or do the anger and annoyance boil up because, if we listen, we’d have to admit that Jesus might throw him a high-five on his way to tossing Joel Osteen out of the Compaq Center? And worse—does that exasperation cover up the fear that emerges when we recognize that, if we really hear what this guy is saying, we’ll have to back up our claims to love God and our neighbors by doing much more than wearing a button and singing a hymn in our expensively built churches? How scary! How unfashionable! How uncomfortable!

So I’ll repeat the question, then: What’s the purpose of this button? I’m hoping that the next good Christian I see wearing the little badge will show me what it all means: maybe we’ll bypass the clearance sales and take the stinky bus and go clean up a park, or demand some socially just policies from our representatives, or get involved in any number of other efforts that force us into some sort of responsible action with our world. One can always hope; after all, it’s the season for miracles.

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