buy nothing christmas '03
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Why Buy Nothing?


Many people have asked me why I am participating in a Buy Nothing Christmas. I have a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is: After being continuously confronted with stats on the rich and poor and our level of consumption, I had to do something. And, because I'm a member of a church (Mennonite), I wanted to see what would happen if we pricked our collective Canadian conscience with a full-page ad in Canadian Mennonite magazine (Oct. 22, 2001). It's a whimsical social experiment with a hidden agenda that tends to get heavy and paralyzing. So, in keeping with the spirit of our age - amusement and entertainment - I'm trying to keep it light and provocative.


ornamentMy longer answer involves thoughts on faithfulness, authenticity, empowerment, and experimentation. In terms of faithfulness, I have this profound sense that somehow everyone is connected. This is what my intuition tells me. I also hear it from people talking about globalization. The new physicists, and weather watchers talk about it too. In my studies of Buddhism I learned the fundamental principle of inter-dependent co-origination. In my Christian development, I have come to see God everywhere and in all things. So, when it comes to Christmas and consumer spending, my faith in God compels me to think of all my brothers and sisters all over the globe, although I'm quick to get caught up in my immediate cares and tend to forget about this. Or, I get overwhelmed and do the bare minimum. So, my participation in Buy Nothing Christmas, directs me to a larger, spiritual perspective on the season.

In terms of authenticity, I'm trying to find a way to be "real." I'm on a journey to connect my life and faith. I am not alone, according to Wade Clark Roof, in his book, Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion (Princeton, 1999). He describes the contemporary scene as an "effusive quest culture" where there's a disenchantment with traditional theism and a "turning inward in search of meaning and strength." Like others mentioned by Roof, instead of leaving the church, I have taken another look at its teachings and found myself inspired by the possibilities of its prophetic edge. Mennonites have a long history of counter-culture protest, peace activism, and justice work. I think it's time to drag this out further into the open.

It seems that economic issues haven't been a big concern of establishment churches. Sallie McFague, in Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril (Fortress, 2001), says of establishment churches, "in all cases personal sexual issues surface as the church's interpretation of sin and evil; public, economic issues seem to be of less concern."


In the case of the Mennonite church in Canada, the majority of its members, including me, has benefited from the current economic arrangement (free market capitalism). But our affluence has come with some expense to others. Participating in a Buy Nothing Christmas is one way for me to continue looking at peace and justice issues in terms of global economics. It gets kind of heavy.

In terms of empowerment, I feel relatively powerless to make positive changes in society, which is ironic because I supposedly belong to an influential group of Canadians: I'm white, male, middle-class, heterosexual, married, educated and well-connected to society. But still, I see society dominated by big businesses - the media is owned by fewer and fewer big corporations, entertainment industries own media outlets, internet sites and even phone lines, our retail stores are dominated by international companies. The steam-roller culture is pressing us citizens into consumer moulds - challenging this process is not only daunting, it seems impossible.

Democracy, the ability of citizens to have some say in how their society operates, has been overrun by corporate interests. While some intellectuals hold out hope for the citizen (see John Ralston Saul, The Unconscious Civilization [Anansi Press, 1995], especially chapter 3, "From Corporation to Democrcay"), I'm not so optimistic. My participation in a Buy Nothing Christmas is one way for me to say that I'm against the pro-corporate orientation of our society. In some respects, citizens as consumers have been reduced to the role of subjects in a feudal society, where corporate interests are king. It's empowering for me to shed this self-concept and take an anti-consumerist stance.


This is not an unpopular view these days. In No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (Vintage, 2000), Naomi Klein documents the rising tide of resistance against corporations and their encroachment into our public and mental spaces. Whereas the media tends to reduce anti-corporate demonstrations to "consumer boycotts," Klein recognizes their real political (i.e. democratic) intentions. "It is more accurate to describe them as political campaigns that use consumer goods as readily accessible targets, as public relations levers and as popular-education tools," she says. As I participate in a Buy Nothing Christmas, I'm seeking to re-assert my political power, which, when combined with the actions of others, is quite empowering, and even offers a hint of hope.

If we were able to influence the government, what would I want to tell it? I would want to work at ways of reducing systemic poverty. Some Christian organizations, such as Citizens for Public Justice in Toronto, and the Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative (which includes Mennonite participation), have already put forth good suggestions for policy makers.

A good study guide for churches is, Jubilee, Wealth and the Market (Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative, 1999). Ronald J. Sider, a Mennonite, professor, and president of Evangelicals for Social Action, has provided an excellent biblical rationale for Christian attention to unequal distribution of wealth in his book, Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America (Baker, 1999).


In my support of Buy Nothing Christmas, I wish to address how our society is structured and how it tends to favour the rich over the poor. Because this is so complicated, we are tempted to fall back on a charity model. It's taken me a while to understand how acts of charity towards the poor, even though well-intended, are ultimately not as beneficial as structural change.

Jean Swanson has worked as an anti-poverty activist for 25 years, 15 of which were with End Legislated Poverty in Vancouver. In her book, Poor Bashing: The Politics of Exclusion (Between the Lines, Toronto, 2001), she says charity creates the illusion that needs get met. Quoting a member of Ottawa's Social Planning Council, she says, charity "is a visible way of making people feel good about a problem, but not really addressing it in any depth. It doesn't address why the person is poor. It doesn't address jobs. It doesn't address income levels."

Even though charity is important, it should not replace justice work, she says. "If ending poverty is a priority for you, focus on working for more income and power equality," she advises.


How can we, as ordinary people, change society for the better? I'm not a politician, lobbyist, professor or big-time consultant (I'm currently a graduate student and a journalist). I'm tired of feeling like I can't do anything.

So, even if it's insignificant, I've decided to participate in a Buy Nothing Christmas. It's an experiment - I'm curious to see what happens. I think it's a great way to challenge our own consumer mindset, to put our faith into action, to offer a prophetic "no" to unfettered free-market consumer capitalism, and an excellent way to generate some good dinner-table discussions on the topic of economics, politics, religion, and what we're not getting each other for Christmas.

Aiden Schlichting Enns