buy nothing christmas '03
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Buy Nothing Christmas Bible study guide for high school youth
by Erin Morash

Session 3

People not consumers

Luke 2: 1-7; psalm 139

Reflection: numbers or names

Somewhere around age sixteen we start collecting numbers. We get driver's license numbers, Social Insurance Numbers, health care numbers, student numbers, phone numbers, bank account numbers, and it goes on and on. We lose our names and we gain this weird collection of numbers that identify us to institutions as this particular person. Of course, not unlike the Roman census in Luke's story, our government frequently counts us and sorts according to age, gender, employment status, income, marital status, etc.

Names are something from our childhood years. As children, we give names to things that we think are important, whether animate or inanimate. We name security blankets, pets, people, our favourite tree, whatever. Most farm kids are cautioned not to name the pigs or the chickens or the beef cattle. It's hard to eat a friend. Reverse that: it's way easier to take advantage of or even kill something or someone who is nameless to you.

As we become adults, the only people who know our names are friends, co-workers (sometimes!) and family. Occasionally someone pins a name tag to us at work so the customers can tell one server from another; one friend of mine hated it and would wear her name tag upside-down or on her belt. Her name was not something she wanted strangers throwing around as though they were long time friends.

Names indicate relationship. Numbers indicate a user relationship. My name is like my face. It has to do with my identity and who I am as a person. If someone knows my name it's usually because we know each other. It is far, far easier to dismiss a statistic than it is to dismiss a particular face or person with a name.

A few years ago UNICEF used the funds from its annual Halloween drive to have the children in several nations registered-by name. They are hoping that it will make governments more hesitant about making street kids 'disappear' or about claiming that only a few have died, when they are disappearing by the thousands. Names have power.

Numbers are impersonal. My numbers may tell you what I earn, how much money I have, or what I spend my money on. But they won't tell you who I am. Names, however, have power.

When Mary and Joseph were ordered to get registered for a Roman census, this was not the start of a personal relationship between them and the occupying foreign government. It was so they could be sorted, tracked, and taxed. If they caused any trouble, the government knew who their family members were. It was a way of reducing their humanity, making them cattle not people.

Speaking of cattle . . . What does the title 'consumer' suggest to you and how does it compare with 'citizen' or 'person?' More and more often, we are being referred to by government, by media, and especially by corporations and advertisers, as 'consumers.' Somehow the word brings to mind an image of a cow 'consuming' something so that it can in turn be used, either to give milk or be eaten.

Citizens and people are thinking, participating, powerful beings. Consumers exist only for what they can buy and produce. Who exactly is benefiting from our 'consumption?' Who, exactly, is 'milking' us for all they can get?
This Christmas, when you are encouraged to be a good 'consumer' and buy your brains out, be a rebel: be a person instead. Take back your identity as a person with a name and with value beyond what you can afford to buy.

Thinking about it

1. What are some situations where you have felt like a number or a consumer?
2. What kinds of advertising messages make you feel good about yourself? What kind of messages make you feel worse about yourself?

Changing tracks

Exercise #1:
Start a flyer collection. If your family doesn't get the paper, see if you can collect from a friend. For two weeks during December (early December works really well) save every flyer that comes to your door. Stack the flyers on a frequently used surface in your home (you might want to negotiate with your family on which surface this will be): dining room table, kitchen counter, bathroom sink, whatever. It should be a surface that you have to clear at least once a day.

As you build your collection, ask yourself these questions:
"Why do these people want me to buy their stuff?"
"What do they believe the central message of the Christmas celebration is and how do they want me to express that message?"
"Even if I accept that they only have my best interests in mind and they want me to build closer relationships with my family and friends, are there other ways I can do this besides buying these products?"
"Where is this stuff made?"
"Who made it?"
"It's a total inconvenience having these stupid flyers piled on the table/counter/sink. Who am I 'inconveniencing' by buying this stuff? Who pays for it in environmental terms? Are the citizens of some other country being overworked and underpaid to make it? What kind of family and holiday time do they get? How am I 'littering' in the world in a social sense? And how does that reflect my faith?"

Exercise #2:
Do you have a Christmas wish list? Here's a research project. Choose one item on your list and find out some information about it. Where is it made? Who made it? How well are they paid? What is the social/environmental cost of producing this item? Who benefits and who loses in the production of this item? Share what you have learned with your group.

Merry Christmas everyone. Buy less. Live more. Be a person, not a consumer. Take up the challenge. Be courageous.

Additional activities for church youth groups

1. Use the 3-session study guide for youth. Carry out the action suggestions accompanying the study.

2. Prepare and perform the Buy Nothing Christmas skit for a worship time or some other
congregational gathering. Request the skit by sending a message to the organizer.

3. Greet people as they arrive for a worship service. Hand out small Buy Nothing Christmas cards or make your own.

4. Invite the artists in your group to design one or more bulletin inserts about Buy Nothing Christmas. Or have your entire group create posters (see others) that can be displayed throughout your church.

5. Plan an evening for making and sharing ideas about alternative gifts. See these alternative suggestions. Make this an inter-generational event.

6. If you would like to give gifts to your loved ones, but would prefer not to support big box stories, shop for fairly-traded gifts at Ten Thousand Villages or make a charitable donation, in your loved one's name, to your denominations relief and development organization.

7. Plan an evening of carolling. Use the alternative lyrics for carols provided by Buy Nothing Christmas (see here). Try doing this in a shopping mall.

8.Rewrite a traditional carol with your own lyrics. Submit it to the Buy Nothing Christmas web site.

9. Plan an evening of baby sitting for members of your church-not so they can go Christmas shopping-but so they can visit a friend.

10. Learn about poverty in your community. Get to know the challenges faced by people living in poverty at Christmastime. Plan a special service project that reaches out to the poor.

About the author: Erin Morash works as an associate pastor at North Kildonan Mennonite Church in Winnipeg, Canada.

Skip to:

Session 1: Challenging conformity
Session 2: Turning it upside-down
Session 3: People not consumers
Additional activities for youth groups