Why Buy Nothing?
REASONS FOR SUPPORTING A 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.
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.
RISING TIDE OF RESISTANCE
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.
PEOPLE CAN CHANGE
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