Each year it seems like the Christmas season starts a little earlier. I'm not talking about the four weeks of Advent or the Christmas season that begins on December 24. The church calendar and the liturgical year remain the same. It is, rather, the Christmas shopping season that seems to be pushed forward bit by bit with each passing year.
Stores stocking Christmas-themed paraphernalia well before Thanksgiving are only one aspect of the creeping consumerism that marks much of contemporary popular culture. Other holidays and holy days, too, have been invaded by the spirit of materialism. National retailer Kmart plans to begin its normal Black Friday sales, named for the Friday after Thanksgiving, at 6 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning. Internet giant Amazon just announced plans to offer regular Sunday shipping service on packages in the New York City and Los Angeles markets by employing the otherwise-dormant United States Postal Service fleet. After this year's holiday season, Amazon plans to extend the Sunday delivery options to more markets.
These are just the latest in a series of incremental steps that have increasingly threatened the moral limits of consumer activity. And although prudence is needed to discern them, and disagreement about where these limits are is unavoidable, such limits do exist.
Consumption and the Sabbath
Consumption is not in itself a bad thing. Indeed, it is a necessary and even salutary activity, instituted by God himself. We enjoy our daily bread and, for those of us living the midst of the blessings of affluence, much more besides. The exchange of material possessions, notably in the form of gifts, is a meaningful and often beautiful phenomenon. The first Thanksgiving was founded on gratefulness for provision of material needs, and we give gifts on Christmas in part because of the rich gifts bestowed on the Christ child by the Magi.
But unlimited consumption is not salutary. Although it is unfashionable nowadays to acknowledge it, the moral order imposes limits on human behavior. Gluttony and greed remain vices, and the commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy still matters.
To be sure, the fourth commandment (as numbered by the Reformed tradition) does involve significant complexity in terms of its application and relevance in today's world. In spite of sometimes-remarkable divergences in the understanding of the Sabbath, and particularly how it relates to the Saturday Sabbath as observed by Jews and seventh-day churches, Christians have long recognized the need for a separate day for corporate worship and rest from mundane works.
John Calvin defended the validity of these two uses of the Sabbath commandment, even as he drew attention to the spiritual rest represented in Sabbath observance. Thus, Calvin wrote, the pursuit of holiness “is not confined within a single day but extends through the whole course of our life, until, completely dead to ourselves, we are filled with the life of God.”
So on one level, there is nothing special about Sundays or holidays like Thanksgiving. As Calvin puts it, because we seek spiritual rest from our evil works every day, “Christians ought therefore to shun completely the superstitious observance of days.” We still need, however, to regularly observe days for corporate worship as well as physical and mental rest from labor. These “reasons for the Sabbath ought not to be relegated to the ancient shadows,” Calvin says, “but are equally applicable to every age.”
Daily Bread and Weekly Rest
Different Christians in various traditions have worked out these implications in distinct and sometimes contradictory or idiosyncratic ways. But amid diverse expressions of faithfulness to the Sabbath-keeping mandate, the principle of the commandment still governs the morality of human activity.
A key lesson of the Sabbath is that money is not the measure of all things, and that all of our human activity should not be oriented toward material gain. As Jesus himself said, “Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15 NIV).
For these reasons, it is important for Christians to recognize that their consumption habits affect the larger society in significant ways. Blue laws are increasingly passé, often for good reasons. But blue laws represent a central cultural insight: certain times and places ought to be above the considerations of material consumption. We need room and time for spiritual nourishment as well as physical.
Kmart is opening at 6 a.m. because it perceives, rightly or wrongly, that people want to go shopping to get deals early on Thanksgiving morning. Amazon is offering Sunday delivery because it thinks people want such convenience. So ultimately the blame for encroachment and violations of the moral limits of consumption lies with those who demand such violations. It lies with the people who line up overnight for Black Friday sales and with those who trample others in mad rushes for discounted gadgets. It lies with those of us who prefer the convenience of ordering at the last minute and the instant gratification of delivery any day of the week.
The responsibility of moral consumption becomes all the more salient when we realize that markets are good at delivering what people want. As the economist Paul Heyne observed, this efficiency of the market “is no reason to cripple it. It is reason, however, to think more carefully about what we want.” The market will make sure we get what we want. Let's make sure that what we want is what is really good for us.