"The Christian must discover in contemplation, and in the giving of his life, those symbolic actions which will ignite the people's faith to resist injustice with their whole lives, lives coming together as a united force of truth and thus releasing the liberating power of the God within them." - James Douglass, Contemplation and Resistance.
Friday, April 11, 2008
The Festivals of Consumer Capitalism
The empire rarely governs through sheer brutality, though that always remains in the background as a terrorist threat. It is our own egotism and vanity that affords its most potent victories. Each of us wants to see ourselves as a member of the powerful elite, far above the struggles of ordinary folk, those with less insight and motivation than ourselves. We enslave ourselves when we accept the fantasy of dominance or superiority over others.
But the power we deploy against empire is the wisdom of Christ. Humility is the virtue that let's us see ourselves with ground truth clarity. To be free of the myths so diligently promoted by the empire, we must renounce the myth of ourselves and accept the reality of Christ.
Christ is our model for resistance to empire. The empire centered in the United States is far more encompassing than the Roman empire that Jesus faced, for the one to which we are enslaved regulates social life from its interior using the most sophisticated means of technological indoctrination. Indeed, the megachurch phenomenon can be considered the end point of the commodification of religion, the transformation of all major forms of Christianity into consumable products whose marketing message, though never fulfilled, is spiritual tranquility. These forms of spirituality are the result of the all-encompassing nature of the current empire, which is totalitarian in a sense that Hitler assayed, but never achieved.
The entire concept of "religion" oriented exclusively to individual belief, but excluding everything of material importance to daily life is an invention of empire that allows the power of Jesus to be marginalized. In fact, this concept of religion has been specifically designed to eviscerate spiritual scrutiny of the workings of empire, to neutralize and pacify the outrage which Christianity must otherwise inspire. The idea of a spiritual realm, a "heaven", that exists independently of the material relations of power, that is unaffected by the fact that your brother is starving and your sister raped, is an ideological construct that provides direct support to those relations. A religion that has no relationship to power, but merely provides psychological solace has been a requirement of successful empires throughout history. Christ is truly a "stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles", that which cannot be assimilated to the smooth functioning of empire and so must be excluded or crucified. He cannot be reduced to a "religious" figure.
He never fits in. Therefore he must be continually respun, his edges rubbed off, to prop up the mythologies that support the interests of the ruling elite. The Jesus of current fundamentalism is simply one figure among many that populate the imperial gallery that stretches back 2000 years.
The imperial cult of our time practices the festivals of consumer capitalism, which is the predominant religion of the North. But first let me define what I mean by the term "religion". The common definition is a system of symbols that acts as a source of values and deep-seated motivations. The dominant force in this arena today is the capitalist market, which acts as the most powerful creator of value and values. Genuine religion has been truncated into "private belief", a sphere in which one can accept any consoling concept one likes as long as it has absolutely no influence on the material world. But the religion of empire radiates from the centers of global power, "Working mainly through images and associations, advertising invests commodities with power to relieve anxieties, gratify fantasies, carry meanings, express feeling, and confer moral and spiritual value. By emphasizing the non-material properties of commodities and associating them with the psychological and emotional needs and desires of consumers, modern marketing has mystified consumption in a far more fundamental way than Santa Claus ever did. Perhaps the most obvious way in which the religious function of advertising can be discerned, it skillfully plants a sense of inadequacy, insecurity, sin, guilt, or shame, for which it then presents the remedy (redemption, salvation, relief, absolution) in the acquisition of certain products. In consumer capitalism one gains salvation by the acquisition of products." - Richard Horsley, "Religion and Empire"
The fact that this "salvation" makes one emptier than before is precisely the desired effect - the emptier one is, the more susceptible to the insecurity and shame that sharpens the next sales pitch.
The imperial religion requires the symbols provided by genuine religion, but only to twist them into legitimation for consumerist festivals. "Only through consumer-capitalist Christmas, however, is it possible for advertising to effectively generate and articulate the 'conceptions of a general order of existence.' In order to do this, it must identify commodities as gifts that ostensibly express the purchasers' love and appreciation of friends and family, the virtual transubstantiation of commodities into spirituality salvific and morally redeeming objects to be acquired for purposes that transcend the utilitarian and mundane." - Richard Horsley, "Religion and Empire"
Here Horsley has ably delineated the mechanism behind much of the current imperial religion. It invariably operates by invoking moral values to justify the murder and exploitation required to maintain its power. In this way, it appears to be a force for "morality", though one whose speciousness is revealed by the fact that its actual action never fulfills any moral values but operates under a canopy of symbols that refer to other moral action, most of which took place in the distant past or in another mythological realm. Christmas and other consumerist holidays operate in this way, "The Christmas festival celebrates consumption, but it also nurtures the 'moods and motivations' that keep desire for commodities strong throughout the year." - Richard Horsley, "Religion and Empire"
The primary purpose of these festivals is to build fervent belief in the capitalist principles of empire, "Similarly, in capitalist Christmas, regardless of whether participants believe in any of the symbols, ceremonies, or values involved, they express their loyalty to the capitalist system and its values in many facets of the festival." - Richard Horsley, "Religion and Empire"
The "Christian" covering is there to provide a moral patina to the celebration of empire. Once we admit to ourselves that we have become practical pagans, that our religious festivals celebrate nothing but the values of the consumerism, that the relations of family and friends hide an ugly spiritual reality, then this honesty, or humility, allows us to lay a foundation for a new life in Jesus Christ. Or in the words of Daniel Berrigan, "The ultimate deception, of course, occurs in one's own soul, persuaded of the justice of manifest injustice. That achieved, little remains to be done except to institutionalize the lie, introduce it into the structures of public life. Personal crime then flowers in social oppression." - Daniel Berrigan, "Uncommon Prayer"
"How great is your goodness, Lord,
poured out on the one who loves you
Face to face with inquity
the trusting heart shall prevail."
- Psalm 31, in Daniel Berrigan's rendering in Uncommon Prayer