Christmas signals exactly how consumerist our society is. Technically Christmas is a moment to celebrate the birth of Jesus. If Jesus were to come back (an idea that is very popular with many Christians) I presume to think he might find even the traditional Christmas a bit odd, let alone the Santa version. You’ll look a long time in the gospels to find him pushing the idea of Christmas and Easter.
It is probable that Jesus grew up in a normal Jewish family with siblings and parents; the father in the building trade. He lived within a country under occupation by a foreign power, and a local political and spiritual leadership some saw as complicit in that occupation.
Sometimes I feel that we’re not in a dissimilar situation.
The spiritual has been rejected where it is anti-capitalist, and commodified everywhere else as an industry of self-help or medication designed to deal with the illnesses everywhere apparent in a society ruled by work. Our leaders are entirely captured by – and representatives of – capitalism and consumerism. Any serious question about any aspect of life can simply be dealt with by talking about its impact on the economy and business (disguised if need be with the magical words: individual, freedom and choice). Any other consideration can have a line drawn through it and all attention referred to the “bottom line”.
For example, the evidence is pretty clear that the entire biosphere is being destroyed by human actions within the current global capitalist model, but “at the end of the day”, once we get back from expensive, resource devouring, environmentally destructive global meetings in Kyoto, Rio, Copenhagen and Paris, the “bottom line” is still each country’s national economy, and all the things we can’t do to threaten that. Paris and COP21 signifies nothing. Its actual impact inverse to the amount of political back slapping, clapping, and speeches noting the agreement’s great significance.
I feel like I live in a society under occupation where the political leadership is complicit. What is education? It’s building a knowledge economy to take New Zealand (or its GDP) ahead in a globally competitive market place. What is health? It’s getting people (cost efficiently) back on their feet as (economically) contributing members of society. What is a criminal? A product to be sold to a company.
When Jesus got down to his ministry what did he advise people living under occupation? His longest teaching is the Sermon on the Mount. Some people take everything he says quite literally (in which case he sounds like a maniac telling you to rip out your eyes and cut of your hands), while others interpret it so metaphorically that they dilute it down to a generalised buzz of a nice, cuddly feeling with no specifics. Somewhere between those two things is a ringing idealism of great power.
Remember that scene where Jesus throws out all those using the courtyard of the Temple as a market place? You will note that Jesus does not kill all the people using the courtyard as a market place, or tell other people to kill them, or throw market places in general out of wherever. He restores some balance. He takes non-violent, direct action to enforce the radical idea that there are parts of life that are sacred. This idea has been eroded to such an extent that even Christmas, ostensibly the celebration of the birth of a radical anti-materialist, has become the biggest spending period of the year.
I know that to a secular consumer words like Jesus and sacred sound scary. I have spent most of my time being scared of them – like they are horrible infections that will rob me of my rationality – but then I discovered the historical Jesus, and the importance of space in your life for love, attentiveness and gratitude (although I’ve not done much to actually act on those last three things).
What does the historical Jesus have to tell us about living well? In his Sermon on the Mount he has a lot to say about the commandments, but then he was Jewish and the commandments are a pretty important feature of the Torah.
To paraphrase this sermon you find that he says:
“You’ve heard the one about not killing? Well, you should think of that as also meaning not walking around with hate in your heart. If you’ve got hate in your heart for someone then go and sort it out. Probably best if you don’t engage in gossip, and social media nastiness, or watch an endless stream of crap on TV that celebrates people who are nasty and self-centered. It makes being good to people harder.
You’ve heard of the one about not committing adultery? Well, you should think of that as also meaning not walking around lusting after other people in your head. You need to sort that shit out, because it’s not right. Probably best to not engage with all that horrible, hurtful stuff out there where everyone is shown as sleeping around, and hurting each other for fleeting moments of personal pleasure. That’s not right. It’s not good for you. You know it. Form, maintain and work on long term, deep relationships.
You’ve probably not heard of this one because it’s not in the top ten commandments, but there are long sections in the later commandments about the exact punishments required for specific crimes. Yeah, well don’t get hung up on all that because it’s not about revenge, and vengeance, true justice is about love. If you are the victim of crime then don’t rush to judgement; try to understand, try to be generous. Don’t reserve your love for people who are known to you, and like you, think about everyone as having the same sunlight and the same rain fall upon them. That thing where we think it’s ok to take all dignity, and love from wrongdoers, and to punish them over and over, and to treat them as outsiders never to be returned to the family, or to be understood – yeah, that’s probably not good.
Make sure you’re doing things for the right reason. If you’re giving money to the poor just do it, don’t make a big show about it, if you’re praying then just do it, don’t try and get brownie points for being the most hard out prayer. You don’t need to update your status, or change your avatar, or “like” things, or wear the T-shirt, or bore people at parties with activism – just do it because you know it’s right. All that other stuff is kind of vain.
Please don’t spend all your time building up wealth. You can’t serve two things: the spiritual and the material. Don’t spend so much time thinking about food, clothes and home renovation shows. As long as you have food, clothes and shelter you’ll be fine. Watching cooking competitions, and flicking through on-line clothing catalogues is not good for you if you do it all the time. It makes you feel inadequate, and it promotes the desire to buy things, things you don’t need. Home renovation shows are about destroying things that are out of fashion and replacing them with things that are in fashion. It is not a celebration of shelter, and community, it is a competition for status and money and a promotion of businesses selling anxiety. Cooking shows are about buying all kinds of things at all times of year in some kind of world where meals are competitive, and can be rated, and where people are encouraged to insult each other behind their backs rather than come together over some simple food and learn about each other.
We’re all going to die. Try to stay focused on the things that really matter. Those things are hard enough: living without hate, without lust, without vanity, without worrying about your social media presence within a consumerist culture. Birds and flowers are beautiful. You’re beautiful too just as you are.
Don’t judge other people. I mean, who is without fault? Try to keep the focus on making yourself better, and if you do offer advise to others then acknowledge your own faults first. Don’t be engaging in sassy put downs that lead to people feeling excused as they pile in on some “issue” to be abusive, and without love, and vain.
All this is going to be really, really hard. People who think you just have to show up and everything will be fine are missing the point completely. Living with these ideas, actually practising them, is a life time of hard work. Don’t kid yourself. Being human can easily be about living with hate, lust, vanity, snobbery, and greed – especially if we construct a society that actually promotes these things. Probably it’s a good idea to try and change a society that promotes bad things, but probably the most effective way to do that is for people to change themselves rather than just judge other people and say they’re bad. Just try to treat others as you’d like to be treated. That’s an exercise in empathy that should lead you to compassion.”
Which I think is what happens in the Sermon on the Mount more or less (a little less actually).
Trying to do these things as individuals I think is pretty worthwhile, and I also happen to think that it is worthwhile a community trying to do these things. In a democracy it feels like our government is a reflection of our values. It is all very well to attack the political class, and John Key, and consumerism, but they exist because we accept and promote their continued existence through our actions. When I waste all my words attacking what I dislike or believe to be wrong, when do I actually look at myself and my actions?
There is another problem too. When you try to scale things up from an individual to a community level you end up needing rules, and once you get into rules you get into procedures, and roles, and arguments about all of those things. Somehow the true purpose begins to fade rapidly from the scene and you find yourself in a heated argument about whether the internet should be censored or not, or whether school canteens should be regulated.
I like to read the Sermon on the Mount annually. Like most great works of culture you can engage with it many, many times and get more and more out of it. This time I am taking a few ideas from it: that you should look to yourself before you judge others, and that you should look inside yourself for your change. Like most radical ideas they are very simple, and very personal.
They are also very hard, and recently I’ve not been very good at doing hard things.