Redeeming Black Friday and Preparing for Advent

It is easy to scoff at Black Friday madness and condemn its materialism. All those people spending money they don’t have on things they don’t need in a frenzy of commercialism! We can distance ourselves from it by resolving not to take part and supporting Buy Nothing Friday instead, can’t we? Whichever course we take, however, has its difficulties.

If we have enough money to be able to buy most of the things we need, and many of the things we want, without having to worry about discounts and bargains, then Black Friday is merely an invitation to greed, our greed. We exteriorise that by condemning the companies that pander to our greed with tempting offers of this or that. We often go further by condemning those who rush out and buy — not actively perhaps, but with our slightly superior smile and a more or less smug assurance that we won’t be buying anything on Black Friday. After all, where’s the need? We can buy on Thursday or Saturday or whenever we choose. It can be painful to admit that there are people who can only afford certain things because they are heavily discounted. We may not approve of their buying choices, but before we condemn them, perhaps we could reflect that we enjoy a material freedom others don’t simply because we have more money at our disposal. It doesn’t matter whether it’s one pound or a million: we have more. We are able to choose.

Then there is the counterblast, Buy Nothing Friday. The problem with that is that it can be an empty gesture, mere virtue signalling. If we are to give it any real meaning, we need to dig deeper and think about our use of material things in general, not just money; and that is where it all gets rather tricky. One of the good things about being a nun is that other people will often say what they think we should or should not have in the way of material goods. It can be tedious, but it can also be a healthy check on any tendency to luxury or self-indulgence. Lay people have to work it out for themselves, and that is much harder in a society where having things is not only perceived as a measure of one’s success in life but often portrayed as the way to achieve success in life. And, at this time of year, what parent or grandparent can be immune to that persuasive ‘Everybody else has . . .’? The pester power of children merely reinforces our desire to give the best of everything to those we love.

I think myself that the best way of redeeming Black Friday is to use commonsense and humility. If something one intends to buy is heavily discounted today, why not buy it and give what one has ‘saved’ to charity? Just don’t boast about the bargain or pretend that one isn’t really taking part in Black Friday commercialism. Then I’d want to go further and use this day as a way of reflecting on how to prepare for Advent and the simplicities it should encourage in our lives. I have written about that every year so won’t repeat myself: last year’s the post is here. Our use of material goods shouldn’t be unreflecting or automatic, but we don’t need to tie ourselves up in ethical knots about it. As St Paul says, we are free to use everything, although not everything may be helpful in itself. That means, we can use pretty much anything to help us focus on what really matters — even Black Friday.


Generosity and Greed

The prosperity gospel, which assures its followers that wealth is a sign of blessing from the Lord, and the more one has the better, is really no different from the ‘greed is good’ mantra of Gordon Gekko. In some respects, it is far worse, because it spreads a religious gloss over behaviour that is anything but godly. Many of the words we associate with money-making have unpleasant overtones: greed, avarice, meanness, miserliness, profiteering, fraud — they are not words we would want applied to ourselves. The one that always strikes me is miserliness, from the Latin miser, meaning someone who is wretched, unhappy. It is, as always, the degree of attachment to wealth that tends to make one happy or unhappy rather than the amount of money one has or does not have; but amassing wealth and refusing to spend it is a sure way of becoming deeply, wretchedly unhappy. Who ever derived more than a passing joy from contemplating the noughts at the end of his bank balance? Surely only a nut-case.

Today and tomorrow we are re-reading St Benedict’s advice to the cellarer or business manager of the monastery (RB 31). He begins with a list of qualities the cellarer ought to have, and they make challenging reading. The cellarer should be

a wise person of mature character, who is abstemious, not greedy, not conceited, nor a trouble-maker, nor offensive or lazy or wasteful, . . . who is God-fearing and may be like a father to the whole community. (RB 31.1–2)

I think that is a neat summing-up of an attitude we can all cultivate, of being detached in respect of our own material possessions, but generous to others in their use. We may have very little left over at the end of the month, perhaps nothing at all, but we can still be compassionate, ready to share what we have. I am reminded of a story my father once told me of a time when he was serving in the Middle East. He was running along, tired, sweaty and very fed up when he passed an elderly man walking in the opposite direction. The man immediately reached into a bag round his neck and pressed a handful of fresh dates into my father’s hand. The man was poor, materially much poorer than my father, but he was rich in compassion and showed himself a father to my father, sharing the little he had. Who he was, whether he was Christian or Muslim, we shall never know, but nearly three quarters of a century later his instinctive generosity is still remembered and celebrated. We might ask ourselves, will ours be?


Why Greed is Wrong

No doubt you are expecting some loyal articulation of what the Catholic Catechism has to say about the right relationship between production and consumption or perhaps a whimsical disquisition on bankers’ bonuses or council pay packets. I am sorry to disappoint you, but I think the worst aspect of greed is not its injustice (some having more than others, and wanting more than their ‘fair share’), nor the violence to which it often gives rise (think Congolese diamonds) or even the suffering inflicted by an empty belly, lack of housing and the absence of medical care or access to education, though heaven knows, these are wrongs that cry aloud for vengeance. No, the problem with fat cats is that they are fat: the worst aspect of greed is its ugliness.

I daresay most of my readers are recoiling in horror at such levity of mind and wondering what the heck I mean. I am not saying that greed is not unjust, of course it is. It is all of the things I have enumerated above. But it is also a distortion of something very precious, the image of God each one of us bears within ourselves. That is why I say that the worst aspect of greed is its ugliness. To allow ourselves to corrupt that image is, when you think about it, the most terrible form of destruction, because it is fundamentally self-destruction. For most of us greed is confined to occasional bouts of excess or selfishness but it can become habitual and so blind us to what we are really doing. Price is not a measure of value, but sometimes what we value isn’t worth the price.