Why Stores Should Be Closed on Holidays

I lived with my family in Germany during the academic year 2009-2010, during which time we had to learn to remember to go shopping before Sundays and holidays, when everything closes. While it was irritating to discover stores closed on distinctively German holidays that I hadn’t even known about, we soon adjusted. I found that I really liked having days on which I did no shopping of any kind. Similarly, most stores closed relatively early, by the standards of American suburbia.

When we moved back to the States, it was a bit of a jolt to realize that I might go into a Michael’s or an A.C. Moore to buy craft supplies at 10pm on a Thursday. It suddenly felt awkward and almost wrong to me that this particular store–full of things that no one particularly needs with any particular urgency was full of workers at such an hour. I was embarrassed. I left without buying anything.

Though I’m not there are the moment, I know that the U.S. is in full holiday shopping mania. Some of my nearest and dearest make a good part of their living from retail, and in the main, I have no objection to gifts and decorations and special food and all the rest of it, provided it is not excessive and does not come at a heavy cost to vulnerable people. On the contrary, I love marking the mystery of the Incarnation at this time of year with all sorts of embodied practices: creches and trees; garlands and lights and gifts. I know that those things originated from paganism, and it doesn’t particularly bother me.

Each of these things is–or can be–reappropriated into that old, old story so well. I love it all.

Nor, as longtime readers of this blog (and those who knows me) know, do I have a dog in the “War on Christmas” fight. It’s okay to say ‘happy holidays’ to me.

Black Friday Line by Flickr/TShein.

Black Friday Line by Flickr/TShein.

What I emphatically do not like, though, is the steady erosion of national holidays by unending waves of commerce. I don’t want the stores to be open on Thanksgiving or Easter or Christmas ‘in case I forget something'; I want them all to be closed so that the person whose job it is to run the cash register has the same chance at rest and observance and celebration as I do. I say this cognizant of the fact that many people in the USA do not observe Easter or Christmas, and that others celebrate holidays that go unacknowledged.

Even so, as Marilynne Robinson suggests in her essay “Family” in The Death of Adam,

“If there is any truth in polls, the American public remains overwhelmingly religious, and religion is characteristically expressed in communities of worship. To take part in them requires time. It may be argued that there are higher values, for example the right to buy what one pleases when one please, which involves another’s right to spend Saturday or Sunday standing at a cash register or to compel someone else to stand there. If these are the things we truy prefer, there is no more to be said. But the choice is unpoetical and, in its effects, intolerant. [...] Now people in good circumstances have their Saturdays and Sundays if they want them. So observance is an aspect of privilege, though the privileged among us tend to be the least religious. No wonder the churches are dying out.”

I harbor no illusions that the US will, like Germany, return to the days of stores and businesses being closed on Sundays or on any other single day set apart for family, for rest, for worship, for enjoyment. I do realize that there are always people who must work even on ‘special’ days, and I am grateful for them. But I do want to think long and carefully about what it means that observance has, in America at least (as well as other places) become “an aspect of privilege.” And when people make claims as to the religious sensibilities of the founders, they might do well to consider what ideals are embodied by Americans trampling each other to get a good deal on flat-screen TVs on the very day that they sat around a table ostensibly to ‘give thanks.

{I wrote about the backward encroachment of Black Friday for CT’s her.meneutics blog. Read that here.}


“Open Thy Hand Wide”: Moses, Calvin & the Origins of American Liberalism

This morning I saw that Al Mohler–a prominent spokesperson for what is called conservative evangelical and, most interestingly for the purposes of this discussion, Reformed, Christianity had shared a short piece in the National Review with the alarming subtitle:

“Schools see it as their job to make kids reject their parents’ conservative values.”

The author, Dennis Prager, is perhaps not known for moderation in his opinions, but I found the piece a fascinating example of exactly the kind of polarization in thinking that Marilynne Robinson describes in the introduction to her book The Death of Adam, a collection of essays that all

“assert, in one way or another, that the prevailing view of things can be assumed to be wrong, and that its opposite, being its image or shadow, can also be assumed to be wrong. They undertake to demonstrate that there are other ways of thinking, for which better arguments can be made.”

In the post, Prager pits equality against liberty, a “secular America” against a “God-centered one” and “multiculturalism” against a “unifying American identity.” His values–and those of his readers–are the older, more traditional values. He assumes that one either must regard America as

 ” ‘the last best hope of earth’  or else little more than an imperialist, racist, and xenophobic nation.”

It is notable that the article is titled “Conservative Parents, Left-Wing Children,” as if “liberal” were too kind a word to apply to these prodigals. Re-reading Robinson’s When I Was A Child I Read Books recently, I enjoyed her discussion of the term as it occurs in English Puritan translations of the Bible, and in Puritan thought more generally.

“in Renaissance French, liberal meant ‘generous,’ and of course the word occurs in the English Puritan translations, the Matthew’s Bible and the Geneva Bible, which were followed in their use of the term by the 1611 Authorized [King James] Version.”

Robinson, who is well-known as an admirer of John Calvin’s who just so happens to have read the man’s works carefully and extensively (perhaps exhaustively), argues that the concept of ‘liberality’ comes from Deuteronomy 15:13-14 and is “central to American social thought from its beginning.”

She quotes Calvin’s sermon on that text:

“If we thank God with our mouthes, confessing that it is he which hath blessed us, & in the mean while make none account of such as he has sent to doe us service in the increase of our living, by taking paynes and toyle for us; all our thanking of him is but lip-labor & utter hypocrisy.”

and again on the question of begging and provision for the apparently unworthy:

“if a man forbid begging, & therewithal doe no almes at all it is as much as if he did cut the throtes of those that are in necessitie. Nay, we must so provide for the poore, and redresse their want, that such as are stout beggars and apparently seeme not to be pitied may be reformed.

We do this not because they are deserving, Calvin says, but because of the image of God in them. From Calvin’s Institutes: 

“The Lord commands us to do ‘good unto all men,’ universally, a great part of whom, estimated according to their own merits, are very undeserving; but here the Scriptures assists us with an excellent rule, when it inculcates, that we must not regard the intrinsic merit of men, but must consider the image of God in them, to which we owe all possible honor and love.”

Robinson then shows how John Winthrop, in his famous address to the newly arrived Puritans in Massachussetts in 1630 (“A Modell of Christian Charity”) makes a similar argument for generosity, and how that man known little more than for one fiery sermon, Jonathan Edwards, made a similar case again, going further to insist that

“The proper objects of our liberality are not limited to ‘those of the same people and religion’ [yea, a plea for tolerance and multiculturalism from this "intolerant" Puritan father!?] because ‘our enemies, those that abuse us and injure us, are our neighbours, and therefore come under the rule of loving our neighbours as ourselves.”

Edwards, like Calvin and Winthrop, insist that there can be no exception or excuse to liberality. Edwards, in a most un-libertarian fashion, even says that relief provided “by the town” (of which he does not, apparently, disapprove) still does not excuse the Christian from her obligation. Here is Edwards:

“[I]t is too obvious to be denied, that there are in fact persons so in want, that it would be a charitable act in us to help them, notwithstanding all that is done by the town.

Nor is there any sense that charity is only for those who are completely destitute:

“It does not answer to the rules of Christian charity to relieve only those who are reduced to extremity.”

Finally, Robinson again:

“There is clearly a feeling abroad [in that National Review piece!] that God smiled on our beginnings, and that we should return to them as we can. If we really did attempt to return to them, we would find Moses as well as Christ, Calvin, and his legions of intellectual heirs. And we would find a recurrent, passionate insistence on bounty or liberality, mercy and liberality, on being kind and liberal, liberal and bountiful…[t]hese phrases are all [Jonathan] Edwards’s and there are many more like them.”

So going back to where I started–that “Reformed” Christian leader’s recommendation of the piece that urges a return to “Judeo-Christian” and “traditional American” values, I can only paraphrase the inimitable Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride:

“You keep using those words. I do not think they mean what you think they mean.”

And that probably goes for those who’d claim the label ‘liberal’ but who see religion–and especially Christianity and certainly people like John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards–as enemies of their cause. I suspect that the truth may be far less easily divided along ideological lines.

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The Legal and Addictive Stimulant of Fear (or “perfect fear casts out love”)

When I heard the verdict returned on the George Zimmerman trial, I thought immediately of the subtle reference to the case made by Marilynne Robinson at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College last year.

The topic of her wide-ranging talk (some listeners went so far as to call it ‘rambling,’ but I didn’t consider it so) was fear. She said that fear is stimulating and addictive, and that American culture is increasingly addicted to it.

  • We fear that America is in ‘decline,’ as if economic and social hiccups were not and are not an ever-present feature of human societies.
  • We fear for the ‘next generation of young people,’ as if older generations were the only ones to have it right and were free of their share of knuckleheads.
  • We fear bodily harm, and feel so justified in that fear as to issue laws like Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ that actually encourage violent confrontation over against the avoidance of that confrontation.

Ms. Robinson suggested that Calvinists (she counts herself as one) “fear God and nothing else.” In her (delightful) interview with the Paris Review, she said that she probably experiences “less anxiety than is normal.”

I will confess a bit of awe at that, as I probably experience more anxiety than is normal and I fear God and almost everything else. At the age of ten or so, I refused to drink an imported bottle of Coca-Cola because I was afraid that (prepared outside of American laws) it might contain the cocaine that gave the original drink its ‘lift.’

“We’re stuck in psycho-emotional bomb shelters,” said Ms. Robinson, when, in fact, we Westerners are more free, safe, and stable than most people throughout the world and throughout history have ever hoped to be. “Why not enjoy it?” said Robinson with the hint of a chuckle.

Fear upon fear is what drives us to sequester ourselves in gated communities; to believe that we need guns for self-defense, laws to defend the ‘right’ of people to obtain and own those guns in foolishly irresponsible ways, and laws to defend us in the use of those guns even if they might not absolutely ‘need’ to for self-defense.

(I put ‘need’ in scare quotes to acknowledge that not all people–Christians committed to exclusively nonviolent resistance, for example–consider violence even in self-defense to be a need; there are, according to that worldview, worse things than losing one’s life.)

I confess to often walking around in my own personal psycho-emotional bomb shelter, a private panic room for one in which I perceive all manner of things as grave threats: every mole is melanoma; every headache is an aneurysm; every walk or hike is a potential fracture for one of my kids.

The truth is that while I can (and do) try my best to be safe and responsible (Sun safety! Healthy food! No shenanigans on the trail!) I am not the one who gives and withholds life, death, wealth, health, illness, wellness. And the truth is, living in a constant state of fear makes it hard to love–and to perceive accurately what is actually going on.

(My husband, who seldom fears anything, reacts to situations of potential peril at approximately ten times my speed and one-tenth my noise level. In other words, I stand still and scream while he swiftly and silently moves the child out of the way of the careening bicycle.)

It seems to me that fear actually gets in the way of loving your neighbor.

“There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear.”

How have you experienced fear as an impediment to love? How have you overcome it?

Vegan? Vegetarian? Flexitarian? Compassionate Carnivory?

Recently I came across this quotation from the novelist and essayist (and, I believe, genius) Marilynne Robinson, given in a 2008 interview with the Paris Review:

“I’m generally a vegetarian of the ovo-lacto type, minus the ovo, yet I’m keenly aware of the fact that Hitler was a vegetarian. When he visited Mussolini in Italy he rejected the state dinner. He didn’t drink or smoke. I hold him up as an example of how an aversion virtue can be a negative sign.”

What I think Ms. Robinson is getting at is that certain virtues trump other virtues: you don’t get ethical points for being a vegetarian if strict adherence to vegetarianism means you’re going to seriously snub someone. I tend to agree: I don’t like to eat factory-farmed meat, and will avoid it if I can do so politely, but generally eat what is put in front of me if rejecting it means rejecting someone’s hospitality.

(On the other hand, when it comes to factory-farmed ground beef, I’m willing to risk being perceived as a little rude on behalf of my kids; the scary strain of e.coli can wreak tragic havoc on small bodies.)

I strongly respect people who, for various reasons, take a stricter approach to ethically-motivated dietary preferences, and take on projects like vegan Thanksgiving side dishes for my aunt and her partner with delight. It’s fun to figure out how to swap out animal-based ingredients and still make something delicious. (Sweet Potato Casserole WORKS with coconut milk, I am telling you!)

And, though I am pretty much omnivorous these days (thanks largely to living in a place where the meat is NOT factory farmed and I can afford it), I have had very long stretches of vegetarianism and near-vegetarianism. But I think the case for eating LESS and BETTER meat is pretty strong.

For all that, though, to the extent that I will ever speculate about what, exactly, God’s kingdom in its complete perfection looks like–which isn’t much–I do feel pretty sure that it is wholly nonviolent, and, yes, that we’ll all be happily vegetarian, if not vegan.

But that’s not a present reality, or one that is even feasible or optimal for certain people in the world. Inuit people traditionally take almost ALL their calories from animals, and there’s not really another sustainable, affordable option. People living on tight budgets get protein from government cheese and SPAM.

How do we think through these issues theologically and biblically? I have some ideas, which I’ve shared elsewhere on this blog (for example, here) and which I’ve written about in this piece at the (truly lovely) indie online magazine, Catapult.

(And, of course, in my book.)

You may also like:

“There’s Really No Such Thing As Eating Guilt Free”

“From Vegetarianism to Fasting” (by Steve Thorngate at the Christian Century)

On Paper Towels and Bacon and Veganism” (by Katherine Willis Pershey at Any Day A Beautiful Change)