(Note: This blog is an excerpt from The Liberating Birth of Jesus that I wrote in 2019.)
By Lee Van Ham
Corporations love a theology of Christmas that puts giving at the center. Whether the giving theology of Christmas emphasized the gifts the magi brought to the child, or Jesus as a gift to us from God, both serve all too well the commercial path of giving. The giving theology is exploited by thousands of ads, arousing the sense that we MUST buy something for EVERYONE on “our list.” With 70 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the United States depending on consuming, the giving theme of Christmas has been exploited by an economy radically dependent on our buying. … Depending on the business, 20 to 60 percent of annual sales come from Christmas gift-giving!
Giving has come to mean shopping, buying gifts for family and many others. Though what we desire most cannot be shopped for, the economy of empire is in a full-court press every Christmas season to convince us that material symbols of our love and generosity are the essence of the season. … Economic indicators are followed closely every holiday season on the various business reports of media and magazines. Are consumers buying? Are we buying more than last year? Will merchants show strong earnings? Or do merchants need to entice shoppers … with big discounts because economic times are hard? Indeed, weak demand from shoppers leading up to and during Christmas can result in stores, including some big chains, holding going-out-of-business sales.
…Though an element of good spirits and romance can be found in it, gift-giving can overwhelm. Each year people vow to do less of it. Some succeed. … [C}ongregations fail mostly to take back the Christmas drama from the MultiEarth worldview of the malls. Consider, for example, Christmas eve worship when the congregation is swollen because attending is a family tradition. The time, work, and money invested in such worship can be great, and worshippers may be polite and pleased to have been present, but going to church at Christmas is largely a part of the whole calendar of Christmas events—along with Santa, shopping for bargains, festive parties, lights, trees, wrapping gifts, and a wonderful variety of family traditions. The motivation to create good feelings and goodwill stirs in people’s souls and ripples out widely.
Unlike Christmas, the birth of Jesus does not have giving at its core, but redistribution. Mary is strong on this. The economic injustices of class, so common-place in today’s economic structures, are corrected in the story of a pregnant Mary and Joseph. …The birth of Jesus is a story bigger than Caesar or the U.S. economy. It’s a story of the birth of a Divine consciousness among humans that shows us a worldview in which we can live justly and abundantly, celebrate festively but not lavishly, and arrange our economy to care for all beings. Christmas can urge giving to the “less fortunate,” but the birth story urges changing the unjust economic structures that create the “less fortunate.” Mary’s economy redistributes Earth’s generosity so all benefit from its fortune. The economic story, globally, continues to be one of growth economics. Whether it’s called socialism, capitalism, or some other name, MultiEarth economics requires growth and pursues the falsehood that we can grow our way out of most every issue from poverty to ecological emergencies. The Christmas story has become part of this destructive paradigm.
But the birth of Jesus joins the Earth in speaking differently. The ever-expanding markets do not fit the confines of the planet, generous though Earth’s resources be. It’s now apparent that this expansion will be reined in by the Earth herself in this century. …By 2030 climate change will have massively eroded Earth’s livability unless we mobilize now and take dramatic measures to reverse climate change.
The birth of Jesus is a story of revolution that restarts the hearts and souls of people to align with creation, not Rome or Wall Street. Christmas does not seek revolution. It fosters feelings of goodwill within the MultiEarth world. Christmas squelches the economic revolution that happens in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, beginning with the birth of Jesus. Even when churches urge restraint in consumerism, most are remarkably ineffective in releasing the transforming power of the song of Mary, where she proclaims that the poor are raised up and the rich are sent away empty (Luke 1:52-53). … Only OneEarth consciousness can implement the economy of the birth story and the essential changes to meet the 2030 deadline.
Toyohiko Kagawa gave his life to … practice such an economy. Educated in Christian missionary schools in Japan, he was drawn to the radical teachings of Jesus. Disowned by his extended family for his commitment to the Way of Jesus, he continued his education. After graduating from Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, he returned to Japan and moved into a slum in the city of Kobe. There he lived out the economic principles he believed Jesus taught. His changed consciousness led him into Christian pacifism, labor activism, and reforming social and economic structures. Among his books, Brotherhood Economics tells how an economic revolution akin to Mary’s song can be accomplished.
How can an economic revolution be accomplished? In brief, it must be accomplished by a change in human consciousness. That is, there must take place a fundamental revolution of ideas concerning wealth and professions in their relation to property rights, inheritance, and rights of contracts. Only as a revolution of these conceptions is organized into social consciousness, can economic revolution be completely realized.
It is the birth story, not the Christmas story, that moves us into this kind of consciousness. It’s the bold and wild spirit, not the spirit of the season, that can fuel an economic revolution for a new creation.