What are your thoughts on Advent Conspiracy?

Advent is almost here, so I want to ask a question: what are your thoughts on Advent Conspiracy?

The basic premise of the project is to redirect the celebration of Christmas away from the often-uncritical embrace of a consumeristic holiday, towards a recognition that “Christmas can [still] change the world” in more ways than the accumulation of stuff. The project is straightforward: “worship fully, spend less, give more, and love all.” These four practices are summed up with the call to “give presence.” Last year my church participated in the program, giving time to a local homeless shelter and raising money for a clean-water project in Jordan. Advent Conspiracy helped us rethink how we emphasize Christmas as a church. I think it went quite well and we plan to do it again.

As a Christian myself, I find it troubling when the Christian community completely buys-in to the commercialized side of Christmas, especially when such participation leads to unnecessary debt. The refrain “God with us” too easily becomes “debt with us.” The story, it seems, makes little difference in how we actually live our lives. And so like the rich young ruler in Mark 10, we turn away from God, even if unknowingly.

Yet too often read passages like Mark 10 and then we hear of projects like Advent Conspiracy and think: "Oh, that’s easy. That'll fix us!" Not so fast warns Stanley Hauerwas:

This tendency for us to acquire more and more things is particularly true in our society, and I expect is particularly troubling for those who have money. For us, if you’ve go it, it is immoral not to spend it. If you do not spend it, you throw people out of work. You can talk all you want about learning to do with less or our need to create a smaller world, but if we do not learn to want and need more things, the result is that some people will be out of a job. Getting rid of possessions is no easy matter.

We need, as a result, to be careful not to moralize Mark 10 - that is, to turn it into text that can be applied to our lives in a rather direct fashion. For example, some are tempted to read this text as an incipient pre-Marxist attack on the rich. That seems all right as long as I do not have to think of myself as rich, but then some suggest that the problem is deeper because the issue is possessions themselves. So the text is not about how much you own before you are rich - does owning a house count? - but rather the issue is any possession, whether we are rich or middle class, that has power to possess us. The issue is not about possessions in and of themselves, but rather about our attitude toward our possessions. If that is the case, I must admit that I would rather have an attitude problem about a Porsche than my Toyota station wagon.

This manner of construing the text has the virtue of reminding us that dispossessing is no easy matter. Few of us know how to dispossess...I suspect generally we would all be better off if we learned to travel lighter, but I do not think that is what Mark 10 is about. Rather this text reminds us that we are on a journey. Not just any journey, but a journey that begins with a very particular beginning and ends with an equally definite end.
("On Being De-possessed" in Unleashing the Scripture)

It’s this last comment that highlights what is easily missed in participating with Advent Conspiracy. We can make all the changes we want for how we spend our money (or don’t spend it, putting friends out of work!), but these changes need to be rooted in more than just a reaction against consumerism. As Hauerwas concludes, how we celebrate Christmas is rooted in our journey - a journey of “God with us” that began in a stable and led to a cross. Ours is a journey that follows Jesus on his journey. Advent Conspiracy, then, isn’t easy. And it shouldn’t be. But that’s only because following Jesus isn’t easy. Thus we need Jesus’ own response:

With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God” (Mk. 10:27).

8 comments:

prushton said...

We're thinking of using the Advent Conspiracy ideas with my youth group sunday school class. One of the things I am not totally convinced about in Hauerwas' quote is his emphasis on how not spending money also has negative implications for our friends in business. This is a major critique of the AC movement and I'm not sure I totally agree with it. I do recognize that supporting local business is important, but I also think that we should not endorse excessive consumerism as a virtuous thing because we are saving the economy. In Acts 19 Paul gets in trouble because the silver smiths are loosing business when he challenges the prevalence of idol worship. I think that focusing less on materialism during Christmas is very significant. If the health of our economies is rooted in greed and economic idolatry then our economic system clashes with the values of the gospel.

David Warkentin said...

I agree with your push back against Hauerwas's comment. If that's our only reason to reject Advent Conspiracy, that's not good enough. Yet hearing other pastors express this concern about people in their own congregations, along with Hauerwas's quote, reminds me that the ideals of Advent Conspiracy - or any project calling for significant change - don't come easily. These are people lives we're talking about. If a church decides to reject consumerism (good in my view), then it had better also look at caring for those most directly affected in a changing economy (also good).

Len Hjalmarson said...

Helpful David, its too easy to turn our faith into moralism..

David Warkentin said...

Thanks Len - it's funny how the end result might look the same (reduced spending - helping others), yet to me when we have a strong theological basis for these good works they can lead to actual transformation in our lives.

prushton said...

Thanks Dave,

One thing I've been thinking about this week is how Paul was himself a small business owner as he worked as a tent maker. So it is interesting in Acts 19 that there are times when his teachings implicate the business world. I guess part of what our Christian discipleship entails this time of year is to be wise with in choosing what businesses to support and what businesses to avoid. Perhaps part of our Christian calling this time of year is to be wise with our investments. Finding ways to support good local businesses and boycotting products and services that hurt the economies of poorer countries. One thing I've learned is that it is almost impossible to buy slave-free chocolate. The cocoa business at some level passes through companies caught up in slavery practices. Maybe part of the "Advent Conspiracy" is to actually spend more, by investing in fair trade products.

David Warkentin said...

Great ideas Phil - "spend more" puts a real creative spin on the whole thing.

doradueck said...

I like much of what the Advent Conspiracy is about -- our church is participating too. My one concern with "programs" like this is that they so quickly feel like one more thing to do, which in some ways defeats the purpose. -- To do, that is, as in trying to be more virtuous in a season in which guilt and stress is already rampant. Don't get me wrong, we need to keep encouraging each other for these goals, but it's more complex than it looks on the surface, as you and Stanley Hauerwas point out. The four guidelines, though, are beautiful.

David Warkentin said...

Nice reflections Dora, thanks. I agree, the four concepts are excellent distinctives to (re)orient ourselves around.

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