From Black Friday to Christmas we've heard news stories of shopping that have ranged from violent to charitable. From bad to worse, the notorious pepper-spraying officer gave way to the pepper-spraying Walmart shopper. The season of consumer coverage culminated with warm stories of anonymous donors paying off lay-away bills at K-Mart. As good as the story ends, I'm left disappointed that one of the holiest seasons of the Christian calendar can be so overwhelmed by American consumerism. A now secular habit of gift-giving, rooted in the narrative tradition of the three magi, seems to subsume the message of the season: that a child was born and the world will never be the same.
In my Christian Universalist tradition, that child, Jesus, reminds us that God is centered in love. That God's love is unconditional. And all are saved. That last precept has caused controversy throughout Christian circles for at least the past 200 years. It would be heard as either a joyous message or a dangerous heretical teaching. This teaching continues to remain alive, if not thriving, because many of us simply can't imagine our all-loving God condemning anyone to ever-lasting misery. We can imagine humans doing that to each other, but we just can't lay that sin upon God.
I do believe in Hell. I just believe that it's in our lived experience and crafted by human hands. The news story of a Walmart shopper who was desperate enough to pepper spray fellow shoppers is a clear illustration of one kind of Hell. Pain and misery, both physical and emotional, is suffered because of a perceived lack. Life isn't full enough without the plastic-wrapped widget. It's almost as if the latest item on sale has become the biblical Golden Calf, the idol we build when we think God is absent. "If only we can obtain it, all will be well."
Whether you believe in an afterlife or not though, religious values can still be of help. If Hell is caused with the belief that we are fundamentally lacking something, then Heaven is found when we recognize the abundance before us that we have been given regardless of our own merit. (If you maintain a view that you've earned all that you have then consider your birth -- the gift of life was freely given through no action of your own.) If it doesn't take too much imagination to conceive of a Hell of our own making, then maybe we can imagine a Heaven that's crafted by human hands as well. What if we focus on the belief that there is an abundance in life, that there is enough of the pie to go around so that all can have a slice? If it's too hard or too fanciful for you to imagine this to be true for the whole world, then try to imagine it for just the country you live in, or just your home town.
We know that the clutch and grab of the desperate shopper, the icon of consumerism, isn't really working for any of us. We can choose to put that same energy into helping those around us. The gift-giving tradition was rooted in a sense of generosity, and it has shifted into a competing sense of woeful obligation and a child-like desire for more. Let's move away from giving random widgets and generic gift cards, and move toward gifts that build the foundations of a Heaven in this life. If the gifts are ostensibly in the name of the Christian tradition, then gifts of service, of compassion, of relationship-building would certainly be more in line with the teachings of the man who was born in this season.
If we were to occupy Heaven in our own lifetimes, the practices would reflect some of the calls for justice we hear in the broader Occupy Wall Street movement. Some of the theology is the same. There is enough to go around. We are first citizens of this world, not consumers. We can choose to use our power or privilege or spirit to care for our neighbor. In the coming year, let's all seek to don the mantle of citizen rather than consumer and build a heaven on earth. We can allow cynicism to crush our efforts before we start, or we can choose to live a more gracious life.