Article Nov 23, 2015

The benefits and warnings in Black Friday

“Black Friday has gotten out of hand,” said Jerry Stritzke, president and CEO of outdoor retailer REI, referring to the day after Thanksgiving when retailers heavily discount thousands of products. He told his 12,000 employees to “get outside” on a paid holiday instead of “spending it in the aisles.” “We’re closing our doors,” Stritzke declared, because “success goes beyond money.” Should it define our holiday, too?

America shops with the same gusto it downs turkey. Last year, the four-day Thanksgiving weekend, which includes Black Friday, saw sales of $51 billion. Retailers can earn up to 40 percent of their annual revenue during this holiday season. And while Black Friday is a decidedly American invention, other countries are adopting similar retailing rituals. China’s Alibaba recently announced a Singles Day in November, raking in $1 billion in its first eight minutes of sales.

Black Friday is a fairly recent holiday. Philadelphia policemen in the early 1960s were the first to use the term to describe the post-holiday crush. Yet, even as late as 2001, Black Friday never reached more than the fifth spot on the list of America’s busiest shopping days. But by then, the day’s brand was fast becoming reality, reinforced by the media covering long lines and desperate shoppers.

Evangelical Christians are not immune to standing outside in the cold, pre-dawn hours. But a holiday for consumerism can seem to blur virtue with vice. Indeed, there is much to be celebrated in its ritual and giving, but also many snares and misplaced priorities. Christians should find two hopes and two warnings in Black Friday.

Two benefits of Black Friday

1. Black Friday is a holiday, and holidays are rituals in remembrance. These are the times when we set aside our normal routine to celebrate or commemorate a moment of significance. Our holidays are like the stones of Joshua, set by the River Jordan as a steady reminder of God’s providence amid the passing seasons.

But Black Friday is in no ordinary season. It is a time when Christians celebrate the greatest gift ever given: God’s son, Jesus, born in a manger. The Magi, upon seeing the baby, fell on their knees and worshiped him; “they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” We remember God’s greatest gift through our giving, doing as the wise men did. The heated cars and cold lines of Black Friday, the wrapping and unwrapping of Christmas—these are our rituals to remember what we have received.

2. Black Friday initiates giving, and in so doing we humble the almighty dollar in love. Money is a blessing from God. All too often, though, we are tempted to make money our master. This cannot be true for us as Christians. Rather, as 1 Timothy 6:18 describes, we are “to do what is good, to be rich in good works, to be generous, willing to share.” Black Friday sets off a holiday season marked by charity. “Black Friday may have its warts,” Chris Horst reminds us, “but let’s not forget the reason for the Black Friday season.” The shopping isn’t meant for us, but for others. Done rightly, Black Friday spurs us on toward love and generosity.

Two warnings about Black Friday

1. Black Friday harbors disordered loves—snares on the path to the register that lead to emptiness. We live to love, and what we love determines how we live. Discerning our responsibility toward created things and loving them rightly is a central challenge in life. Seeking satisfaction in what cannot satisfy is to fail in this moral quest. Rightly ordered love is virtue; disordered love is vice.

Our problem isn’t that we love shopping on Black Friday, but that we are tempted to love shopping in the wrong way—that is, to make us happy. Finite things cannot satisfy the human desire for the infinite.

2. Black Friday is a religious holiday for consumerism, a time of communal worship observed at the mall. For many families, this shopping holiday is a major tradition and a time of social bonding on the order of church or, in the case of some, a military squad. In the jostling crowds, there’s almost a religious fervor. Shoppers are armed with a worldview centered on acquiring more and more things for the self’s own good. “I shop, therefore I am.” Our sacrament is the credit card swipe.

These secular pieties offer uplift, but they also impact our real worship and families. Indeed, as shoppers arrive earlier and earlier on the day after Thanksgiving, retail workers are being stolen away from their tables to feed our own desires. Christians should approach with caution those things that offer a false hope.

What are Christians to do? Celebrate Black Friday as a joyous ritual of communal generosity. We can be happy and loving in our buying and giving because we know they are not the ends. Our hope isn’t found at the bottom of a shopping bag. The value of our souls far exceeds the value of any created things.

Black Friday without Christ is little more than vanity. What does a man gain for all his efforts, otherwise? When you step away from your Thanksgiving table and prepare for a day of shopping, remember how God has so generously gifted you. Orient your buying toward others. Love them rightly as Christ loves you, shopping in wisdom and humility on Black Friday.

Note: The views expressed here are his own. 

ERLC2018