Friday, November 28, 2008

A Telling Juxtaposition

The fourth Thursday in November, the holiday Americans call Thanksgiving Day, is always followed by an unofficial shopping holiday known as "Black Friday." It is also the unofficial beginning of the Christmas shopping season, although we realize with chagrin that, these days, retailers are already advertising in the Christmas theme at Halloween, a month earlier. Like the recent Presidential campaign, candidates for the public's holiday spending are getting out of the gate sooner every year in order to squeeze out the competition.

The term "Black Friday" sounds ominous, and it should. Originally, the name was coined in Philadelphia due to the massive vehicle and pedestrian traffic headaches that the rush to the malls and stores caused. Here in Charlotte, in addition to traffic conditions being broadcast on the radio every ten minutes, the announcers also notify drivers about how full the four major malls' parking lots are: "For those of you headed to Carolina Place this morning, the lots there are currently 90% full. There are no empty spaces at South Park Mall."

Every year, too, we hear news reports of die-hard shoppers camping out in line for the latest and greatest gismo that every child (or more often, adult, who has plans to put it up for sale at an inflated price on eBay) must have. Hundreds of people show up at Wal-Mart or a big box store, each hoping to get his hands on one of the few dozen of this year's Elmo dolls or whiz-bang game systems that the store has stocked for the Big Event Sale. Unless the guy who is first in line is a former college linebacker, he stands about a 75% chance of being pushed aside and/or trampled as the store's doors open for business, usually at some ungodly hour in the morning—or maybe even midnight.

In this year's Black Friday rush to consume, the New York Daily News reports that a Wal-Mart employee on Long Island was trampled and killed by a human stampede. A co-worker stated, "He was bum-rushed by 200 people. They took the doors off the hinges. He was trampled and killed in front of me. They took me down too. . . . I literally had to fight people off my back." While emergency workers tried valiantly to save the 34-year-old man's life, impatient shoppers flowed past them into the store, and only a few stopped or even seemed to notice that a human being's life was draining away. A disgusted onlooker commented on the crowd, "They're savages. It's sad. It's terrible."

To most retailers, the meaning of Black Friday has nothing to do with traffic congestion and everything to do with profits. They hope that this day will see their ledgers' bottom lines turn from red to black, since most of them depend on heavy Christmas sales to tip their books into positive territory. This year-end surge of income is the main reason why stores hawk their Christmas goodies earlier each year, for the earlier they make their profits, the more likely they are to have a banner year. They certainly do not want to have to depend on the Christmas Eve rush—or worse, after-Christmas clearance sales—to post a profit for the year.

From a spiritual point of view, the juxtaposition of Thanksgiving and Black Friday is significant. U.S. Presidents, beginning with its first, George Washington, have set aside this Thursday as a day of national thanksgiving and prayer to God for the wonderful bounty and favor that He has graciously bestowed upon America. Citizens are encouraged to take time to count their blessings and consider how much God has blessed them and this nation throughout its history. Each family or group devours a sumptuous feast that represents the best produce of the land. It is also family time, the one national holiday that brings families together without the burden of expected gifts and manufactured merriment.

Yet, the next day is almost entirely given over to consumerism, a day of unbridled, almost carnivorous acquisition. People prepare and gear up for it as if it were a sports competition: getting up early, putting on their best tennis shoes, donning their comfortable clothes, scheduling the day's stops, assigning certain purchases to various family members, synchronizing their cell phones, and checking the loads of their wallets and purses for the monetary firepower that they will need to win the day. Tempers flare over traffic snarls, and like hungry sharks, drivers circle the parking lots in search empty parking spaces. In the stores, people argue over their places in line and even tussle in the aisles over merchandise.

How soon the gratitude and humility of Thanksgiving disappears! One day we acknowledge the loving kindness of our Creator, and the next we engage in no-hold-barred materialism! It is a telling indication of the spiritual status of the average American.

However, it should come as no surprise. In reality, today's Thanksgiving has almost completely lost its spiritual overtones; it is in most respects another secular holiday. It is a time of near-gluttony and overindulgence, a day of parades sponsored by retail stores and of football games marred by countless commercials. In essence, Thanksgiving has become merely a day of consumption, a benign precursor to Black Friday's commercial consumption. Very few celebrate Thanksgiving in the grateful spirit of Washington's original decree or Abraham Lincoln's Civil War proclamation 74 years later.

The emphasis on consumption tells us that Americans do not want to give thanks but get things. The whole culture has become self-indulgent, and this insatiable desire for more blinds the people to their obligations to God and to each other. Jesus confronted this attitude in the Pharisees' ritualism: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence" (Matthew 23:25). In other words, they made a show of rectitude and charity, but in truth, they were only interested in the advantages such piety outward would give them. Jesus pronounced woe upon them for this, and He would certainly judge America's profligate greed in the same way.

As Christians—and especially in tough economic times like these—we must live counter to the trends of this society. We need to give thanks to God for everything (I Thessalonians 5:18) and focus on living the give way, the way of outgoing concern, as God does.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Back to the Future

"It's like déjà vu all over again," said legendary Yankees catcher and phrase-mangler, Yogi Berra, many years ago, and how right he was.

Every few presidential administrations, the country experiences a liberal Chief Executive who promises to change America, to restore her reputation in the world, and to help the poor and the downtrodden, who have sunk to such desperate straits through the greed and unconcern of the previous President and his cronies. At first, there is public euphoria and high hopes that, given a fresh face in the White House, America will become a kinder, gentler superpower abroad and fulfill its supposed role of promoting a cradle-to-the-grave general welfare here at home. As time passes, however, a crisis—oftentimes an economic one, sometimes a military one—reveals the grim truth about liberals in high office: They do not understand basic capitalism, and they lack the stomach for international hardball.

The election of Barack Obama as the nation's forty-fourth President may have set America up for another round of the same. There is no doubt that Obama is a liberal Democrat; by any measure, he was the most liberal Senator during his short tenure in that august body. Under his soaring campaign rhetoric lurked leftist—dare we say socialist, even communist?—principles and policies to the point of Obama, when speaking with Joe the Plumber, saying he wanted to "spread the wealth around." Such a policy is reminiscent of the last half of Karl Marx's famous dictum from his Communist Manifesto: "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." Redistributionist economics will lead to national insolvency, just as it did in the Soviet Union.

In matters international, Obama's stated intention is to meet with world leaders—even such anti-American hotheads as Iran's President Ahmadinejad and Venezuela's President Chavez—"without preconditions." It sounds as if, as President of the world's strongest nation, he would make no demands nor expect the usual quid pro quo for either American assistance or conversely, non-involvement in their parts of the world. In other words, he would go into such meetings assuming equality with and goodwill from these tyrants, which is to say that he would engage them from a position of weakness. All good negotiators know that if they have the upper hand, it is usually good policy to use it to leverage the best deal. Yet, Obama wants to come before them, hat in hand, saying, "Why can't we all just get along?"

The question is, will the Obama years be a repeat of the Clinton administration or the Carter administration? Bill Clinton campaigned as a centrist, although it was well-known that his own beliefs fell to the left on the political spectrum. In his first years as President, he tried to ram through Congress various liberal bills, and watched as most of them either failed or were stripped of most of their left-wing items. Hillarycare, his and his wife's atrocious healthcare bill, failed miserably, teaching him an important lesson: The nation was not ready for massive government involvement, especially in one of the nation's largest economic sectors. From then on, he governed from the center-left, especially in economic matters.

His foreign policy successes were few and far between. He embroiled the U.S. in places as diverse as Bosnia and Somalia, where our military was either hogtied and bogged down or slaughtered and humiliated by second- or third-rate armies or even militias. Sudanese minister of state for defense, Major General Elfatih Erwa, insists that in 1996 he offered to hand over Osama bin Laden—who was a financial backer of the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993—but Clinton did nothing. His primary reaction to terrorism was to shoot off a few cruise missiles into the offending nation and consider the matter closed. While he glad-handed heads of state and mesmerized his international fans, he did little or nothing to enhance America's standing in the world. In truth, most of America's foremost enemies thought the U.S. to be weak.

Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, ran as a centrist Christian Democrat and immediately began to govern as a leftist. All too soon, the nation's economy plunged into recession, and the public began to see their savings disappear. Interest rates lurched into the high-teens and low-twenties, and American prosperity ground to a near-halt. He signed into law a heavy increase in the Social Security tax and implemented a windfall-profits tax on oil companies. He also expanded the federal bureaucracy by establishing the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services. The years of his Presidency were the worst economically since the Great Depression.

In terms of foreign policy, his administration is perhaps best remembered for the Iranian hostage crisis, when Iranian revolutionaries stormed the American embassy in Tehran and held 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days. While he could negotiate a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt—the Camp David Accords, for which he later received a Nobel Peace Prize—he failed miserably to negotiate the hostages' release. An attempted rescue operation, on April 24, 1980, was aborted, but only after two aircraft crashed in the desert and eight soldiers died. In addition, in just his first month in office, Carter slashed the defense budget by $6 billion. He also relinquished control of the Panama Canal, one of the world's strategic sea gates, which the Panamanians have contracted the Chinese to manage. His record speaks for itself.

Which of these former Presidents will Obama resemble? It is hard to say, since so little is known about his governing style due to his lack of executive experience. However, from his rhetoric, he seems to lean toward the Carter mold rather than the Clinton one. With a majority of Democrats in both houses of Congress, he has the potential to move this country farther to the left than either. Only time will tell, of course, but the historical results of his liberal ideas presage a bleak next four years for those of a more conservative bent.

Nevertheless, the apostle Paul admonishes us, "Therefore, I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence" (I Timothy 2:1-2). In these times, this is advice well worth taking.