During Advent, let’s see The Market for what it is

Posted on November 24, 2010 by Anne Basye

Thanksgiving, Black Friday, the first Sunday of Advent: it’s a busy week.

At Thanksgiving, we celebrate our national creation myth. The sacred festival of Black Friday kicks off the high season of commerce and consumerism—unless you’re a devotee of its alternative celebration, Buy Nothing Day.

The first Sunday of Advent invites us to prepare ourselves to receive Christ through four weeks of quiet reflection, prayer and meditation. Too bad so many of us are going to ignore the invitation and simply squeeze an Advent candle and a verse of “O Come O Come Emanuel” into this season’s commercial demands.

I’d like to suggest an Advent discipline for us: noticing, as we participate in “the holidays,” all the ways in which act as if the world’s real god is not God but The Market. And all the ways in which we serve that Market, consciously or unconsciously.

These ideas are drawn from a powerful essay written by theologian Harvey Cox in 1999 called “The Market as God.” (For the whole article, click here)

While we have always had markets and bazaars and trading posts, says Cox, “The Market was never God, because there were other centers of value and meaning.” But today The Market is “the Supreme Deity, the only true God, whose reign must now be universally accepted and who allows for no rivals.”

Like God, The Market is omnipotent in its ability to commodify creation. It’s the reverse of transubstantiation. Instead of making ordinary bread and wine into vehicles of the holy, The Market, says Cox, “things that have been held sacred transmute into interchangeable items for sale.” Like land, or human body parts, or our labor.

We believe The Market has “a comprehensive wisdom that in the past only the gods have known.” Omniscient, it determines our needs, our worth, our pay, the cost of everything. Through reports from Wall Street, we seek to know whether “The Market is ‘apprehensive,’ ‘relieved,’ ‘nervous,’ or even at times ‘jubilant’” and respond by buying or selling. And like the God “unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid,” The Market seeks to know us in order to convert our hopes and fears, gifts and weaknesses into products and services for sale.

When it succeeds in knowing us, The Market becomes omnipresent, making decisions in areas of life that used to be personal, like child rearing, or marriage, or dating. It respects no limits. In religion, “The Creator appoints human beings as stewards and gardeners but, as it were, retains title to the earth,” says Cox. The Market says that the earth belongs to people with money who can buy anything they choose. “In the chapel of The Market…the First Commandment is ‘There is never enough.’”

The Market is omnipotent, too. Governments that seek to establish policies that contradict it are punished by The Market’s global priests.

Cox’s conclusion: for “all the religions of the world, however they may differ from one another, the religion of The Market has become the most formidable rival, the more so because it is rarely recognized as a religion.” Too many religious practitioners, says Cox, are “content to become its acolytes or to be absorbed into its pantheon, much as the old Nordic deities, after putting up a game fight, eventually settled for a diminished but secure status as Christian saints.”

Depressing, isn’t it. But spending Advent observing how we participate in—and through our actions, worship—The Market may help us name it. If we recognize The Market as a competing God, we can more clearly articulate what Christ and Christianity’s non-market God offer us. If we can grasp that gift, perhaps we can respond to it by more resolutely embodying, in our lives, Christ’s values instead of the Market’s values.

If we go on being unconscious about The Market, we’ll give lip service to the idea that we’re all children of God while we treat one another and our planet as commodities with price tags.

Starting today, notice the Market. And see what happens next.

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity

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