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December 18, 2009

Christmas and the corporate creed

The symbolism of Christmas is universal: "Tidings of great joy."

Javed AkbarThe symbolism of Christmas is universal: "Tidings of great joy."

If you are a believer in the Christian Gospel, the feast celebrates the beginning of a divine reign of peace, justice and love offered to the whole world.

For Muslims, Jesus is one of the great prophets sent by God, and he occupies a special status in Islamic eschatology.

Even for people who do not belong to any of the great religious traditions, the symbolism of the coming of light in the darkest season can brighten up the city and remodels it into a jovial ambience that does not easily fit into words.

The birth of Jesus (peace be upon him) is an event of great significance in human history.

On the other hand, the ascendancy of corporate globalization is good news for only a few people.

In the affluent cities of the West, one can hear tired people complaining about the “holiday” pressure to buy and buy more.

Equally egregious is the fact that shopping, particularly at this time of the year is almost always done with borrowed money!

Some parents grieve over the intense materialism that is bred in children by the intensity of the advertising to which the young are exposed—year-round, but especially at this season.

Consumer activist Ralph Nader describes advertisements aimed at children as “corporate child abuse”.

The deadliest effects of money’s “global reach”, however, are hidden from most Western eyes under all the seasonal tinsel.

Mandatory consumerism is only one face of neo-colonialism.

The other face looks a lot like war: like a borderless battle to control the world’s resources through economic colonialism, backed when necessary by military aggression.

Many people in this real world are trapped in a putative “peace” that has nothing to do with their own welfare, and that is enforced by a government in thrall to powers far from their own homeland.

The terror of open warfare is held up as the only real alternative to this unjust peace. 

Older models of colonialism were less intractable than this one. When technology was in its kindergarten stage, the powerful had to physically travel to make colonies. The predators of today can bleed any nation from a distance. That makes it all the more difficult to fight and drive them out.

At the time of the birth of Jesus, the global order was dictated by the Romans, just as the Americans today (although decreasingly) preside over the destiny of our world.

But Jesus was not born in Rome, nor even in Jerusalem.

Mary gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, a poor town whose political significance had been eclipsed for generations.

He took his modest place in the world without weapons, without money, without powerful networks or sponsors. His message about affluence was simple living. But we have become a culture that emphasizes on high consumption, compulsive acquisition and instantaneous gratification.

How ironic, then, that the celebration of Jesus’ birth has morphed into a display of consumerism and indulgence!

Jesus, a prophet who articulated God’s burning concern to free humanity from greed and all other forms of violent selfishness, would weep to see how our desires have been confused and multiplied. We are deceived into thinking that we need all that we can be made to wish for.

Jesus knew well that humanity needs good food, good work and good rest.

He also knew and taught that man cannot live by bread alone. The culture of corporate globalization insists that the bottom line — the profit is the measure of reality. It says we are sensual animals, infinitely open to manipulation, tools fit to serve dominant economic interests. Such a vision is an insult to human dignity.

Although the corporate global agenda is often sold to the world under the cover of democracy, in fact it does not promote human equality.

So far, it has increased the gap between rich and poor. According to UN figures, in this age of plenty and unbridled consumerism, there are more hungry people in the world (over one billion) than in previous eras.

The spiritual insights of many believers (Christians and Muslims included) have been subverted by the crass persuasiveness of the world consumerist order. 

We need to reclaim our best wisdom, and unite to strive for a social order that respects truth, environment and simplicity that will obviate the need for reckless consumption.

We need to build carefully together on equity and social justice.

Human liberation is a resonant spiritual theme common to all religions.

Merry Christmas.

Javed Akbar is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

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