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Morals, Ethics and Black Friday

November 29, 2013

It all started while my wife and I were standing in line at a local department store just before 8 PM on Thanksgiving night.  The store was to open in ten minutes and, having just arrived, we were a long way back, around two sides of the building.  This was my first effort at Black Friday shopping.  Yes, I know it was still Thursday but it seems now that Black Friday is starting to devour Thanksgiving Thursday in an effort to lure shoppers.

I was clearly an amateur in this game.  We had arrived late, foolishly assuming that ten minutes before opening was plenty of time.  I listened to groups of shoppers discussing strategy on how to scoop up the most bargains before others got them.  Still others were passing the time with their smart phones and hand-held video games.  Without any such distractions I retreated to the most comfortable place I know, the inside of my head.

I started by wondering how I might explain to my fellow evangelicals just why we were out shopping on a day devoted to giving thanks to God.  The actual answer was quite simple.  We were caught between our desire to give good gifts to friends and relatives and economic reality.  As with most ex-missionaries, spending a big chunk of your earning years overseas is not good for the bottom line.  Even when you return to the US you run into the fact that secular employers have no clue how to evaluate the worth of your mission experience and tend to ignore it.  I can’t really blame them.  Most skills I learned overseas are not all that handy here.

In any event, like most missionaries and ex-missionaries, we’ve learned tricks of frugality (and other things) that let you pretend to be normal Americans.  We knew if we could score some good Black Friday deals that we might be able to give some half-way decent gifts.  So there we were waiting and the debate inside my head was on the ethics of the whole idea.  Questions like these rolled around:

–          Should Christians shop on Thanksgiving?  What was I going to say to those who frowned upon my going shopping at all?

–          If I can get someone a great gift because the price was so low, should I give others gifts of the same quality or the same price?

–          What does it say about me that I want to give cool gifts, even if I can’t really afford them?

All this had me thinking about the difference between ethics and morals.  There is some debate as to how these two ideas relate and some use them interchangeably but for the most part I see morals are the beliefs and principles that guide my behavior and ethics are the external applications of such beliefs within groups.  To me, morals are personal, ethics are cultural.  There are ethics of society as a whole and ethics of sub-groups, such as evangelicals.

Applying this to Black Friday, if I personally believe that shopping on Thanksgiving is immoral, then I should not be doing it.  If I want others in my culture or sub-culture to also not do it I am expressing an ethical point of view.  It dawned on me that no sub-culture does more complaining about the ethics of society being wrong; about the need for others to share their own standards for ethical behavior than evangelicals.  We are forever judging the behaviors of others as unethical.  Worse yet, we often call it immoral, a much more stinging word.  No wonder they hate us.

Have you ever been called immoral?  I once had a strict vegan call me immoral for eating “dead flesh.”  It hurt to hear his judgment and my first reaction was defensive.  There was zero inclination to say “Gosh, you are right, I never thought of that!”  I was much more inclined to go buy a hamburger and eat it in front of him.

Yet we evangelicals do the same thing all the time.  We “confront” the “immorality” we see in our culture in the same smash-mouth way and wonder why people get upset.  What is more, we tend to congratulate ourselves for doing it.  We assure ourselves we are doing the Lord’s work.  We tell them we are only “speaking the truth in love.”

The lesson I learned standing on line to get a Thanksgiving-night bargain was that I need to show more grace in expressing my views.  I probably will have no more impact challenging the morals of another with an in-your-face confrontation than someone would have had using a charge of immorality to get me to step out of the line.  We want people to agree with what we believe, not simply know what we believe.  Confrontation is never going to be a way to do that.

I truly hope to never again shop on Thanksgiving night.  But that has more to do with the hassle of it than the ethics of it.  Do you think shopping on that night immoral?  Fine, don’t do it.  Do you want me to agree with you?  Fine, explain why you believe if but don’t demand I simply agree.



From → Christianity

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