activism books consumerism shopping

What would Jesus buy?, by Reverend Billy

If you haven’t come across  yet, you’re missing out. Last seen of Starbucks stores in the states, (he’s banned from every one of them) the Reverend is a satirical street preacher and rabble rouser with a radical message for modern consumers – stop shopping. With his Church of Stop Shopping gospel choir, he leads shopping ‘interventions’ on the streets of New York, including the annual Buy Nothing Day. Starting ten years ago with lonely sermons outside the Disney Store, the last decade has seen a community form around his protest, and the beginnings of a distinctive and bona fide anti-consumerist movement.

is a book of thoughts and sermons released to coincide with the film of the same name, the movie Santa doesn’t want you to see, that came out last Christmas. It is classic Reverend Billy in full manic flow, his righteous indignation expressed in a torrent of mixed metaphors, quasi-spiritual psychobabble, and street corner philosophy. At times you have to imagine him preaching it in order to understand it, as he fires off an enthusiastic “strange-a-luja!” at the mystery of life, calls readers away from “advertopia” or the “mall of eternal convenience”, or warns us all to flee the coming “shopocalypse”.

It’s fabulous stuff, silly and profound at the same time, as the best surrealists are. And of course he’s right, our shopping culture is insane. We get into debt to buy things we don’t need. Our disposable culture is devastating the earth, usually in places where we don’t have to experience it. Our ‘goods’ are made by workers in sweatshops, a far cry from the shiny logos and glamorous celebrities that greet us at this end of the transaction.

While some protestors rail against this, or opt out of it altogether, the Reverend and his choir subvert it, playfully. They create human moments, new connections, they dispel the myths that surround our shopping and call us back to ourselves. “The first job of a church is to save souls” he says matter of factly. “And pulling out of the advertising/debt/waste cycle of consumerism is our idea of deliverance.” To do this, the movement stages its interruptions. This might mean converging on a Starbucks and dancing, or delivering empty cups found in bins. It could be a parade, a cash register exorcism, or a flash-mob in a Gap store. It can involve hundreds of people, or just individual actions. Anything, as long as people “back away from the product.” And “when we back away from the product, all kinds of life rushes back in.”

What Would Jesus Buy? is a bit of a patchy book. Its sermons include songs and prayers that are sometimes inspired, like the ‘beatitudes of buylessness’, sometimes rambling or wierd. A large section of the back of the book is given over to letters and replies from punters. There’s the Reverend’s thoughts from a California jail, after he gets arrested for joining the Disneyland fifty year celebration parade on Christmas day. Perhaps its not a book to read through in one go, but to dip in and out of, to make you laugh, to make you dream. And of course, to make you back away from the product.

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It would be wrong not to include a video, and since we’ve been talking about Starbucks, here’s the good Reverend talking about them in a recent TV appearance, unfortunately to a presenter who doesn’t really get it:

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