Giving Tuesday Indulgences for Black Friday Guilt

Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday …

Todd Brewer / 12.2.20

Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and then Cyber Monday. For four days we buy, buy, and buy — for others (because we have to) but also for ourselves. Perhaps mostly for ourselves. The frenzy of spending is occasioned by the holiday season, but more and more of us have been self-gifting. With all the COVID malaise going around it’s never been a better time to #treatyoself.

Buying for yourself on Christmas isn’t a new thing by any means, but it’s so much easier to do this year. Curious to see what might be on sale and with Christmas lists in hand, online shopping is geared towards self-giving care. Logging on to Amazon in search of what your brother might want, it turns out that the advertising is targeted to your desires. He has a quarantine beard, but the latest electric razors are pushed to the top of the search results. Somehow that razor and his desired cookbook make it into the virtual cart.

Which brings me to Giving Tuesday, the day after the splurge of impulse purchases, that holy day for the well-intentioned shopper. I don’t know who makes these decisions, but the chosen date for Giving Tuesday is more than a little suspicious, if not manipulative. Why, you might ask, would someone plan to raise money for good causes after people have already emptied their bank accounts for four straight days? What do people have left to give when there’s a new TV sitting in the living room?

Guilt, that’s what, to achieve a ready-made atonement for the social sins of consumerism over a weekend to forget. Giving Tuesday seems to be designed to exploit Black Friday guilt. Guilt for all the purchases made on gifts that might not be needed. And particularly guilt for all the stuff you bought yourself when no one was looking. Add a dash of remorse over post-Thanksgiving gluttony and you have the perfect recipe for people looking to assuage their consciences with the salve of philanthropic benevolence.

Giving Tuesday is the day when the needs of non-profits are thrust upon us at our point of regret and shame — or if you’re a Christian, when the opulent consumerism of Christmas is contrasted with the real reason for the season. The holidays are a time for giving to others, we are told, and what better time to give to those who are most in need. Or better yet, give to the most righteous of causes that promise to save the world and get a tote bag to prove it.

Don’t get me wrong: people obviously give to various charities for a variety of truly noble reasons: supporting causes they believe in, giving back to organizations that have helped them, or simply repaying public radio for the podcast it’s provided throughout the year. And with the exception of my college alma mater, these organizations desperately need the cash to stay afloat. The pandemic has hurt everyone, ranging from your church to the YMCA.

There are many good reasons to give and by all means please do so. Mockingbird itself wouldn’t survive without it. But it’s also hard to ignore the likelihood that Tuesday donations are paying the price of Black Friday guilt. The worse the credit card bill, the larger the gift will be.

The late medieval church had a word for purchases made to assuage the guilt of those with the means to offer recompense: indulgences. The worse the sin, the larger the payment to obtain forgiveness. Gluttony and greed were certainly high on the righteousness ledger sheet. For the most part, the system worked flawlessly. Beautiful cathedrals were built on the foundations of guilty consciences.

Non-profits aren’t in the business of promising an eternal reward to their donors, but they do promise something more valuable to us today: a greater feeling of self-worth. Lurking behind the cliché “every gift matters” is the not-so-subtle message that you matter — if you give. Giving to worthy causes feels good. Who wouldn’t want to be a platinum member of NPR’s exclusive club?

At the one time of the year when people are supposed to be generous toward others, it’s probably not a surprise that we can’t resist those Black Friday discounts. Commands to be generous, even over the holidays, undoubtedly spur more “self-care”, if not resentment. But no one wants to be a grinch in this Christmas movie, so Giving Tuesday comes at just the right time to turn us into Cindy Lou (at least for a day).

Trading donations for guilt is the kind of holiday sale that’s ultimately too good to be true. If self-worth could be bought for so little, then the church would have gone under years ago.

Christianity is in the donation business, after all, but not in the way you might think. Its Giving Tuesday happened on a Friday long ago, when the sky went black and the earth shook as our divine benefactor hung on a cross. There is just one donor in history whose gift actually changed the world. He gave everything he had and paid in the currency of his blood. Because of his infinitely valuable gift, God does not send us appeal letters asking for help but love letters that tell us we’re enough.

P. S. We here at Mockingbird don’t have indulgences to dispense, but we would be grateful for your support. And StoryMakers too!

Giving Tuesday – Mockingbird Ministries from Mockingbird on Vimeo.


Featured image via The New York Times.