While the rest of the world is busy shopping for that special someone this time of year, Aiden Enns is trying to convince folks not to buy anything at all.
It’s not that he’s against gift giving; he’s happy to make presents that don’t involve trips to Wal-Mart or Neiman Marcus. The problem, he says, is the consumerism — which is why he founded the Buy Nothing Christmas campaign. The movement urges people to buy no Christmas presents at all and, instead, embrace free alternatives (like homemade presents and time given to loved ones) while refocusing on charity, social justice and Jesus’s message.
Enns has written for a variety of publications, including Adbusters magazine. Currently he is launching a new magazine of progressive activism and spirituality called Geez (pronounced with a “J” sound, like “jeez”). The first issue shipped at the beginning of this month.
As the new magazine gets underway and the Buy Nothing Christmas campaign enters its fifth holiday season, Enns took a few minutes to talk about the roots of his activism, his thoughts on spirituality, and his hopes for what could make this year’s Christmas truly meaningful.
J-Tron: When did the Buy Nothing Christmas campaign start?
Aiden Enns: After living in Manitoba, Canada for a while, I went back to journalism school in Vancouver, in part to be with my family and also to get further training. That was in the year 2000. At that time I took an internship with Adbusters magazine in Vancouver, and took part in many of the campaigns, including Buy Nothing Day. Now, with a background in the church press — I had worked for eight years at Canadian Mennonite magazine, that’s a national church paper — I was very interested in taking the Buy Nothing Day campaign which started in 1993 and rolling it out to the whole Christmas season. So together with a group of friends in the year 2001 in the fall we initiated the Buy Nothing Christmas campaign.
We got a small group of individuals together, mostly Mennonite, and we took out a full page ad in the Canadian Mennonite, and the ad said, “If you think Christmas has gotten too commercialized, here’s your chance to do nothing about it.” Then we put a link to the Web site and some other advertising copy and that’s how the campaign was born.
J: What made you decide that this was something you wanted to do?
AE: I’ve always been interested in social change and bringing about a greater sense of fairness and justice to society. My personal strategy up until that point was to engage in journalism. Not quite advocacy journalism, but nonetheless journalism that seeks out stories of conflict, to try to expose some conflict and get some discussion going. But I felt that that was too tame a measure and I realized I had more of an opinion that I wanted to express in the public sphere.
So I shifted from, let’s call it social justice journalism, to more advocacy journalism and campaigning, or, you know, some sort of social marketing campaign. It’s a deep-seated desire to bring about a greater measure of justice in the world. And I thought these types of what Adbusters calls “culture jamming” campaigns seemed to be very effective at triggering important discussions. For me, that’s why I wanted to start something as ludicrous (laughs) as a Buy Nothing Christmas campaign.
J: What kind of social change are you talking about?
AE: For me, one of the fundamental problems is how we in North America give a privilege to material goods. What this does is it fosters greediness, competitiveness, individualism, and also participates in a market model that is inherently destructive. It’s predicated on growth based on consumption. This model, this set-up of society, is for sure unsustainable for the planet, but also it’s destructive to our self-identity. So to bring about a greater measure of justice, that is, addressing the rich/poor gap, also the pollution of the earth, but then also to get at bringing about a greater measure of peace or introducing a less materialistic view of life and a more spirit-oriented view, I turned to the Buy Nothing Christmas campaign.
J: How successful has the campaign been?
AE: Well, with a very small committee, and in the last year or two I’ve been only able to give it a part-time effort, it’s growing like crazy. We started the Web site with just hundreds of people stopping by. One week I had 16,364 visitors. We’ve had up to 3,000 visitors a day at the Web site. In addition, people keep sending in their stories and suggestions and their feedback. And then also last year here in Winnipeg we showed a full length musical. A couple thousand people saw the musical as well.
J: A musical about something particular?
AE: The musical was called “A Christmas Karl.” It was expressly written for Buy Nothing Christmas to address all the issues that I’m just talking about — of over-consumerism at Christmastime, how can we keep a sense of joy and of humor at Christmastime when such disparity exists around the world.
J: What’s your personal view of Christmas? What does Christmas mean to you?
AE: I still identify as a person of faith, of the Christian faith from the Mennonite tradition. I see Christmas as an occasion to reflect on the presence of God in this world, the spirit of life incarnate, made flesh, in the person of Jesus but then also in signs of life all around us: in acts of generosity, kindness, self-sacrifice, and compassion. These are all little incarnations of the source of life itself. At Christmastime, I like to stop and think about the gift of life. I screw up. We’re all screwing up in some sense as a human collective. And there’s a measure of grace and forgiveness available to us. I think that’s encompassed in the spirit of life that we honor at Christmas.
J: It seems like the aim of Geez, your new magazine, is to put together these things you’ve been talking about, putting together Christian faith and social activism. Is that an accurate description?
AE: That’s exactly the case. I realized with the Buy Nothing Christmas campaign that when we added to the social justice agenda a spirit-filled dimension, the response was a gentle but steady stream of appreciation. There’s such a large group of people who feel disillusioned with institutional church but are still deeply spiritual people. They care about the environment, about the rich and poor gap, about urban development, the big box stores becoming increasingly impersonal and favoring the shareholders and big corporations. They’re deeply concerned about that and want to know what people of faith can do. I saw this large group of people that I wanted to reach with a magazine and say, “Hey, you’re not alone. Let’s nurture a community. Let’s pull our minds together and see if we can’t be a presence of influence in our society.”
J: What’s different about this magazine as opposed to something like Sojourners or some other progressive Christian magazine?
AE: I notice your list stopped at Sojourners. (laughs)
J: Well, yes. (laughs)
AE: There aren’t a whole bunch of progressive Christian magazines, magazines that are ready to challenge the excesses of corporate capitalism or turbo capitalism. There aren’t that many magazines that are ready to take on consumer lifestyles. In fact, many Christian magazines wholeheartedly endorse consumerism. They do that by the number of ads that they carry. And also the sheer publishing heft, the sheer publishing mass of the Christian subculture in America and Canada endorses the consumer mentality and behavior. There aren’t a whole lot of magazines that take a critical look at it.
Sojourners itself is one of the few magazines that is willing to address some of these issues, but there’s a way in which our magazine will be a little bit different from Sojourners. And by the way, I’m very sympathetic to the editorial mandate of Sojourners. I think very highly of them, and I’ve met some of the editors, and I consider ourselves colleagues. So I don’t see ourselves as competitors at all. We complement each other.
But we’re different from Sojourners in the sense that I look at Sojourners as more or less for progressive Christians who are already converted to the cause. We’re looking at maybe younger people or people further out on the fringe or activists who are not necessarily Christian but are still spiritual, who aren’t so thrilled with the church, who don’t need bible references here and there, who don’t need bible studies, but they nonetheless still have this spiritual side to them and this justice orientation.
J: If you could have one thing for Christmas this year what would it be?
AE: (long pause) You know, there’s something that weighs heavy on my heart right now. This is going to sound like a sappy answer but I happen to know or have a personal connection with one of the guys who just got abducted in Iraq with the Christian Peacemaker Teams, Jim Loney. This is making headlines here in Canada. I’ve been on Christian Peacemaker Teams’ delegation to a conflict site in Canada with the First Nations, or Aboriginal, or Indian people. I look to Christian Peacemaker Teams as an important contribution to some of the global conflict. And now one of the leaders of the Canadian Christian Peacemaker Teams’ contingent is being held by — let’s call them “rebels” — in Iraq, held as one of the four hostages. There are two of them there with Christian Peacemaker Teams. I don’t know the other gentleman. The best Christmas present would be for them to be released unharmed and with as little mental damage as possible.
On March 23, 2006, a military team found and freed James Loney and two other Christian peace activists. All three were said to be recovering and not badly injured.
A fourth activist kidnapped with Loney and the others was found shot to death two weeks earlier.