This week, Starbucks decided to remove the “Christmas-like” designs on their cups in favor for a more “neutral” red and green. Predictably, the Religious Right saw this as yet another attack in the infamous “War on Christmas.”
Equally predictably, my Facebook newsfeed – full of people i love, most of whom are progressive Christians – responded in kind with articles and memes that said things like: “If one family in one out of every 3 churches adopted a child, there would be no more orphans in the USA … but please, tell me more about how offensive this red cup is” … or, “Honey, if your faith is threatened by this coffee cup, you need Jesus” et cetera, et cetera.
It’s not that i disagree with any of the above statements about Christianity being, well, more complicated than a coffee cup. My concern is this: in most of these memes, which boast of good things that good Christians ought to be doing or thinking about, the Starbucks brand is clearly visible. And whether or not this is the intention of the person posting, or the words on the meme itself, what this visually signals is that Starbucks – a massive corporation – should be associated with good Christian things.
And yeah, this branding is also a cue to the casual scroller that this is a message about the blessed Starbucks debate. That’s what branding does; it instantiates a product into the popular discourse in an immediately recognizable way. But brands are also insidious in how they operate: as images made for products intended for public consumption, the brand itself becomes associated with what that public decides.
So the subliminal pairing of a red Starbucks coffee cup and a message about foster kids might suggest – however tacitly – that foster kids are being cared for by the corporation said brand represents.
An i am just wary of progressive Christians labeling any massive, capitalist corporation as “good.” Especially a corporation known not only to buy out local businesses, but one that is not as “Fair Trade” as it boasts.
I want to be clear: again, I don’t think everyone posting these memes are waving pro-capitalism, yay-exploitation flags. They’re waving soundbites, likely out of some deep frustration with the whole “War on Christmas” brand of Christianity making our jobs, as future/current pastors, rather difficult. That’s real.
But when these (admittedly ridiculous) consumer/product-based faith arguments emerge, I’m always hungering for a deeper conversation.
The conversation i wish for, instead, is one that opens us up vulnerably and honestly to our increasing dependence on consumerism.
Like, what the hell are we supposed to do when corporations are so massive we cannot escape them?
There was a point last winter where i was visiting Starbucks twice a day for my caffeine fix. As a seminary student, i was depleted of energy, of compassion, of time – so it told myself – and the only thing that could keep me writing one more paper on colonialism’s modern Christian project (or what have you) was another triple shot of espresso. Starbucks was close, we’d received a few gift cards for Christmas, and before long i had a regular order in the drive-thru.
(I’d like to take this moment too to be clear i’m not indicting the baristas who work at Starbucks, because having worked in the food industry too, i know how much having a job can be necessary and how you as the coffee-maker have nothing to do with big corporate decisions. And all the baristas i knew there were incredibly kind. So life is complicated.)
So there i was, drinking the equivalent of six cups of coffee (or more) a day, telling myself i had to be a machine for Jesus.
There is a lot that is unhealthy about this picture.
But one of the biggest ills i see now was my total belief that this capitalist machine was what was going to bring me closer to my degree, a degree i was working for to serve Jesus.
None of us are free from the sin of empire. None of us.
Even if we shop local, eat local, tick every box for wholsesome living, farmworkers are still being exploited, American agriculture is still displacing overseas agrarian markets, and racism and sexism still hold the power. Even now, as i rarely visit that Starbucks line and have decreased my caffeine intake to a cup of tea or two a day, i’m not free. I’m still complicit in this sin of empire.
This is pretty depressing, but it’s also a reality that demands a better answer than sitting on our hands and waiting for the Kingdom to come fix it for us. And while lots of people – my friends, my peers, myself, people i don’t even like – are not sitting on their hands. They are doing tremendously important work towards justice, and Pop Progressive Christianity sound bytes do little to applaud, amplify, and advocate for this love-justice work.
Maybe i’m asking too much of social media dialogues. Maybe the complexity i hunger for only exists inter-personally, but i’m not totally convinced.
Maybe we can use this moment differently. We can heave a huge sigh at the incredulity of Christians claiming oppression in America … and then we can talk frankly about how the ways in which we consent to the co-opting of Christmas as something to be bought and sold.