By Ian Olson
If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?
James 2:15-16 (NRSV)
Christians are instructed to be wary and on guard against the schemes of the powers and principalities, those forces and structures which oppose God’s will and our good (Ephesians 6:11-12). But we are not always adept at recognizing their spheres of influence or operation. In our era of technological modernity characterized by commodification and propaganda it can be extraordinarily difficult to sift through the torrent of voices to discern the truth of any public claim. It’s also easier than ever to eschew the naïve supernaturalism that locates the Devil around every corner and directing every impediment which hampers us, however small.
What might a wise discrimination of the powers of darkness look like in our time? How can we expose the spiritual register of ideologies and patterns of manipulation at work in the things we’ve been conditioned to accept as normal? Recent developments involving Amazon allow us to move from abstractions and put flesh onto this question.
Amazon’s logo symbolizes totality, and there is seemingly nowhere the “A to Z arrow” does not reach anymore. With the extraordinary means at Amazon’s disposal, everywhere is accessible and almost everything is on offer. Exclusive television programming, shoes, phones, clothing, cookware, groceries, and, of course, books. Books are what Amazon initially centered itself upon, but a different kind of attention is being foisted upon the company’s book-selling practices due to its noted failure to take meaningful action against counterfeiters.
InterVarsity Press has reported that $240,000 worth of counterfeit copies of Tish Harrison Warren’s book, Liturgy of the Ordinary, have been sold on Amazon, which amounts to nearly half of Warren’s sales over the past year. And she’s not alone: the New York Times brought to light an extensive litany of counterfeits Amazon has allowed to be trafficked through the site.
Amazon’s laxity and ethically dubious practices concerning third-party sellers created conditions for counterfeiters to proliferate. Amazon places the burden of identifying and reporting counterfeits squarely on the shoulders of rights holders themselves. As one First Amendment lawyer has stated, “Amazon has no reason to be kicking lots and lots of people off. It has no reason to police this stuff for defamation or invasion of privacy, because it doesn’t have to.” The company’s incentive to take action is minimal at best as it stands virtually uncontested, toppling competitors and dominating digital commerce both domestically and internationally. And they want you to be grateful for it.
Prime Day, the vaunted two-day extravaganza of deals during which Prime subscribers can “save” oceanic sums by hunting for quite literally a million special offers, was held two weeks ago. Prime Day has become more than Amazon’s “Black Friday in July”; it’s swelled into a holiday of its own, a bizarre holiday promulgated by unprincipled juggernauts of commerce which we consumers celebrate by spending yet more money and securing more products and services. It’s incredibly important to Amazon that we all be dazzled by their magnanimity, by the slick celebrity sheen that binds itself to the superluminal convenience of their empire. After all, when we feel lavished upon, we’re less likely to attend to the frauds Amazon profits from or the employees they exploit, or to question the dependency we’ve developed
The halo upon this suspect holiday was the Prime Day Concert featuring Taylor Swift’s slick paeans to emptiness and meaninglessness (punctuated by her praising her generous benefactors) and, alas, an abundance of Alexa jokes. Joy was compulsory and connection non-existent. The mastered were provided the means of contributing to the furtherance of their defeat by their generous masters, all of it cloaked in the veneer of freedom and celebration.
The hollowness of this celebration summons for me a not dissimilar ambivalence I feel as a Native American towards Independence Day. Another holiday for the defeated, one in which I am implicitly instructed to be grateful for the colonial powers which rebelled, in part, to secure the “freedom” to move beyond the Appalachians to seize and settle upon First Americans’ lands. It’s difficult to be moved by the Declaration of Independence, the document we Americans are catechized to esteem as a sacred text of our civil religion, when it complains that King George “has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages.” There’s a reason so many of my ancestors allied themselves with the crown against the colonists— they knew what treatment awaited them from their ambitious neighbors. I’m grateful for opportunities I have available to me as an American citizen, but I cannot and will not subscribe to the myth of “Heroic Settlers Resisting Tyranny and the Inviolable Inheritance They Have Bequeathed That Has Continually Guided Us Since.”
Similarly, while celebrities genuflected before the powers-in-residence at Amazon, strikes at the Shakopee fulfillment center in Minnesota and at seven sites in Germany were simultaneously being carried out to draw attention to the human cost of the deals millions have been raving about. While some pledged solidarity with the striking workers, most, it seemed, went on the hunt for savings. Amazon claims this Prime Day surpassed all previous Prime Days in sales, which means that for a significant number of people saving money on a Fire Stick and noise-cancelling headphones was more important than the plight of exploited workers.
It seems like something is broken. But the great joke about capitalism, of course, is that it is working: it effectively maintains the treadmill that provides 1% of us with the surplus-value of the labor the remaining 99% produce. It isn’t that the blueprint went awry somewhere along the course of history; rather, it’s functioning precisely the way it was always intended to. It is an instrument of and rotten with the powers and principalities who take root in institutions and organizations and corporations in which the collective interest in accumulating and maintaining riches, prestige, and influence. They diffuse responsibility for corporate decisions and blanket those decisions with moral fog.
This is apparent in the processes at work in Amazon’s fulfillment centers. The company’s automation-propelled factory-line ethos recasts human workers as machines and utilizes employee-monitoring techniques to reinforce machine standards on the flesh and blood personnel they work to the breaking point. Speed is of the essence as Amazon must continue to nourish the convenience and cost demands of their consumers, themselves reduced to desire machines, which Amazon’s retail factories and distribution arms continually charge. Amazon has developed and fostered an itch which it must continually scratch to maintain its dominance. But it only works if we all continue on exactly as we have before, content within our collective addiction to convenience.
People of conscience routinely feel overwhelmed by the sheer scope of the wrongness travailing their world. It’s easy to feel like nothing can be done to curtail evil and effect genuine good when corruption and its silent ally, apathy, seem so ubiquitous. It’s easy to feel powerless, entirely exhausted of agency. Our already limited capabilities and means recoil and retract from the long shadow of titanic power. The stricken lament “What can I do?” becomes silently absorbed within the bland futility of “What difference does it make?”
The powers and principalities thrive upon such fatalism. They howl in derision and rest content upon thrones of currency and code to the extent that we imagine ourselves without choices. When we feel all other options have been excised and there is only one dissatisfying course of action available to us, the powers have secured the perpetuation of their dominance.
How can we resist such hopelessness and contemplate different, more meaningful ways to live? In his poem, “Under Which Lyre,” W. H. Auden advocated:
If thou must choose
Between the chances, choose the odd;
Read The New Yorker, trust in God;
And take short views.
“Short,” in this sense meaning “modest,” “local,” and “actionable.” The mature Auden, having returned to the faith and its historic resources, recognized the necessity of limited aims for living a principled life, a life which drew its energies from grace and sought to counter barbarity with grace. Changing the world is too arduous an undertaking for ten thousand of us striving together, much less just one of us. We lack means to effect tectonic shifts in power structures or to make such changes endure. We have so few guarantees of the effectiveness of our actions; we often lack the clarity to see beyond the action we take at the moment to know what further choices will be necessitated by it.
All that we can do is listen for the promptings of the Spirit to recognize certain of our patterns of behavior as lifeless or life-draining; to ask, “If I am dissatisfied with this, why do I persist in doing it?” This is not an appeal to the will — it’s a diagnostic to assess our passivity and submission to the given. What am I profiting from that harms others? Why do I care so little about the impact this has on others? What hinders me from actually enjoying life? Or work? What is it that cuts me off from the fullness I have felt before in giving of myself to others?
These negative analyses help us home our moral imaginations in on alternatives to our typical patterns of being. They are the tangible routes between what is actual and the principles and ideals we espouse. But Auden’s maxim chastens our enthusiasm by filtering out delusions of grandeur and keeping our focus on what is possible within our limitations. What we simply cannot do is gripe indignantly about Amazon’s unethical practices but continue on in precisely the same way we have, strengthening their stranglehold and furthering our own submission.
James 2:15-16 describes a ludicrous scenario in which a privileged believer behaves as though their bare words were sufficient to satisfy the material needs of a poor believer. It is tantamount to the same absurdity to decry these wrongs but change nothing of our patterns of consumption. Otherwise we are saying, “Be warmed and filled while I stream the second season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Sentimentality is more prevalent than solidarity because it is infinitely easier.
Instead, resist the law of digital self-defeat and contemplate the freedom that is yours in Christ through his Spirit. Yes— almost all of us are implicated in this reticulum of wrongdoing, and the resulting temptation is to believe that this is what’s determinative of what we can or cannot do henceforth. But the creativity of the Spirit as it manifests in an enlarged imagination and short aims speaks a better, truer word: “What can I do about it? At very least I can stop depending on Amazon as much as I have. I can check out used bookstores more, or shop for vinyl at that place downtown. I don’t have to watch Fleabag next: it can wait a couple weeks. I could get some friends together to watch my Lost DVDs like we’ve been talking about for a while instead. I’ll see if that shoe store is still open on the west side and buy my next pair there. And I can continue looking into the conditions of Amazon fulfillment centers and telling others about the problems there.” These are concrete, practicable actions you can take to resist the addiction to convenience and impede the defeat economy.
They seem small because they are small. But let us not despise the day of small things (Zechariah 4:10). There is no easy hope; the only hope worth having is one which impels you to arise out of torpor and take hold of the freedom that is in Jesus Christ to do what the moment demands. No matter what that moment is, believers always and everywhere have the blood-bought freedom to assert their refusal to aid and abet the principalities and powers. This is one form Christian witness must take in our contemporary milieu.
However inconsequential it may seem in the eyes of the culture industry; however pointless it may appear to apologists for the powers; however pitiful it may seem in your own eyes, your graced resistance is not meaningless. It is the public manifestation of God’s No to these powers and his preferential option for the exploited. Defy the temptation to surrender your agency any further. Embrace the freedom Christ shares with you to disrupt what is typical and unquestioned in the modest ways you have available. Take up your freedom and take hold of life!
Ian Olson is an Anglican lay student living with his wife and three children in southern Wisconsin, enraptured with W. H. Auden, David Foster Wallace, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and resisting the gravitational pull of the world’s despair with re-enchantment.