One year in high school, I worked a part-time job at K-Mart to pick up some extra gas money. Early in November, there was a notice in the employee break room asking for associates to work on Thanksgiving Day to stock the shelves in preparation for “Black Friday.” The store was not going to be open; they just needed stockers to fill shelves. I figured my loyalties to my new employer (and my new paycheck) were more important than those to my family—and I was a teenager—so I put my name on the list.
K-Mart, 40 years later
Fast-forward about 40 years, and not only is K-Mart going to be actually open on Thanksgiving, they are opening at 6:00 a.m.! And they will remain open for 41 hours straight. Georgette Griffith will be working this Thanksgiving, but not out of some teenage silliness. She is a permanent employee who wasn’t given an option to take the day off, if she wants to keep her job. Griffith is a 41-year-old mother of a 2-year-old who is going to miss her family get-together this year.
Maybe K-Mart has to stay open over Thanksgiving weekend to keep up with the competition. Walmart, which is the biggest retail store in the world, will also be open for a Thanksgiving selling marathon. Last year, Walmart sold $405 billion dollars worth of stuff. If Walmart were a country, it would be the 25th largest economy in the world. Surely Walmart could afford to shut down its U.S. stores for a few hours over Thanksgiving to let its employees be with their families.
What is worse than the hours employees at these retail giants work, however, is what they are paid. The average fulltime Walmart employee makes about $9.00 an hour. That’s $18,000 a year. For a single mom with two children, that’s below the poverty threshold. I give money every year to charities that give away food to people who live in poverty. And I also support the poor through my taxes. Both my charitable giving and my tax dollars are going to support fulltime workers at Walmart because Walmart and other minimum wage employers don’t pay their employees enough to live on.
It’s not just K-Mart and Walmart, however. McDonald’s was recently publicly shamed because they were urging their low-paid employees to apply to the government for food stamps. Mind you, they were not giving this advice to part-time teenagers who are picking up gas money. Sixty-eight percent of the adults who work for McDonald’s are the main wage earners in their families, and a quarter of them have children to feed.
Money is not the root of all evil
Just to be clear, I want K-Mart and Walmart and McDonald’s and every business to make money. I want them to make tons and tons of money. I think making stuff people need and want and giving it to them at prices they can afford is a terrific idea. I take advantage of it all the time, and if my favorite businesses didn’t make money, I couldn’t buy my favorite things because they would go out of business.
But how much profit is enough? Walmart, for example, made about $25 billion in profit last year. That’s $25 billion in profit after it paid all its bills, taxes, operating costs, and employee salaries and wages. That’s $25 billion in profit after it paid the head of the company his annual $6 million dollar salary.
Obviously I’m not a financial wizard or else I would have gotten a degree in economics instead of theology. But even my math-challenged brain knows that after the first $10 billion or so, you can begin to think of sharing a little bit of the profits with the people who generated them.
Greed will kill us
Pope Francis, who is way smarter about this stuff than I am, had this to say:
That’s what does harm: greed in my relationship with money. Having more, having more, having more… It leads you to idolatry, it destroys your relationship with others. It’s not money, but the attitude, what we call greed. Then too this greed makes you sick, because it makes you think of everything in terms of money. It destroys you, it makes you sick. And in the end – this is the most important thing – greed is an instrument of idolatry because it goes along a way contrary to what God has done for us.
So why is any of this important for RCIA teams? I think it is because we are not in the retail business, but rather in the sin and grace business. K-Mart and Walmart and the rest are the result of greed as much as they are the purveyors of it. This year, as we enter the crazy selling cycle of “Christmas,” we will have an opportunity to ask ourselves and our catechumens where our idols of greed are—and how we can smash them.
It is too easy for any of us who live in the United States and other nations with market-based economies to get caught up in the idolatry of greed. Maybe K-Mart and the rest of American retailers are sickened with greed and that makes them open their doors on Thanksgiving and pay their workers so poorly we have to donate food to them. But they are open on Thanksgiving because we are willing to leave our families on that day so we can score some amazing savings on stuff we probably don’t need anyway.
I was willing to work on Thanksgiving day 40 years ago so I could get time-and-a-half pay and add a little more cash to my wallet. I don’t remember what I did with the money. I do remember my mom knocking on the store’s locked doors to deliver a plate of cold turkey and stuffing to me, which I ate by myself in the break room.
God’s economy vs. the market economy
The market-economy is not all bad. Overall, it has done amazing things to lift people out of poverty and provide meaningful work. But it does not have the value of the person at its heart. We believe in a different economy—the economy of grace. In that economy, every person has immeasurable value. In God’s economy, teenagers and single mothers and everyone in the world have enough to eat and the leisure to eat it in dignity, surrounded by people they love.
Isn’t that what we mean to celebrate on Thanksgiving Day?