In the spirit of Buy Nothing Day--Nov. 27 in North America and Nov. 28 in other parts of the world--the Columbus Free Press talks with Bill Talen, in the wake of his Green Party run for Mayor of New York City. Most people know him as Reverend Billy, the televangelist-styled street preacher fighting for more than 10 years now to help us cast off the demons of hyper-consumerism !

With his blond pompadour and bullhorn, he has led protests against Starbucks, and the Disney Store, while also flamboyantly opposing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the gentrification of neighborhoods, and the eviction of families from their homes during the recent foreclosure crisis.

In 2006 Rev. Billy came to Columbus Ohio with his Stop Shopping Gospel Choir to help with the successful campaign to get the lingerie company Victoria’s Secret to use more environmentally and socially responsible ways for making their catalogues. He is the subject of producer Morgan Spurlock’s 2007 film What Would Jesus Buy?

Columbus Free Press: What are your ideas about Buy Nothing Day. You got a lot of experience with it.

Rev. Billy: This is the second year after the beginning of the great recession. What we’re getting through the media, the emails, and the phones, and from what people are telling us on the sidewalks is that they’re really kicking in with a creative response to the gift giving season. I think that says it all. It’s called the shopping season by some but I think it’s returning to being the gift giving season. People are finding creative and often inexpensive ways to surprise and delight their loved ones this year.

Columbus Free Press: Is it also a matter of not necessarily buying nothing, but instead buying local and supporting businesses that are doing things that are socially and environmentally more conscientious than other businesses ?

Rev. Billy: Absolutely. Walk to your gift, if you can. If you have to bike, that’s alright. If it’s mass transit or bus, well alright. Try not to drive to the gift. Try to stay out of the traffic jams…More than ever, it’s very important that we shop in the neighborhood in order to keep our ‘energy’ local.

If you give $5 to an independent proprietor you see a lot of that money come right back to you, because that proprietor is spending the money locally. If you give your $5 to a chain or big box store, estimates vary, but from a third to half of it is mystery money. It’s like a secret tax. People wonder where it goes. All you have to do is pick up the paper. Those big advertisements have to be paid by somebody. Those big CEO payments and bonuses come from somewhere. They come from us.

So, more than ever, this second gift giving season after the great recession, people just sort of have this natural, radical common sense. “Well, yeah, let’s spend it here and let’s get it here. I’ll give you my money. You give me your money. Let’s just keep it right here.” It’s a very basic notion which, however, has been interrupted and distorted by the avalanche of marketing.

Columbus Free Press: A lot of people have complained over the years about Christmas becoming too commercialized and losing what Christians refer to as the ‘true meaning of Christmas.’ But you seem to focus more on the not-necessarily-religious aspects of the problems concerning consumerism.

Whether you’re a religious person or not, consumerism and materialism has problems in terms of environmental issues, human rights issues, or in terms of the civic health of our society. Can you say more about that ?

Rev. Billy: Every year we get messages from the rabbis, the ministers, the priests, the imams. All the spiritual leaders say the same thing this time of year: materialism is getting in the way. That spiritual message is still important, but this year in particular we have the chance to give each other a real instruction manual on how to manifest giving, and how to avoid the materialism that would distort the message. We have this chance to translate spirituality into sound economics.

Columbus Free Press: When I first heard your stuff last year at this time--when I heard “Beatitudes of Buylessness” , “Sidamo” and “Back Away”, I imagined being a DJ and slipping some of that stuff into the music at a discotheque or a bar where you usually hear apolitical music. It would be really kind of cool. Has anyone taken your music and put it into venues where the people were unsuspecting and had this message delivered to them?

Rev Billy: Yeah, we have what I think is a Dutch rock band called Soul Star putting one of my sermons into their songs, and it’s very much a danceable, club music item. We’ve got it posted at The bridge of their song is from a part of the sermon. It’s a video and they’ve got a strange looking televangelist with badly dyed hair shouting into a bullhorn.

Columbus Free Press: We know where that image came from. Could you say more about using music, comedy, street theater, and other forms of entertainment to communicate with people about these potentially grim issues , which for some people can be frightening or depressing or inconvenient…I guess sometimes activists can lose our effectiveness by becoming too serious. What have you discovered in your process of using this charismatic and flamboyant mode of communication ?

Rev. Billy: We believe that humor and music opens up people’s souls. Their chests open up and their arms go in the air. We’ve always liked to have a sensual way to relate to expressing our politics. There is nothing as glorious as a three hour gospel rehearsal. I look forward to Sunday nights with the church choir because I know I’m going to feel so good by the end. Having the good politics should feel good. Change- alluljah !! Amen !

Columbus Free Press: So you would actually consider it a church ( The Church of Life After Shopping) in terms of the need it’s meeting for some people ?

Rev. Billy : Well, back in the late 90s, I would have gone along with the description of a political parody of the Jerry Falwells and Jimmy Swaggarts that had so much power at the time. I was out in front of the Disney Store “ Mickey Mouse is the Anti-Christ ! I want you to back away with the little tourist family. We’ve got nothing but sweatshop goods on these shelves ! This is the den of iniquity!” I was out there in front of the Disney Store.

You could say that’s a parody of a late-night, Elvis-impersonating televangelist. But after 911 something completely else happened. Suddenly a large number of people in downtown New York and Brooklyn wanted to be together, to hold hands and embrace and be silent together and sing together.

What we had developed by that time in the Church of Stop Shopping (later renamed the Church of Life After Shopping) was a strategy for it being non-deity-based. We changed the name of what we prayed to everyday. We got that idea from some ancient sect. We read it in a book and said “that’s what we want to do.”

We had by that time developed enough safeguards against fundamentalism that (our church appealed to) these post-religious people in New York who had been developing their spiritual life without even calling it a spiritual life, from the arts or from sex or from traveling---

Columbus Free Press: Or from activism

Rev. Billy : Activism, yes, exactly. Well, now they wanted to be together in something that resembled traditional worship and fellowship, but all of us wanted to not be involved with organized religion.

Columbus Free Press: That’s interesting. One of the critiques I have had in my own mind about conservative Christianity in this country is that it seems to focus a lot on only a few issues--gay marriage, abortion, embryonic stem cell research--while being silent about environmental issues and social justice and human rights issues.

I have thought “if these are disciples of Christ, why are they not talking about THAT?” Granted, some of them are, but the ones that seem to make news and be prominent seem to be getting people’s attention by focusing on gay marriage and---

Rev. Billy : First of all, I would take issue with your generalization that Christians in the United States are not paying attention to environmental issues. Savitri ( his wife and th director of the Church of Life After Shopping) and I have been brought to film festivals where they are showing “What Would Jesus Buy?” and we find hundreds and hundreds of Christians who are radical environmentalists.

Then we’re standing there with our 90 minute movie having been seen by all of them-- like at the arena at Sojourners in Washington or at the Angel City Festival in LA or at the Cross In The Woods Festival in Illinois, for example---we’re kind of looking at them and wondering, “ Well, they’ve must have seen lots of different kinds of people in our choir--races, ages, genders.”

We have to make a decision about what issue to stay with there, because you have to forgive Christians. They’ve been inflamed for years by the Karl Roves of this world. You really have to give them a break for that. For a progressive person such as myself, it might sound a little bit strange, but forgiveness and gratitude are the beginning of power.

A lot of Christians are just working their way out of years and years of fear mongering. People in Muslim and Jewish faiths are doing the same. All three of the Mediterranean gods have followers that have been driven to the paranoid right wing of their respective religions.

That’s very tough. I was raised by fundamentalists. I am speaking from some authority here. I was raised by Dutch Calvinists in western Michigan. Savitri, the director of the Life After Shopping Church-- her father is a fundamentalist Muslim. We work on these issues.

For us it was counter-intuitive at first to be standing in front of a bunch of Christians talking about consumerism but we’ve learned that it’s such an emergency in the world--life itself is expressing itself through us , and so we really have to forgive people who don’t agree with us on all the issues. If you’re saying “Let’s live. Let’s survive. Let’s be life in service to life---”

Columbus Free Press: Sure. We can find common ground. I didn’t mean to paint with too broad a brush stroke. There were Christians such as Martin Luther King Jr. Also, if I am not mistaken, many of the human rights activists in parts of the world such as Latin America are priests and nuns.

Rev. Billy : All three of the Mediterranean religions have infinite variety within them. It’s just that since Ronald Reagan, we’ve had a swing to the right in all three religions.

Columbus Free Press: You’ve been involved with issues that not only pertain to Starbucks and Disney…I noticed that you were present for at least one of the protests in Pittsburgh against the G-20, and if I am not mistaken you are involved with opposing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as issues pertaining to the foreclosure crisis.

In your opinion, what are some of the themes that tie most , if not all, of those various issues together ?

Rev. Billy : There is no event in our world that is more destructive to the Earth than war. It’s the old commercial media creating the false idea that war and peace are issues that are separate from justice and (concerns about) the Earth.

No, they are the same thing. War kills all life including human beings and sends toxins into the Earth at unprecedented and unexamined rates. We allow this poisoning to go on when patriotism is invoked. And that’s a mistake. We have to consider the whole. We have to save the Earth and save ourselves.

Columbus Free Press: You can also say that a lot of these wars, to some extent, for example, the war in Iraq, are motivated by resource concerns. You can tie resources issues to environmentalism. For example Peak Oil relates to Climate Change. So that could link itself up to warfare too.

Rev. Billy: We have 900 issues in our ministries on any given day. We have to find ways to avoid going off into those Byzantine conspiracies and mazes of cause and effect. You just have to remember to get back to the simple moral of the story.

Columbus Free Press: What’s that? What’s the simple moral of the story ?

Rev. Billy : Life itself is a sacred thing. Life itself is the hip thing. It’s the stylish thing. You’ve got to like life. You’ve got to love it. Once you start doing that everything falls into place.

Consumerism is against life. Consumerism is for a type of prosperity that costs the Earth, that hurts the Earth, that hurts all of us. War is a kind of theory that obviously kills us. I just go across the board (with all of these different issues). We’re celebrating right now in this gift-giving season the coming back and the spring time of life. The return of life. That’s what we need to be paying attention to.

Columbus Free Press: By that you mean what Christ symbolizes ? I want to make sure I understand you correctly.

Rev. Billy : We’re post religious. We don’t use Christ imagery. We have all kinds of faith backgrounds in our 40 voice choir.

Columbus Free Press: I got confused because it’s November and we’re heading into the winter. That’s why I was confused about the spring time metaphor.

Rev. Billy : Most religions have some type of regard for this time of year. It probably comes out of the indigenous solstice…Gift giving is a seed. It’s reverence for life. And it is radical. If you look out at the possibility of this spring, from this moment of more heat and light, this Hanukkah- Kwanzaa-Christmas moment. It is radical. You will want the Prince of Peace. You will want to be peaceful by spring time. You will have your wildest hopes engaged. It is the time of change.

The problem with the commercial viewpoint is that it makes Christmas a sentimental thing. Christmas is radical.

Columbus Free Press: Christmas is radical. That’s an interesting concept.

Rev. Billy : Because springtime is radical. We can’t control that, no matter how much we shop. It’s going to happen. It’s life.

Columbus Free Press: Doesn’t the word ‘radical’ come from the word ‘root ’ ? Something goes to the root and causes fundamental change ?

Rev. Billy: Thank you. Thank you. There it is.

Columbus Free Press: Do you see an analogy between what Christians refer to as being ‘born again’ on the one hand, and, on the other hand, what some people who get involved with human rights issues or environmentalism describe as sort of an awakening process and having a different perspective on life?

Rev. Billy: It gets messy really quickly because the ‘born again’ (term) has been used in such an abusive way. It’s been used in such a mean-spirited way by the Karl Roves of the world for so long. In our church we say, “ being born the first time is amazing.” When we’re awaking to having an ‘Earth conscience’ , we’re relating to the beauty and the amazing miracle of being born the first time. That’s where I’d rather go because the ‘born again’ image has become such a source of conformism and fear.

Columbus Free Press: Right, because I have a sense of awe and amazement at everything that exists but I do that agnostically.

Rev. Billy: Well, yeah, we do too. We don’t have a deity. We don’t make up a soap opera in the sky. But the miracle of life makes you want to sing.

Columbus Free Press: Some people say they don’t pay more attention to what’s going on in the world--whether it has to do with human rights or environmentalism and so forth--because it’s too depressing, too frightening and takes all of the joy out of life.

What do you think of the idea that if a person gets past that initial unpleasantness, we will discover all sorts of rewards (that come from) paying attention, and looking beyond consumerism and materialism? You have responses from people who write you letters or who meet you in the streets.

Rev. Billy: Well, about a year ago, we changed the name of our church from the Church of Stop Shopping to the Church of Life After Shopping. We found that just shouting at people “ stop shopping--stop for a half hour, stop for 2 hours or stop for the rest of your life, but stop shopping because we have an emergency here,” well, that was the right thing to say for a long time, but now we feel that it is time--because so many of us are broke--to envision life after consumerism.

We do feel there’s a lot of hard work and a lot of fun in imagining, and then stepping into, your imagination, making it real--a way of living after consumerism is over, or after we just have some sort of balance with it. Put it that way, because we’ve been out of balance.

The corporations don’t know how to stop. They don’t know how to balance anything out. Everything they see, they want to monetize. They want to put everything they can find on the market

Columbus Free Press: Right, whether it’s healthcare, education, or warfare

Rev. Billy : or love…everything from war and peace down to your daydreams. They want to mediate between us and our own experience. We shouldn’t expect them to know how to stop, because they have expansion built into their DNA. Every quarter, they have to go up in value. It’s not a program that’s sustainable. It’s a cancerous program. It will kill us all if we don’t rise up and oppose it.

Columbus Free Press: So, what do we do ?

Rev. Billy : We have a real opportunity to do something at the gift-giving season. As I say in “What Would Jesus Buy ?” , if we were to take back Christmas, the whole year would change. This is the heaviest ritual of the year. It’s an opportunity for us to redefine what a gift is for our neighborhoods and for our families, and ultimately in our larger culture…Some of the best gifts are the giving of time and the sharing of experiences.

A lot of the people who are emailing us and calling us on the phone and stopping us on the sidewalk, they’re saying, “This year, we’re having a no-buy Christmas, and we’re giving each other experiences. We’re sharing time together.” That’s a lot of the secret of switching over from consumerism: giving gifts in a more human way.

Columbus Free Press: A lot of activism and alternative media involves using the products of major corporations such as Microsoft, Google, or the corporations behind, for example, Face Book. Yet a lot of this activism and alternative media involves people opposing the power of corporations. Is there irony or contradiction here ? Some might say activists and people in alternative media who use the tools of big corporations while opposing the very same corporations are biting the hand that feeds us or, to use another expression, biting our noses to spite our faces.

Rev. Billy : We are urban people. We walk among the billboards, and yes, we have allowed ourselves to live with the corporations. We use the tools of corporations to communicate. We have our Face Book world and so forth.

We have a real problem in American culture in that we’re Puritans, and sometimes we look for that hypocrisy, but it’s not realistic, if you’re not a billionaire, to expect to reach people in other parts of the world if you don’t cooperate with various corporations.

Having said that, when a corporation has agreed to be your partner, there’s a point when you know--and you got to be sensitive to this--they are starting to determine the content of your message, and influence you too much. You got to know how to get out of it.

To the extent possible, we try to discover everybody’s name and number outside of Face Book. We don’t want the corporations to have the identity of our supporters under their control. (But) we’re urban people. We are not in the middle of Vermont with our compost heap, being that pure.

Columbus Free Press: But even somebody in Vermont with a compost heap probably has a blog and uses Face Book, email, and Twitter just the same.

But what do you think of the idea that we can have technological innovation or other types of human ingenuity without having excessive corporate power ? A lot of activists aren’t necessarily against corporations, per se. We’re against them having excessive power.

We can have an innovative society that would probably flourish more if we didn’t have so much corporate control. It’s not necessarily the case that Google gives us these great gifts that we should be grateful for . Google is comprised of talented individuals who happen to be organized around that corporate structure. There may be better structures that we can have that would give us even more innovation, technological or otherwise. That would be me answering my own question.

Rev. Billy : I don’t see a conflict there. I don’t see the irony at all. I know some of the Google guys. I camp out with them. They’re individuals--Ben Cohen from Ben and Jerry’s . These are folk that control large institutions, but it’s not the corporation itself that is the problem…Our position is that we’re not that driven by ideology.

We are calling for a diversity of institutions. Neighborhoods and communities have to have a lot more power. They’re being run over by corporations right now, because the corporations have bribed so many governments. They have such an advantage in the tax structure and in the legal structure.

During my recent mayoral campaign the slogan was “the rise of the fabulous 500 neighborhoods”.

Columbus Free Press: Right, you ran for mayor of New York

Rev. Billy: It was on the Green Party ticket. But in New York the government works with real estate speculators to just roll over neighborhoods. Their idea of the future and prosperity is chain stores, gentrification and luxury condos.

But we believe that neighborhoods already have economies and that they should be respected. But a lot of the economies of these neighborhoods is in the form of a gift economy. A lot of the skills swapping and bartering that happens in a healthy neighborhood is economic. It’s trading, but it doesn’t look for a profit at the end of every quarter. It has a different way of measuring its success. We believe that Christmas should be more like neighborhoods and less like corporations.

Columbus Free Press: It reminds me of what people such as Joe Stiglitz or Herman Daly are saying about having a way to measure progress beyond just using GNP or GDP.

Rev. Billy: Yeah, Stiglitz wants to change how we measure growth

Columbus Free Press: So what happened with your work involving Les Wexner and Victoria’s Secret ?

Rev. Billy : We came out to Columbus to confront him at that shareholders convention. We were working with Forest Ethics out of San Francisco. They were the lead research group and lobbying group. They wanted more of a performance dimension in the sidewalks (for their protests against Victoria’s Secret.)

In the Victoria’s Secret stores in New York City ( in 2006), we drove the demons from lots of Victoria’s Secrets cash registers. There’s an exorcism of that kind in What Would Jesus Buy ? They were basically clear-cutting Boreal forests on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains.

Columbus Free Press: Were you also working with Free The Planet ?

Rev. Billy: You know what ? We ended up with those folk as we visited. I think we were with those folks trying to perform for the shareholders as they came into the hotel. Forest Ethics had purchased some Victoria’s Secret stock and they were inside, lobbying the vice presidents of the company and so forth.

So we had very good partners. Victoria’s Secret had professionals in suits coming in one door and they had people like students and Free The Planet and us coming in another door. It was a very well-coordinated effort and it had success written all over it the whole time, because we started identifying supporters inside the company.

The clear-cutting of the temperate--I think they are called rainforests. These are very wet and very bio-diverse areas on the eastern slope of the Alberta Rocky Mountains.

Columbus Free Press: There are also indigenous people living there. I think they are referred to as (Grassy Narrows) First Nation people, if I am not mistaken. Their livelihoods have been affected by the clear-cutting, according to what I heard from Free the Planet back in 2007.

Rev. Billy: We had a bunch of New Yorkers in our performances taking Boreal species out of a hat and also performing as them. We had a bunch of animals and plants performing in shows here, and a bunch of these sophisticated New Yorkers doing performances as these life forms, just kind of making up what they would be like if they were a blade of grass or--

Columbus Free Press: So, you’ve gone beyond just carrying signs made with poster boards with magic-marker writing on them.

Rev. Billy : Well, the ‘fabulous worships’ are how we gather inside theaters. At the High Line ballroom here in New York, we’ll have 400 or 500 people in our audience. The last time we were there with Joan Baez. We had a lot of folks during the campaign (his recent mayoral campaign in New York City.) So we have a church. After 911, it became a church. We have married and buried folks.

Columbus Free Press: An actual bona fide church ?

Rev. Billy: I don’t know how you define what a church is but we certainly are living life together.

Columbus Free Press: You’re meeting the spiritual needs of people, even though you don’t have the doctrine or maybe some of the other theological aspects.

Rev. Billy: That’s for you to decide--whether you think I have a theology from the way I’m talking. I don’t think it’s a good idea for Rev. Billy and the Church of Life After Shopping to be allied with a particular seminary or a particular organized religion. But we have people who are that kind of teacher and we have lectured at Yale Divinity School. We’ve been on the covers of Christian magazines. We are in a world of heated spiritual discussion.

Columbus Free Press: Ok, I confess--I know that’s a Catholic concept, Rev. Billy-- but I have to say that I don’t fully understand what you’re doing. I intend to learn more about what you’re doing.

What fascinates me is that you are not just people out there with a picket sign standing somewhere and chanting. What I see is a creative in-depth and artistic and philosophical approach to activism. Maybe it’s a New York thing. I don’t know, but I don’t see this that much in Columbus (Ohio).

Rev. Billy: People don’t know what to call us and if they don’t know what to call us, then we’re doing the right thing. If they can’t call us political because we’re a little bit artistic too; and if they can’t call us spiritual because they think we’re a little political-- well, we are political, artistic, and spiritual all at once.

If you keep that spinning, then people can’t label you. If they label you, then you’re a product and you’re being the consumer again. We resist consumerism and so we are subverting labels. That’s what you do with Christmas. That’s what we must do with giving: subvert labels. That’s why we should stay out of the big boxes and the chain stores. Our gifts need to be uncategorizeable and surprising, like nature, like life.