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So I was browsing the homenode of one of my favorite e2 users and saw a simple imperative listed:

Your assignment is to compare the rise and spread of the Abrahamic religions to that of Walmart.

At first, I laughed. Then I thought about it for a minute. I suddenly realized that this was an important subject. There are certain parallels here that simply cannot be denied. The Abrahamic religions are so named because they all descend from the covenant said to have been made with God by the patriarch Abraham, regarded as the progenitor of the Jewish people. The Abrahamic religions include Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and any number of other off-shoots that might be more syncretic. An argument could be made that organized Satanism is an Abrahamic religion. Whatever the case may be, at least half of the world's population (at least nominally) subscribes to an Abrahamic religion, with all of them being practiced on every continent save Antarctica.

Then there's Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart is the world's largest retailer, providing relatively inexpensive goods of a wide variety to consumers on every continent with the exception of Africa and Antarctica. Wal-Mart has its corporate headquarters in the United States of America, and it is estimated that approximately 1/3 of all Americans go to a Wal-Mart location every week. It is not a stretch of the imagination to suppose that almost every man, woman, and child in this country will go to Wal-Mart at least once in their lives. As of November 2009, Wal-Mart is valued at just under $235B (as in billion). If Wal-Mart were a country, it would have the 39th largest economy in the world, beating out Israel with a Gross Domestic Product of $202B- interesting, given that Israel is regarded as the birthplace of the Abrahamic faiths (although perhaps Mesopotamia is more likely, in which case Wal-Mart's GDP is about two and a half times as large as that of Iraq's). Now, although Wal-Mart has stores all over the place, the Western Hemisphere is definitely the company's core constituency, so most of our conversation will relate to its operations there.

It is impossible to say with any certainty when Abraham lived or if indeed he lived at all, so we're going to have to rely primarily on religious and cultural tradition to discuss the "rise and spread" of the earliest of the faiths that bears his name -- Judaism. Abraham is said to have been born in Mesopotamia, which covers an area including modern-day Iraq as well as parts of Turkey and Syria. This area is regarded as "the cradle of civilization," due to its early adoption of things like permanent human settlements, international commerce, and a sophisticated legal system exemplified by the famous Hammurabi's Code. God informed Abraham that if he would give up the paganism of his father and worship only Him, he would bless his house and treat his descendants as His chosen people. Abraham resettled in Canaan and his sons and grandsons established themselves there. The Jewish religion had its ups and downs, becoming at times overtaken by the Middle Eastern polytheism of regional neighbors and the worship of local deities such as Baal, Dagon, Astarte, and Asherah. Other threats included military subjugation by powers such as the Babylonians, the Seleucid Empire, and eventually the Romans. For various reasons, Jews left their ancestral home of Israel and spread out to virtually all corners of the globe. Today, there are more Jews outside of Israel than are within its borders. The conflict that has existed within Judaism almost since its creation and solidification has been the one between assimilation and retaining a unique religious and cultural identity in the face of more numerous and militarily powerful neighbors and occupiers.

Christianity's origins are similarly murky, with a contemporary debate about the historicity of an individual and real-life person named Yehoshua ben Yusuf not at all settled. Indeed, there is scant evidence for such a person dating from the supposed timeframe in which he is alleged to have flourished -- the first couple of decades of the common era. Again, tradition will have to suffice where hard facts are silent. Jesus was a Jew who either declared himself to be the son of the aforementioned God or who was declared as such by his followers. He is supposed to have lived in the Roman province of Judea and to have subsequently been put to death through the collusion of the local religious authorities and the ruling governor, Pontius Pilate, presumably on a charge of insurrection for declaring himself to be the King of the Jews. Christianity was and is a less exclusive religion than Judaism, seeking converts from where ever they may appear. This universalism combined with its "meek shall inherit the earth" philosophy allowed Christianity to flourish among the dregs of the Mediterranean world in the first couple of centuries of the present age despite the fact that to be a Christian was punishable by death as a treasonous activity in the Roman Empire. Christians (and Jews, for that matter) were unable for religious reasons to sacrifice to the state gods of Rome to protect the health of the Emperor, which did not endear them to the powers-that-be. In the middle of the fourth century, however, the emperor Constantine I converted to Christianity and legalized it throughout the Empire and it was declared to be the only legal religion shortly before the end of the same century. After this point, Christianity spread rapidly (at least in name) since it was illegal not to be one and within a couple of centuries, almost all of Western Europe was Christianized. People converted for social/economic expediency (especially if you wanted to be a high-ranking functionary in any sort of government) and because the faith was spread by the sword by people like Charlemagne in the 9th century. The last pagan stronghold in Europe was Lithuania, which did not convert until the 14th century. Christianity's spread in the rest of the world followed a similar course, propagating largely through conquest but still occasionally through peaceful conversion. Today, Christianity is a nominal religion at best for most of Europe, although it has a stronger presence than ever in Latin America and other parts of the developing world, in addition to possessing a huge influence over the affairs of state in the USA.

The rise and spread of Islam is the best documented of these as the existence of most of the leading personas is much more easily attestable. Muhammad was born in about 570 in what is now Saudi Arabia. It is difficult to know what religion Muhammad practiced in his early life, but he made his living as a trader, which surely allowed him to experience a wide variety of faiths. The Arabian peninsula at this time had a cosmopolitan religious atmosphere, being home to Jews, Christians, pagans, and any other number of beliefs. It is obvious that he had been exposed at some point to Judeo-Christianity, since Islam is built upon the foundation established by that set of core beliefs. This likely occurred through trade since the Christian Byzantine Empire bordered Arabia and the ideology of its rulers would have spread with its money. In any case, at the age of 40, Muhammad is supposed to have had a religious experience in which God had him write the Qur'an, the Muslim holy book, despite previously being illiterate. Muhammad preached monotheism to his neighbors and attracted a small following. He and his people were shunned and cast out from Mecca and found refuge in Medina. Slowly but surely, Muhammad began winning the hearts and minds of more followers and eventually became a military and political leader. Note that Muhammad is not regarded as the founder of Islam, but rather as its culminating prophet; Muslims believe that Muhammad merely restored the correct and traditional worship of the single God known as Allah; Abraham and Jesus are also regarded as Islamic prophets, although divine status is not acclaimed for the latter. By the time of his death in 632, he had conquered the entirety of Arabia and spread his religion far. Over the following centuries, the Muslim world would grow exponentially, encompassing almost all of the former Byzantine and Persian Empires as well as places as far flung as Spain, North Africa and Indonesia. Today, Islam is the world's fastest growing religion, but ancient conflicts between Islam and the West are still alive and well, with apologists on both sides disclaiming all responsibility.

Wal-Mart's rise is similar in some respects to that of all of these Abrahamic religions. Wal-Mart's founder was Sam Walton, a businessman from the middle of nowhere who opened his first department store in Newport, Arkansas. Like Muhammad, his primary vocation was that of a tradesman. And similar to both Abraham and Muhammad, Walton was required to relocate his base of operations after a hostile reception to Bentonville, Arkansas. Here, in 1950, he opened his first store: Walton's Five and Dime. It was a discount store that saw Walton sacrifice profit margin for the sake of market share. He became something of a civic leader in Bentonville, much in the same way that Abraham became a powerful and important figure in Canaan. By the 1960s, Walton had a chain of a dozen stores in Arkansas, and the new company was rechristened as Wal-Mart. Note the early regionalism found in Wal-Mart's growth process that mirrors that of the Abrahamic religions.

By the end of the 1980s, Wal-Mart had a presence in more than half of the states in the US. A year after the death of Sam Walton in 1992, the company is represented in every state in the country. Wal-Mart began its evangelizing mission within a couple of years of that, expanding into Mexico, China, Germany, Argentina, India, and many others. Note that Wal-Mart's greatest success came after the death of its founder, something that is also true of all Abrahamic faiths. Like Christianity, Wal-Mart is intimately tied to the American government, with Hillary Clinton, the former First Lady and current Secretary of State, having served on the company's Board of Directors for seven years, a stint only ended by her husband's successful run for the presidency in 1992. Most Americans are Christians (or at least claim to be) and almost all of them are Wal-Mart shoppers. Hardly a coincidence, I'd say.

Wal-Mart has a number of subsidiary brands including Sam's Club and Marketside. This is similar to how there are numerous forms of all of the Abrahamic Religions, despite the fact that they all serve essentially the same purpose. Compare Sunni Islam to Shi'a Islam or Roman Catholicism to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. More options allow people to make the choices most consistent with their lifestyles while having the same needs met regardless. Wal-Mart's most recent marketing slogan says that they are "saving people money so they can live better lives." And indeed, what is the point of any religion -- Abrahamic or otherwise -- if it does not help its devotees live better lives?

Wal-Mart's aggressive expansionism in the years after the death of its founder is similar to the way Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all expanded in the same respective timeframes in more than a few ways. Wal-Mart has a reputation of driving smaller stores out of business when it adds a new location to a particular area. It took a while, but Judaism put almost all forms of Levantine paganism out of business with its early military theocracy. In the Roman Empire, Christianity was just one of many faiths until it claimed an Emperor as a believer. Greek, Roman, Gallic, Germanic, Celtic, Slavic, Baltic, and Magyar paganism were all supplanted by the Cross as well as gnosticism, Manicheanism, and any number of non-European indigenous faiths. Islam stamped out the Arabian religion that gave us genies as well as Mithraism and Turkic shamanism while Zoroastrianism and the Yezidi faith hang on by threads. For both the Abrahamic religions and Wal-Mart, there is no cooperation or even competition -- there is simply domination. It is a zero-sum game for the hearts and minds of consumers, both religious and commercial.

Abrahamic religions and Wal-Mart are both heavily criticized for supposedly dishonest practices and heavy-handed expansionism. Both have featured a certain number of setbacks over the years; Wal-Mart was forced to withdraw from Germany, its biggest European market after the United Kingdom, which neatly reflects the growing secularization of the continent and the increasing irrelevance of Christianity to Europe's mindset. Within each of the Abrahamic religions, there are calls for reform amongst disaffected practitioners and sometimes there's dowright apostasy. Every day, the protest movement against Wal-Mart grows larger. There is currently a pending class action lawsuit against Wal-Mart on behalf of its female employees, making it potentially one of the largest in history as this would include a group of over one million people.

In comparing the rise and spread of the Abrahamic religions with that of Wal-Mart, it's clear that the key similarities lie in aggressive expansionism and the sheer force of numbers behind them. What's perhaps more intangible is the nagging feeling that at some point along the way, they all lost sight of how and as what they had originally begun. It is fun to win the numbers game, but then again, is that really all there is?

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