Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Incarnating Christmas year round

The company has gone. The tree flops sadly at the curbside. The decorations are stowed away for another year.  As we resume our normal activities, the feel-good generosity and goodwill of Christmas fade.  With the Salvation Army Christmas kettles out of sight, the needs of others are out of mind.

Howard Thurman, an African American whose thought and spirituality influenced Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, challenged the tendency to forget about others once the Christmas season comes to an end. “When the song of the angels is stilled/ When the star in the sky is gone/When kings and princes are home/When the shepherds are back with their flocks/The work of Christmas begins.”

In his poem, Thurman goes onto paraphrase a section of chapter twenty-five from the Gospel of Matthew that informs part of the social doctrine of Christianity. Here Jesus of Nazareth outlines some of the behaviors that he expects from his disciples.  These include feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, visiting the imprisoned and caring for the sick.  Furthermore, the disciple should undertake these actions with an attitude of humility and joy.

While the tasks that we associate with Christmas – shopping, baking, decorating, and socializing – can be tiring, it is more difficult to live the social teaching implicit in Christmas throughout the rest of the year.  The work of Christmas asks us to honour the dignity of every person, regardless of that person’s circumstance and in spite of our own negative biases. The work of Christmas invites us to walk with others in their hour of need, even when the walk is inconvenient and comes at a personal cost.

Years ago, I had a lesson in what it means to live Christmas beyond the month of December.  A gentleman with whom I sat on a board made a comment when asked about his day.  He said his day was wonderful; he had had a number of unexpected opportunities to help others.  At that time, I was a young mother busy with the demands of three small children; unexpected opportunities to help others were, in my mind, unwelcome interruptions in my schedule.   His self-giving attitude amazed me, and his comment challenged me to look at my own selfishness. 

The social teaching that Thurman championed in his poem does not require us to engage in grand gestures to save the world. While there will be individuals, like King, who are remembered for impacting social change, most of us will never be the subject of a Wikipedia entry. Our actions are more likely to be ordinary than heroic and will remain largely unknown to the world.  Life, God, the Spirit, or however you choose to name it, frequently calls us to act in small ways.  As Mother Theresa once said, “Do ordinary things with extraordinary love”.   The attitude behind the gesture can make the simplest action grand.

In some ways, the work of Christmas stands in opposition to our annual custom of formulating New Year’s resolutions, which typically focus on improving the self or one’s situation.  Year after year, our most common resolutions – to lose weight, to spend less and save more, to quit smoking, to get organized and to spend more time with family – have little to do with incarnating the spirit of Christmas. 

Christmas, as one of my neighbours put it, kick starts our giving; it does not restrict generosity and goodwill to a few weeks of the year.  The season of giving reminds us of the manner in which we are to live from January to December. 

There is no question that preparing and celebrating Christmas can be a whole lot of work but the work is short-lived.  When the beauty, wonder and merrymaking of Christmas have past, when we have returned to our humdrum nine-to-five routines, it is time to get down to the hard work of Christmas.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

We should teach our children the Christmas story

We go to extreme lengths to avoid the religious aspects of Christmas in the public sphere.  Christian beliefs about Christmas might offend someone in our secular and multicultural society, so we ignore its religious and historical background.

The reluctance to mention the origins of this much-loved holiday permeates early childhood learning programs and public schools. Although I support the neutrality of religion in public institutions, there are, in my view, some good reasons to introduce children to the Christmas story.

Today's children are the unlucky beneficiaries of a shift in the way we approach the celebration of Christmas
My children were on the cusp of a shift in society’s approach to the celebration of Christmas. Within a generation, the emphasis on the secular side of the holiday has virtually drowned out its religious origins.

Nativity scenes, for example, were not uncommon in public spaces, and on the personal level, many families still attended a church service on Christmas Day.  In the classroom, the Christmas story, carols and art had a cultural place. A babe in a manger and three kings co-existed with Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman.  While the secular themes of Christmas had begun to dominate, most schools still included at least a couple of religious carols in their annual Christmas concerts.

My grandchildren are the unlucky beneficiaries of the legacy of this shift. At an early childhood literacy program that I attend with my two-year old grand daughter, the leaders have been very careful to avoid the religious side of Christmas, restricting songs and stories to its secular manifestations.

The nativity story has much to offer
Yet, the story of Christmas has a lot to offer our children. It is beautiful in both its simplicity and message. As long as educators present it in a neutral manner, we should not be afraid of exposing our children to the origins of the season.

Lynn Proulx, a veteran early childhood educator, thinks that the story of the nativity resonates at a deep level with children. She said that it is wonderful to watch children as they listen to the story.  They feel sad when no one will help Mary and Joseph; then they feel happy when Jesus is born. Feelings of love and peace replace their feelings of anxiety and worry.  The story, said Proulx, provides an excellent opportunity to teach empathy and to help children learn the values of kindness, helping and sharing. 

The story of the nativity raises questions for children about the manner in which we treat one another.   It should raise the same sort of questions for us.  As Quaker theologian Parker J. Palmer framed it,  “What good works wait to be born in us?”  

Our country is rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition
Of course, there are other stories that teach these same values, and that have nothing to do with religion. However, the story of the nativity should hold a special place within our society because it is part of our collective patrimony.  Our country’s roots go back to the Judeo-Christian tradition. This tradition has shaped our culture, values, social institutions and judicial system.  Our heritage includes centuries of religious art, music and literature that drew (and continues to draw) inspiration from a babe in a manger. Exposure to this cultural canon makes for a well-rounded education and a better understanding of our self as a nation.

There is also a historical background to the holiday traditions that we continue to hold dear.  Children may wonder why we put up lights, decorate trees, and give one another gifts. These traditions are part of the history of Christmas and western culture.

The Christmas message is universal
Our children intuit the universality of the Christmas message.  It is summed up in the very first Christmas greeting, “peace on earth and goodwill towards men”.  It is in the air and in our greetings to one another over the holiday season, which encourages and inspires us to act with greater generosity.  While everyone does not believe in “the reason for the season”, there is something transcendent about Christmas.

It is shortsighted to restrict children (and ourselves) to a candy cane diet of Christmas cuteness.  There are meat and potatoes on the table, too. Christmas is a celebration of substance. Its Christian origins have a place alongside the magic of Santa Claus and his flying reindeers.  Knowledge of the Christmas story, with its universal message of goodwill towards all people, may actually be in the best interest of a secular and multicultural society.

Teaching kids gratitude at Christmas

Maybe I am romanticizing when I say that the Christmas of my childhood was not about stuff.  There were fewer products, less pervasive advertising, and no Black Friday sales.  A few pages at the back of the Sears Wish Book were the inspiration for visions of sugarplums dancing in my head.

Surely, the focus on consumerism is affecting our kids and their ideas of happiness.  To find out I contacted Mike Ferry, author of Teaching Happiness and Innovation, whose research on happiness focuses on children.

It turns out that my instinct was correct. Ferry sees consumerism as a “big problem” for kids and a roadblock on the way to becoming appreciative and contented individuals. “In the consumer age, our happiness is based on consuming the latest and greatest and newest.”  This message is not good for our children.

The abundance paradox
Over his years of researching the science of happiness, Ferry has bumped into a phenomenon called the abundance paradox; the more we have, the less we appreciate anything.  Mass production and cheap labour markets have created an abundance of readily available goods.  As a result of this abundance, “we live in a throw away, disposable age.  If our kids are growing up within this abundance paradox concept then it’s really hard for them to see the value in things; it’s hard for them to enjoy anything.”

While Ferry points out that “we might be wired to whine”, modeling gratitude for our kids will help them (and us) become more grateful. “If we can teach our kids to practice gratitude in the home, then we will be able to combat some of this abundance paradox and our children will start to appreciate the little things in life and will be much happier as a result.”  This is not only good for the child; it is good for society because grateful individuals have a positive impact on the world.

There has always been hype leading up to Christmas morning.  With the abundance of goods, advertising, and the incessant question, “What do you want for Christmas?” kids can easily get the message that Christmas is about them and their stuff. The emphasis on getting things encourages kids to focus on themselves and ratchet ups their wants during the holiday season.

But there is no need to despair. We can help them become more appreciative and aware of others.  Ferry has suggestions for practicing gratitude with kids in the classroom, some of which I have adapted for Christmas.

Practice gratitude at home:
  • Play the gratitude game around the table before a meal.  Choose a Christmas related word and assign each member of the family one letter.  Each person names one thing for which they are grateful that begins with their letter.  (C is for Christmas cookies; H is for home, etc.)

  • Involve your children in charitable giving. Shortlist a few charities, and talk with your child about their work. Let them help you select the one to which you will make a donation. Encourage them to contribute from their piggy bank.  

  • If you are buying a gift for a person in need, let your children help select the gift.  

  • Avoid the free-for all approach to opening gifts. Take turns. Look at everyone’s gifts, not only your own. Say thank you to those present, and follow up with a phone call or card to those not present.

Everyone wants their kids to be happy on Christmas morning so it can be tempting to go overboard with the gifts.  At the same time, we want to raise kids who appreciate the gifts they receive and the people in their lives.  For the long-term emotional well-being of our kids, it’s important that we successfully navigate the abundance paradox with them.

Our Christmas memories stay with us for a lifetime.  When I look back at the many Christmas celebrations over the decades of my life, I remember moments (like looking through the Wish Book) and not stuff (with the exception of a Chatty Cathy doll that I had desperately wanted, loved much, and played with for a very long time).

Learning the wisdom of another paradox  
I remember sitting with the Wish Book on my lap until I had narrowed down my wants before penning that all-important letter to Santa.  It was a useful exercise that taught me the wisdom of another paradox. Less is more.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

What does faith have to do with morality?

“La foi n’a rien à voir avec la morale.”  Faith has nothing to do with morality.

graffiti scrawled on the back of a sign 

We came upon this piece of graffiti three years ago while in Tournon in southern France.  It could have been written yesterday in response to the Islamic terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 129 people and wounded scores of others.

When crimes like this one occur, it is tempting to demonize religion and believers. The Abrahamic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam – come under particular scrutiny. Some argue that the Hebrew Bible, the foundational text of these religions, encourages violence and immoral acts.  They point to passages of scripture that command the stoning of adulteresses or the smiting of one’s enemies to the practice of slavery and to misogyny. 

These passages are clearly problematic from today's moral perspective, and I have no intention of defending them.  It would be dishonest to pretend that over the millennia religion has not played a part in man’s inhumanity to man. However, it is quite a leap to claim that religion has nothing to do with morality. Faith can be a strong influence on morality and can govern behavior, for better or for worse. Terrorist attacks committed in the name of religion illustrate the worst of that behaviour. 

No rational person, especially a deeply religious one, accepts violence as moral. Rational people (and most religious people fall into this category) share a universal understanding of morality. Boiled down to a basic principle, morality might be summed up as “do no harm” to others or yourself.   Violence as an exercise of faith is especially odious since love and compassion are inherent qualities of the world’s great religions.

We do not need to think very hard to find inspiring examples of faith filled moral individuals. Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jean Vanier and Jimmy Carter spring to mind.  I can think of examples from my own small town. Whether they are handing out food at local food banks or spearheading actions to reduce poverty or holding the hands of the dying, religious individuals are positively impacting my community. 

The Judeo-Christian tradition has shaped my understanding of morality as it has shaped that of much of the western world.  Its moral tradition, with which we struggle, precedes and goes beyond the “do no harm” principle.  For the prophets, three things were necessary: to love mercy, to act justly, and to walk humbly with God.  For Jesus of Nazareth, the great commandment was to love your neighbour as yourself. To love, to be merciful, to be concerned about others, to be humble are some of the ways that a person of faith honors the goodness of God and behaves in a moral way.

Islamic terrorists are not the only group of religious people who commit violence. One need only think of the Crusades, the burning of Protestant “heretics’ at the stake, or the bombing of abortion clinics to find other examples of religious zeal gone wrong.  In an unequivocal condemnation of the Paris attacks, Grand Mufti Shawki Allam of Egypt wrote, “We must remember that as recent attacks in many parts of the world indicate, violent extremism knows no particular faith. It is rather a perversion of the human condition, and must be dealt with as such.”

We cannot let this latest attack on humanity warp our collective moral sense and harden our hearts towards others.  Since the Paris attacks, there has been a backlash against Syrian refugees.  When I wrote this, 35,000 Canadians had signed a petition to stop the resettlement of Syrian refugees into Canada.  This is clearly irrational; many of the Syrian refugees are not even Muslim, and the terrorists carried French or Belgium passports. It is also wrong. Fear of those who are different can prevent us from doing the right thing, as much as it can motivate someone (like a terrorist) to do the wrong thing.

No one has a monopoly on morality. A person does not have to be religious to be good. And while one would hope or expect a religious person to be moral, we know this is not always the case.

Faith and morality are like two streams flowing into one river, shaping the river’s ability to sustain or destroy the life along its banks. For better or for worse, religion can shape behavior and influence moral decision-making.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

"New tolerance" is intolerance in disguise

“I am intolerant of intolerance” has become something of a mantra for suppressing unpopular opinions.  Today’s “new tolerance”, as it is called in academic circles, is redefining our understanding of tolerance and shaping our behavior in public spaces, but it is no friend to the exercise of conscience or the freedom of speech.

In the past, we used to “agree to disagree”.  It was a respectful way to end debates before they degenerated into personal and hateful attacks.  We disagreed without rejecting each other.  

We used to define tolerance in the phrase, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  We allowed others their opinions and the right to express them.

It is no longer acceptable to agree to disagree

New tolerance requires something different. It demands that we accept either the most popular view or the view of the most vocal group.  If we believe differently, those who hold the dominant view or shout the loudest accuse us of bigotry. They cannot countenance our intolerance; we must be muzzled. This is especially evident when it comes to issues around sexuality and gender.

The no-platform movement that is taking hold of western universities is the poster child of new tolerance.  The movement, which denies speakers a platform, fosters intolerant behavior in its misguided attempt to protect democracy and equality. 

Notable feminist Germaine Greer is the latest fatality of the no-platform movement. Greer was to lecture on “Women and Power: Lessons of the 20th Century” at Cardiff University in Wales.   Twenty seven hundred students signed a petition that accused her of misogyny and inciting hate and violence against transgender people. In an obvious twist of irony that students seemed to have missed, the no-platform campaign triggered its own form of violence against Greer.  Her opponents attacked her on social media sites, verbally crucifying her. Even though the university rejected the student petition, Greer declined to speak, citing concerns for her safety. 

Greer’s unspeakable crime was to say that she does not think “a post-operative transgendered man is a woman”.   But, others required Greer (and anyone who might hold the same opinion) to think differently.  Payton Quinn, a Huffington Post columnist writing in support of the petition, asserted, “If you believe that trans women are women, as you should because they are, then what Germaine Greer is espousing in her campaign against them is misogyny.”   

Greer, incidentally, was not campaigning against anyone. She has not written about transgender issues for years, nor was her lecture about transgender issues. In her words, “Its not my issue. I don’t even talk about them.”

New tolerance is not limited to the no-platform movement on university campuses. In Canada, some political parties require all candidates to be pro-choice.  A person who questions abortion must want to limit a woman’s right to choose; that person has no place in government. Trinity Western University requires students and staff to sign a covenant agreement with a clause that defines marriage as between one man and one woman. The institution must be discriminating against LGBTQ people; it must not be allowed a law school. 

It is no longer enough for a tolerant individual to treat people with the respect and dignity that all individuals – gay, trans or straight – deserve. We must now accept the most popular views and believe what the most vocal group tells us to believe.  To do otherwise, is anathema.

Tolerance takes practice
Tolerance does not come easily or naturally to us.  It requires practice.  From time to time, we need to check our attitudes.  We need to make sure that our concern for one group does not express itself as intolerance for someone else; that we do not become violent, hateful or self-righteous in the name of tolerance. 

Social media has done little to promote tolerance. Social media sites that invite us “to join the conversation” frequently become platforms for intolerance. Outrage, insult and hatred characterize many social media exchanges.  These exchanges do little to foster understanding of difference or to improve society.

It is easier to spew contempt than to allow different voices the latitude to speak. If we are serious about the freedoms of conscience and speech, we cannot bully or exclude others when their opinion goes against the grain.  Rejecting an opinion is not the same thing as rejecting a person or discriminating against a group.

New tolerance is a form of intolerance in disguise.