Sharing the Spirit of Christmas Where Can It Take Us in the New Year?

~ “Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,

The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be. “
~ Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1850

~ “They are Man’s”, said the Spirit. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. The boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree. But most of all, beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.” ~ Charles Dickens, 1843
~ “The angels said, ‘O Mary, your Lord gives you good news of a Word from Him. His name is the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, honored in this world and in the next and one of those who are granted nearness to God. And he shall speak to men in his cradle, and as a grown man, and shall be one of the righteous.” ~ The Koran, 1192.
~ “We have a Christmas tree that I bought years back. We are buying new ornaments. All I wish for is to raise my daughter to be loving and tolerant. This is why we are celebrating the occasion with Christians,” ~ Bissan al-Qishawi, 2014.
~ “The wealthiest Americans—those who earned $200,000 or more—reduced the share of their income they gave to charity by 4.6 percent from 2006 to 2012. Meanwhile, Americans who earned less than $100,000 (including poor and middle-class families with two working adults) donated 4.5 percent more of their income in 2012 than in 2006.” ~ Charity Navigator, 2013
~ “Christmas is never truly Christmas if we do not practice Jesus’ solidarity with the poor, the weak, and the neglected. Christmas is a season to see our own poverty, to see a companion in every person who suffers and to see Jesus in a needy brother or sister.” ~ Cardinal Tagle, 2014
~ “Less inequality is likely to make economies work better by increasing the ability of the entire population to participate, on more equal terms. An important condition for this, in turn, is that politics not be unduly beholden to wealth.” ~ Martin Wolf, 2014
~ “But it was Christmas Eve; believe; belief thrilled the night air, and they started to sing, all down the German lines. Men who would drown in mud, be gassed, or shot, or vaporized by falling shells, or live to tell, heard for the first time then – Stille Nacht. Heilige Nacht. Alles schläft, einsam wacht…Cariad, the song was a sudden bridge from man to man; a gift to the heart from home, or childhood, some place shared… When it was done, the British soldiers cheered.” ~ Carol Ann Duffy, 2011

We are swamped in commercialism at Christmas time – even more so this year when Americans are spending more than ever since 2007. But, perhaps, like me, you have paused to ponder that this is a time for giving, sparing a thought for the needy. Also, in a time of goodwill and good cheer, it is a time for sharing – particularly with those we are seemingly much at odds with in the world. If we look around us far enough, we will see that surprising things often happen at this time of year.
Peoples from different faiths and communities come together in many different parts of the world. As Carol Ann Duffy’s poem so beautifully evokes, it happened in 1914 when British and German soldiers celebrated Christmas together in an impromptu truce. No matter how fleetingly, groups often strongly opposed to each other come together. Often, this is because, recent grievances and violent differences aside, deeper underlying principles and beliefs dating way back actually unite rather than divide us. This is true with political differences among peoples. It is also true of the class divides separating rich and poor.
So, in thinking about this as a time of giving, we should not only think of mere charitable donations, but also about how goodwill fostered now can carry us forward with new determination for change and for peace in 2015. As English poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson, says in his poem, with Christmas coming at year’s end, it is as if we always expect the “wild bells” of change to ring in the new!
Key Questions : Across the world today, does Christmas as a time of celebration separate peoples of different faiths and nations or bring them together? How can we harness the goodwill derived from spontaneously coming together to celebrate into a more lasting movement for working together to bring about change? How can this help us tackle the major challenges of peace and inequality our nation and our world face?
Christmas, Charitable Giving and Social Change : Alongside the orgy of Christmas spending and celebration we indulge in for ourselves, there are many individuals and organizations who think of the poor and the needy. Ironically, from what Charity Navigator tells about us Americans, since the 2008-9 Great Recession, it has been the middle class and the less well-off who have actually increased their giving to others in need. Meanwhile those earning over $200,000 a year have actually reduced the share of their income they give.
At the same time, inequality and poverty are widening significantly in our society. This has been made worse by reduced public spending on key public goods such as education, making access to skills and college much tougher for less well-off youth. Again this year, the U.S. Congress has cut spending on food stamps and is contemplating deeper cuts in social safety net spending. This as it extended greater assistance to Wall Street banks, reducing the regulatory oversight of Dodd-Frank and giving them more time to comply with what remains. Yet, at Holiday Time, we Americans collectively give over $150 billion to a range of charities here and abroad.
Christmas, Goodwill and Promoting Peace : At a time when the USA is leading a coalition to fight Islamic State, anti-Muslim feeling runs high in many Western nations. It is therefore ironic that Islam – as Christianity – actually reveres Jesus Christ, whose birthday we have been celebrating. The Koran explicitly heralds Jesus as a prophet – seeing him as the Messiah foretold in the Torah (the Jewish Bible) – and proclaiming his message as that of Allah (God).
In modern times, ironically, the commercial omni-presence today of Christmas as a holiday celebration has brought together people of differing faiths in many societies in the world. In the USA, sharing the spirit of festive giving, Muslims and Jews together undertake social work to help the needy – for instance in Detroit. In Senegal, Muslims and Christians come together to celebrate each others’ religious festivals – Christmas and the Muslim Eid – with equal passion and gusto.
Even in tense, divided Jerusalem, secular and inter-faith scouting events and parades bring Christians, Muslims and Jews together. While deep divides and hatreds remain for some, Christmas has become a catalyst that can bring otherwise conflicted communities closer together. As Palestinian Muslim Bassan al-Qishawi, a resident of Gaza City that was wracked by destruction from Israeli bombs last summer, said recently : she wants to celebrate Christmas with her Christian neighbors this year in order to teach her daughter “to love and grow up to be tolerant”.
Leadership, Trust and Building a Shared Future : Christmas and the turn of the New Year come as a moment in time that offers the prospect of fundamental change in society and in the world. At the grassroots, the common man – like you and me – senses this. But it requires leaders in society, politicians, to take up the challenge of this opportunity and make it a reality. And we need to push them to do nothing less. As we saw so tellingly in 2008-09, trust and shared confidence are invaluable, crucial to individual and societal success. Without them, prosperity can lapse into deep recession. Without them, even societies that, at their core, share deeply held common beliefs of long standing, can sink into mutual suspicion and even war. Absent trust, and leadership, no system of laws – no matter how well drafted – can work in practice. Our national and global economic systems – based upon market capitalism – depend crucially upon the rule of law.
But renewed prosperity and social peace here and across the world hinge upon forging a shared future offering more – not less – equal prospects for all. As leading Financial Times economist Martin Wolf notes, reducing inequality will enhance economic growth by enabling more of the population to participate, thus growing the market for all. It is noteworthy that those nations and regions experiencing sustained faster growth long-term (over the past quarter century) have also been the ones better sharing the accruing benefits.
In America – as elsewhere in the advanced nations – this will mean facing the twin challenges of greater public good investment in education, skills, infrastructure and basic research – as well as extended income support benefits when retraining is needed in future – and of keeping markets open and competitive and free from excessive market power of a few dominant firms. In poorer, developing nations, it will mean far greater competitive access to the major advanced nations’ markets – especially for agricultural produce and light manufactures. As Cardinal Tagle notes, very wisely, for the Philippines, it will mean making serious, sustained efforts at overcoming poverty, social subjugation and exclusion.
‘Development as Freedom’ : In 1999, Nobel Prize-winning Indian economist Amartya Sen wrote a powerful well-argued book telling us that economic and social – and thus political – development mean greater freedom. That is greater freedom for the individual and freedom generally (for all) within societies. In our globalized world today, we all have a major long-term stake in maintaining and increasing freedom for individuals and for all. We need to call upon our leaders – and ourselves – to face up to the challenges to freedom of choice here and across the world. Where tyranny and the use of force threaten this – most notably in such places as Syria, Ukraine, Tibet, Egypt, Palestine, The Sahel among others – we should find effective and bold ways to support the oppressed through humanitarian – and if necessary other – means.
Towards A Happier New Year : Let us hope, as Charles Dickens calls upon us to do, we recognize the appalling potential pitfalls from the twin ills of Ignorance (lack of knowledge) and Want (poverty), and help move our societies and their leaders to address them more courageously in 2015!
I wish you and all of us A Very Happy New Year!