Rethinking Holiday Driven Partiality
Singer, Partiality, and Christmas Spending
Every now and then around Christmastime, the major media outlets run their occasional segments suggesting that there is a supposed “war on Christmas.” Essentially, much of the narrative is such that one side – the liberal or leftist side – is calling for the ceasing or discontinuing our recognition of Christmas as a national holiday or as something worth partaking in. In light of these narratives, we thought it appropriate to take on the issue for our next blog entry. To be clear, the concern here is not to determine whether there is actually a war on Christmas or whether there ought to be. Rather, here we are more concerned with whether there are some legitimate concerns with how Americans (and by extension those affluent peoples around the world who partake in Christmas) participate in Christmas festivities. In short, our question is this: Ought we rethink the way Christmas is celebrated?
At first glance it would appear difficult to agree that a war has been waged against Christmas. Not with every major media source broadcasting traditional Christmastime productions, retailers decorating their stores with Christmas symbols and iconography, and with most of the U.S. partaking in the festivities. With all this in sight, why would anyone have reason to think, let alone produce, numerous news segments around the notion that Christmas is under any serious attack? Even the most mildly cynical person would find it hard not to appeal to news firms merely seeking to maximize profits by generating a firestorm where there only lay kindling. But, I would like to put these concerns to the side for now. There may be some non-trivial concerns regarding how Americans take to celebrating Christmas.
In the U.S., Christmas is a holiday characterized (or advertised) as being a time of giving and thinking of others before oneself. To a certain degree, it does appear to be a kind of impartiality. But, American impartiality is so narrow, often confined to family members and close friends, that effectively it serves more as partiality. This is not to say that people do not donate and give charitably during the holidays. But, the question is whether enough is being done by the world’s most affluent countries to mitigate suffering around the world. Now, to be clear this is not a condemnation on the holiday itself or just another liberal’s entry into the so-called war on Christmas. Here, I am more than willing to grant the social and cultural efficacy of maintaining Christmas to a certain extent.
Certainly, this might not be a problem if there really were a figure like Santa Claus whose sole task involved delivering gifts to children across the globe. More realistically, it might even be helpful if most of the affluent countries around the world gave a substantial amount of money. But, of course (sorry children) there is not Santa Claus and most countries – while providing a great deal of money and aid – fail to serve this function as efficiently as private charities. Thus, we should not act as if there were and expect someone else to take care of those most distant from us. Peter Singer argues in Famine, Affluence, and Morality, that citizens of affluent countries ought to do more. While Singer’s article is a general indictment on current approaches to charitable giving, it may be a useful step to rethink the way we spend during holidays that have as their primary message to think of others.
Singer begins by positing a premise he believes to be incontrovertible (every rational person should agree to it): That suffering of the kind caused by starvation and general malnutrition is bad. The obvious and widely held belief that suffering is bad and ought to be prevented requires us to rethink our traditional notions of charitable and supererogatory acts. The principle formed in Singer’s article is as follows: If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought, morally, do it. Again, the implication here is that we give less to our friends and ourselves for the sake of this less fortunate than ourselves.
Traditionally Christians are called to give at least 10% of their income to various charitable causes. But, Singer’s principles arguable demand much more from us. Christmas is a trillion dollar business and much of that goes towards family members and close friends. At first glance, it seems difficult to say that such treatment is less optimal let alone immoral in light of the travesties that exist in the world. Further, what morality demands of us, at least for Singer, is that we give up our habits of buying non-essential items until the world remedies have reached a suitable point. And to those thinking that this sounds a bit too demanding, Singer would only respond by saying that it only seems so for two reasons. First, the calamities of our world are at a point where much is needed by the affluent peoples of the world. Second, we have been raised under false or unhelpful notions of charitable giving and what it means for an to be supererogatory. According to traditional notions of what it means for an act to be supererogatory, Singer’s demands are above and beyond the call of duty so to speak. Again, in light of the world’s calamities, what it means to give and what morality demands ought to be reconsidered especially during holidays such as Christmas, where the message is often to think of others before ourselves (in addition to the more sacred message of recognizing the birth of Jesus).
CHRISTIANITY AND THE TRADITION OF GIFT GIVING
Dr. Luke Murray
Now that the Christmas shopping season has come to a close, the presents opened, wrapping paper torn to shreds, and boxes of various goods strewn about the house looking for a closet to inhabit or a shelf to gather dust on, you might be asking yourself, why should we even bother with all the gifts? Why do we rush around like crazy people each December? Was it worth all the stress? Where did this tradition come from anyway?
Historically speaking, the tradition of giving gifts at Christmas comes from the Christian tradition of imitating the gifts given by the three “Magi” ( ‘Wise Men,’ or ‘Kings’ according to tradition) to the child Jesus. Just like the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh given to Jesus, Christians give gifts to their family and friends in order to share the joy of receiving the ultimate gift: the gift of God becoming human in the child Jesus at Christmas.
I think it fair to say that most people in the United States, even among Christians, have lost sight of the original purpose of giving gifts. Consumerism - the last remaining glue holding western society together - seems to have penetrated most, if not all Christian communities, so that rather than being an opportunity to recall the ultimate gift of God, Christmas has become just another excuse to indulge in excessive consumerism. To make matters worse, apart from forgetting the ultimate reason for giving, the suffering and poverty of countless people in our country and around the world makes the gifts seem even more unnecessary, if not immoral.
To be fair, many people are striving to live more modestly and according to the original purpose of Christmas. Yet with the spread of technology, the suffering of people can no longer be easily ignored, and so the question must be asked: Why should we give gifts at all at Christmas? Why not rather give all the money to charity to alleviate the suffering of homeless migrants or the victims of the latest natural disaster?
One Christian response would be to quote the words of Jesus when he allowed a woman to pour an expensive perfume on his feet rather than, as Judas objects, of selling it and giving the money to the poor. However, Jesus’ response that “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me” (Mat 26:11), does not mean that one can neglect giving to the poor. Jesus is actually citing another passage of the Bible which commands people to give to the needy.
“If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be...For the poor you will always have with you in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’" (Deut 15:7-11; emphasis mine)
From these words (and others), Christians have, for the past two thousand years, practiced giving 10% of their income as a ‘tithe’ for the aid of the poor and the support of the Church’s ministry (a practice that is on the decline unfortunately). The Catholic Church teaches that the goods of the Earth belong to all people, and while private property is legitimate to provide for one’s immediate family, hoarding money beyond what is necessary is the sin of greed and is effectively robbing from the poor.
The question of how much exactly to give to the poor was usually left to the individual’s conscience. Following the Old Testament precedent, 10% was encouraged since it was a small but still significant enough amount to help people remember that everything they have is ultimately a gift from God, and not their own. By encouraging people to be grateful for what they have and to see their neighbors - either in the street or today online - as their brothers and sisters, Christianity seeks to move people to aid others out of charity first, but if that fails to move them, to act out of duty for their brothers and sisters’ needs. Therefore, those who give expensive gifts at Christmas but fail to help alleviate the suffering of others, seem to have forgotten that God became human at Christmas to specifically help the poor. According to Christianity, Christ literally ‘emptied himself’ of his divine nature at Christmas by becoming human in order to alleviate our poverty with his own divine life.
To conclude, my main point is that we always have a duty to help the poor and suffering in our world, but that this does not mean we should never offer gifts to others. In my opinion, just as when the woman poured perfume on Jesus’ feet in preparation of his death and burial - serving a higher purpose to so speak - so there is nothing wrong with giving simple gifts at Christmas to share the joy of receiving the ultimate gift: God becoming a crying baby.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone!