Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Allah Bless Us, Every One!

A really sweet story turned up on Twitter today: four years ago an English toddler saw a man with a full white beard on the street and called out "Santa!"  The man heard him, gave him some money, and has continued playing the role of Father Christmas ever since: befriending the boy and his family, giving him and his sister presents for Christmas and on their birthdays.

The punch line is that the bearded man is a Muslim accountant named Hussain.  Which of course is not surprising, because Islam no less than Christianity has normative traditions about charity and kindness.  So do Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and probably all religions.  Not everyone is equally charitable, of course, and what makes the story of Alfie and Hussain so charming is that Hussain's response was so gratuitous, so random.  Given the widespread hostility to Muslims in majority-Christian countries, it also took some courage on his part to come knocking on the door of a Christian family he didn't know, and offer kindness.  So the story also has the exemplary function of encouraging people to ignore cultural and religious prejudice, which is also nice.

But I want to Grinch for a moment, because of one Twitter response that was echoed by numerous others:
Makes me sad that this gentleman embodies the spirit of Christmas so much more than many so-called Christians in America - especially our current POTUS. Actions matter more than words.
Awww, that Mooslim is acting like a Christian!  Since kindness and charitable giving are part of Islam, this remark, though well-meant, sums up the sectarian imperialism of many religious believers.  I'm not singling out Christians here: I imagine that many Muslims or Buddhists or Jews would see a case of Christian generosity the same way, as an approximation of their religion by an unbeliever.  No religion or culture has a monopoly on virtue, especially what might be called consensus virtues.  This story is touching because the impulse and action it describes is a human virtue that would delight people even if we'd never invented religion.  And it appears that many non-human animals exhibit similar behavior.

Nor am I persuaded of the supposed wisdom of children, about which another person gushed.  I see no reason to suppose that Alfie saw Hussain's "kindness" -- he saw the beard -- or that he expected Santa to come right back and see him.  But children also may decide that an old lady with a hooked nose and a big chin is a witch, just because of the way she looks.  Come to think of it, so may adults.

What is "the spirit of Christmas," anyway?  It often seems to be equated with charitable giving, which by Christian norms should be a year-round practice, not a seasonal one.  As I've pointed out before, Christians (and not only Christians, I'm sure) are intensely ambivalent about charitable giving, which they often deride as "handouts," degrading to the recipient and unpleasant but spiritually hygienic to the giver.  Maybe that was why Jesus recommended it, I don't know.  I don't see anything in the Nativity legends of the gospels which foregrounds charity: the Three Wise Men, for example, brought gifts to Bethlehem not out of charity but as tribute to the newborn King of the Jews.  Christmas as a Christian feast day is about the ritual commemoration of the birth of the Savior, not about gift-giving or spending time with family, which are common to numerous religions and/or cultures and characterize other holidays.

Of course you can read anything you like into those stories, as with the Bible or other scriptures generally.  But since generosity and kindness, specifically taking pleasure in doing something for other people, are basic human impulses, I dislike to see religious believers of any stripe trying to take monopolistic credit for them.  But there's also that contrasting, inhibiting impulse, the fear of giving too much and having nothing left, the fear of giving charity to someone who doesn't deserve it, the fear also of being rebuffed by a person afraid of being degraded by a "handout," the fear of looking foolish.  The lesson I take from the story of Hussain and Alfie is one of permission.  It's all right to give, it's all right to receive.  Go, and do likewise.