The holidays are upon us, bringing with them the consideration of how to simplify the way we celebrate the birth of Jesus. Over the years my family has used various strategies to combat the commercialism of the season. There have been homemade gifts, ranging from lovely to ludicrous (giving the gift of laughter). We’ve handed out coupons for every personal service we can imagine the recipient could desire. Then there are thrift store and yard sale finds that assume a second life in a new context. We’ve donated money to worthy causes in honor of our gift recipients and we’ve purchased items that support cottage industries in developing countries. We shop at fundraising holiday bazaars for worthy organizations. All of this has been great fun and the extent to which we’ve unplugged from consumerism has been satisfying. But in the end, it’s clear our choices haven’t had much impact on what ails the world.
Keith Helmuth, in "Why Simple Living Is Not Enough" (p.6), makes just this point. "While I greatly value the tradition of working for social change in an incremental way. . . . Rejection of materialism and the promotion of simple living is not enough." He suggests that we take a new look at our monetary system. "The main problem is that our monetary system requires, as a matter of course, that all of us—good, bad, and indifferent—regularly do bad things for good reasons; things we routinely need to do in the normal course of our . . . lives, but that clearly are damaging to . . . Earth’s living communities." If our monetary system could be redesigned so that financial incentives work towards ecological and social good, he says, we might finally have the key to large-scale social change. "A redesigned monetary system that makes it easy, natural, and profitable" to make ecologically sound choices would promote extensive adaptation to positive lifestyle changes. Perhaps a major challenge to Friends, often quite innovative in their approach to circumstances, will be to work backwards from that vision of a world that makes sense both economically and ecologically to discover the pathways from the present to a reformed world.
This fall I’ve attended demonstrations against the proposed war on Iraq. The first took place on a local campus. Looking at the 500 people gathered, I saw many grey-haired activists, fellow travelers from the years of protesting the Vietnam War. Some of us were accompanied by our sons, deeply concerned young men who blended right in with the on-campus protestors. I looked at the fresh faces of these offspring—so similar to their parents 35 years ago—and the thought came, "How long, O Lord? How long must we cry out for respectful relationships between people and between nations?" My husband commented that, when he was a student leading campus demonstrations against the Vietnam War, he wondered who the older grey-haired activists that showed up were. Many of them since have become friends and mentors, the former occupants of Civilian Public Service camps and protestors of WWII. But, as that older generation is rapidly passing away and a new one is rising up behind us, it’s easy to feel perpetually embroiled in an unending struggle for peace and social justice.
Unending though it may seem, it is ironic to be engaged with these concerns from a position of privilege. We live with an abundance of blessings. Thinking of the struggling mothers in Iraq and Afghanistan, Palestine and Israel, who are caught in multigenerational embattlements, my heart breaks for them. How incredibly much more difficult it must be to seek peace when one lacks the ability to address the most basic human needs—food, shelter, water, healthcare, employment, education—when one’s babies are dying in one’s arms from easily eradicated diseases or from bombs launched in misguided attempts to wring peace from intractable circumstances. This certainly puts the onus on us who are living in comparative comfort to lead the way to a better world for all.
In this season when we remember the birth of the Prince of Peace, I think of contemporary mothers in the Holy Land, and pray that we will find the path to lasting peace and goodness for their little ones, and for the whole world.