Sunday, December 30, 2012

Noblesse Oblige, Boxing, and the Limits of Charity

A post challenging us on the link between charity, other-ness, and equality.  For more click here ...

Detail from tapestery, "Adoration of the Magi "by Edward Burne Jones

December 26, 2004, was my first encounter with Boxing Day.  On that day, while my family was en route to Hong Kong for a holiday, I was surprised by the greeting, "Happy Boxing Day!"  I learned that although Boxing Day is a holiday mostly unknown to Americans, it is a national holiday in most of the rest of the English speaking world.

When I think of boxing, I think of men like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, wearing gloves and in a ring.  When I first heard the greeting, I thought it rather odd that an entire British holiday had been devoted to boxing!   How wrong was my first impression!  The term "Boxing" in the "Boxing Day" holiday does not refer to the pugilist sport.  Rather, Boxing Day is a day devoted to preparing or donating to "boxes" for those who are less fortunate than one's self.

One blogger, Lloyd Alter, explains that during the British colonial era, the Victorian gentry needed their staff to work on Christmas.  The day after Christmas was the day the staff was given time off so that they could celebrate their own Christmas holiday.  Along with this day off, "boxes" were prepared to send home with the staff.  The boxes contained items the gentry no longer needed as well as Christmas bonuses.  Here, the history of the term gets a bit murky.  There appear to have been several types or uses of boxes.  Churches would also put out boxes to collect alms, and people would fill those boxes with items to be given away.

In other words, "Boxing Day" is a day when we box up items we no longer need and share those things with others who are less fortunate than ourselves.  From an era that pre-dated labor unions, Boxing Day is a holiday devoted to the working class.  In the case of Boxing Day, the impulse toward better treatment of the working class came from their superiors -- perhaps borne from a sense of Noblesse Oblige -- rather than being won by hard labor bargaining.

But there is another, interesting, side to this charitable impulse, highlighted in particular by the writers of Snopes (dot) com.  Namely, Boxing Day implicitly recognizes, symbolizes, and even institutionalizes class division and inequity in society.  The Snopes web site says:  "The holiday's roots can be traced to Britain, where Boxing Day is also known as St. Stephan's Day.  Reduced to the simplest essence, its origins are found in a long ago practice of giving cash or durable goods to those of the lower classes.  Gifts among equals were bestowed on or before Christmas day, but beneficences to those less fortunate were bestowed one day after."

Snopes points out the interesting twist that charity is not about reciprocal gift giving, but rather of a one way donation to someone who was not a social equal.  Gifts to social equals happen on Christmas day, gifts to those of unequal status are on the day after.  Class differences are thus institutionalized.  Return gifts, in response to a charitable donation, would be seen as a presumptuous act of laying claim to equality.  Giving charity is far easier to stomach than bestowing equality.

Detail from tapestery, "Adoration of the Magi "by Edward Burne Jones

This notion of presumptuousness alluded to by Snopes caused me to do a bit of personal musing on the idea of employers, masters, servants, and the role of charity in a unequal world.  During the Christmas season, we are always reminded that Jesus himself was born into a life so "underprivileged" that his parents couldn't even afford a place fit for a woman to give birth.  Everything about Jesus's life was determined largely by the circumstances of his birth, just as it is with most of us.

Americans aren't particularly happy about the idea of class, even to the point of denying that it exists in our culture.  For example, much of the folklore of American history has to do with the official rejection of social "classes" and the popular myth that anyone can be someone in America.  Images abound of pioneers making their way across the Prairie or of immigrants passing through Ellis Island to a new life of opportunity.  Yet, at the same time, there is in fact less social mobility in America than Americans would like to admit.  

In spite of great efforts to build a middle class by way of the New Deal and the Great Society, in 2012 the USA has a large and growing gap between both ownership of wealth and distribution of income (see William Domhoff article HERE).  Most Americans not only underestimate this gap, but also over-estimate their own social mobility.  (The Economist magazine reports that parental income in the USA is a better predictor of a child's future in America than in much of Europe.)

The ever-present poor are a reminder that there is nothing new under the sun.  Much of American social history has also been influenced by the former existence of legalized slavery and the vestiges of that system that continue today.  Images of the ethnic melting pot contrast with the realities of ethnic ghettos.

Many of us engage in acts of individual charity, like packing up boxes at Christmas for the poor.  This is a worthy and commendable endeavor.  But what about the bigger picture?

While individual charity is an admirable thing, it is even more important -- and harder --  to step outside our individual paradigm to perceive and do something about the larger systems that contribute to injustice and inequality.  It is in this latter task -- how to conceive of and to construct systems in society that are more just and which lead to more justice -- which adds additional intellectual and spiritual challenges for those who are willing to take a look at larger systems and advocate for policies that result in more justice overall for more people.   And by that, yes, I do mean economic justice.  (As of this date, this blog has 47 entries with the tag "social justice.")

Could it be that there is a spiritual measure, in whether we are even willing to perceive of an unjust system, and then additionally in how we respond to systemitized injustice?  Assuming we even perceive it, do we rationalize and defend, or are we open minded to consider how we might respond in a way to create more just systems?  And then, what if the creation of a more just system requires us to take the hardest step of all -- to give up our own place of power and privilege?  What if we felt compelled to accept as equals those whom we see as the beneficiaries of our charitable impulses, and to recognize our own impoverishment as compared with the ideals we strive for?

The New Testament teaches that Jesus left a place of glory and splendor to be born into poverty in a stable.  Are we truly prepared to follow his example?  To follow Jesus, are we required to recognize our gilded status and then to follow suit after him, to be reborn (figuratively speaking) into a filthy ox pen and to take on a life of poverty and hardship?   I suspect that most of us would instead prefer to throw some crumbs to those we see as beneath ourselves -- patting ourselves on the back for our beneficence -- while we take great care to justify and maintain the real status quo.

The real limit of the "trickle down theory" of economic justice is that it runs contrary to every aspect of our human nature. It is indeed a good thing to box up the fruits of our excess and send them to someone who has greater need.  To give to others does help them, and it makes us feel good.  We all ought to participate in making boxes.  But it's not enough.  It's no wonder that Jesus told his followers, "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God" (Matt. 19:24).

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