North Shore Notes

After Giving Thanks

Harry Drabik

This time of year marks the start of the “holiday season” which has also become the beginning of holiday whining time. Some complain Christmas has become too commercial and has lost its true meaning. Others object to a public holiday with a Christian vase. But really, use of Season’s Greetings instead of Merry Christmas is a measure weaker in value than those promoting it like to believe. Personally, I’m NOT bothered by a cultural tradition such as Christmas observed in a nation where secularism and separation of church and state. Holiday sales and businesses shut on the 25th don’t require anyone to participate in worship. You can go to a candle ceremony or sit home listening to jazz and no one will use state authority to praise or fine you for doing so. In my view the working of our custom of the Christmas tradition is a good blend. I say that because I think the custom equitably recognizes both the overall religious tradition and the fact of belief both restrained from excess and protected by fair handed secular rule (something wanting when a sect drives legal definition and all but absent in theocratic states where those of other beliefs are subject to often harsh or violent discrimination).

Rather than being critical of those faiths which have seen the wisdom and value of life under secular authority, I think an annual nod of appreciation can go to them for their cooperation in the process. Those of strong (I might say rigid) faith may say “no compromise” over principles Godly, but I say we in the west saw centuries of “no compromise” religious warfare between Catholic and Protestant destroy lives and tear states apart. Practical compromise as seen in separation of church and state beats slaughtering one another in the name of God and is not to be confused with inviting “no compromise” and religious segregation back under the stealth cloak of “religious freedom.” Faith that places religious practice first (meaning ahead of compromise) represents a real danger that puts division first. In my view that is supremacist ideology of a nature not too different (no matter its source) from Nazism or noble birth. In private practice and belief people can believe what they want. The carrying of private practice into the public sphere is where the problem gets going.

What, after all, is the functional difference between the practice of religious segregation and that of supremacism? They work the same and are divisive in a secular society by insisting the values and practices of Belief X come before the state or the beliefs of others. Religious segregation by dress, language, performance, or custom is a freedom dangerous enough for a society to abridge it. In a public setting, religious practice and freedom (except for fanatics) is not superior to the interests of the state. There is a line between private observance and public practice. We need to protect that line unless we want a return to the bloody “no compromise” days of segregation by religion. A “no compromise” supremacist will call foul and horror at abridgement of religious freedom (something, incidentally, supremacists don’t believe in). But, religious freedom is not a valid defense for religious division/segregation within the overall society. Frankly and simply, it is a legitimate exercise of state authority to limit group or personal practice when such practice is harmful to society. That’s why, no matter how inspired and capable the individual may be, we limit marriage to one spouse at a time. A person may feel it’s their divine right to keep a bevy of brides or to own slaves but society correctly denies that right with a definite NO and legal action if needed. What some define as their God-given or divine right isn’t an obligation for society to grant either individually or generally. For instance, an individual can use alcohol as they wish, to excess if it suits them. Will anyone come into your home to give a breath test and haul you to detox? But they surely might if you get behind the wheel to demonstrate your right in public. No freedom is unlimited. Those who argue otherwise represent a danger to others by placing the supremacy of their view above those of others.

For me, Thanksgiving is a secular expression of appreciation for “good” from the earth, from society, and from faith, too, if so desired. Sitting down to eat with friends and family is an act of common respect and charity toward one another. It is a thing done by social equals freed of the requirements of age, gender, and etc. bias. Not very long ago social segregation was far stronger and more entrenched than seen today. My cabin was built near a century ago by successful folk who took a shine to their housekeeper’s son and wished to pay for his schooling. Childless, they liked the boy in the way people in that situation often do. For several summers they welcomed the young teen to their property where he did light chores, walked a mile to the river to fish and swim, and generally had a fine time complete with his own modest quarters in an adjacent guest cabin. I know some of the details because he and his wife visited here some years ago when he filled me in. He much respected the former owners and had nothing bad to say other than he did not have the academic aspirations they wished for him and he did not attend college. The thing that struck me most was the casual way he explained having all his meals given on a plate he took to his own cabin. He never sat at their table with them. That sad fact is explained one way. He was the servant’s son and no matter how his betters liked him he was a social inferior.

I give thanks we have moved somewhat away from those sorry divisions. When someone calls bringing back separatism and division a freedom I say “No Thanks.” Thankfully, this is not a part of our tradition. Supremacism is practiced by others in nations I have no desire to visit.