Culture & Conversation

Compassion is the New Currency

For those who missed out on a Christian education, or have forgotten the words, the carol Away in A Manger tells the story of the birth of Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem. Like the Occupiers today, Jesus and his parents were part of the 99%. They were poor citizens of an indifferent Empire. Ordered by government decree to leave their home in Nazareth and travel to Bethlehem, Joseph and a pregnant Mary were made homeless because Rome was preparing a census for taxation purposes. Some things don’t change. The man whose message of peace, love and resistance would inspire billions over the centuries, was himself poor and homeless when he entered this world.

It has been decades since I considered myself a Christian. My falling out with the Church and the realization that Christmas was just another capitalist plot coincided with my teens. Since then, my favourite Christmases have been the ones where I sat cross-legged on a cushion for hours at a time. Buddhist meditation retreats were the way to go until I met my partner, who of course loves Christmas. It has not been an easy reconciliation but this year her gift to me came in the guise of a question, a Christmas koan, a possibility of transcending this Bacchanalian madness. What does it mean to occupy Christmas?

In the 20th century most protesters who set themselves against the status quo were reading the Communist Manifesto, not the New Testament. Christianity, on the other hand, was the religion of Empire and was used with great efficacy on every continent to oppress, repress and suppress. But there is something about the Occupy movements of 2011 that seems to herald a reclaiming of a language of faith.

Someone holds up a sign in New York: Compassion is the new currency. A sign in Toronto: Don’t Stop Believing. In Montreal: Re(love)ution, Be humanKind, and Put Not Thy Faith in Banks.

In the United States, neighbours form human chains around houses to prevent the bailiffs from seizing the properties. People mass at banks to protest each other’s foreclosures. This is not American-style rugged individualism or survival of the fittest. Rather, this is neighbourliness and community in action, this is Jesus at the temple raging against the money lenders, speaking truth to power. While we have been worshiping at the alter of consumption, buying the latest gadget, plugging in and tuning out, we have been neglecting our relationships with each other and the Earth.

Yet this past year, beginning with the Middle East and quickly spreading around the world, we have been reminded, capitalism and Empire notwithstanding, that we are all connected. From Facebook to Adbusters, many disparate people have spoken with many singular voices. And out of the din came a few central messages: love thy neighbour as thyself, we are each other’s keeper, the poor shall inherit the Earth.

Chris Hedges wonders if these movements may revitalize Christianity. If perhaps Christianity will abandon its alliance with the powerful and come down to join the people. After all, it’s what Jesus would have done.

Kathryn Harvey is a historian living in Montreal.

  • 6 Responses to “Compassion is the New Currency”

    1. Heather

      Thanks for the new perspective. I'd never thought of it that way before.

    2. Elise

      I agree with the sentiment of this article, but I must say my dander shot right up at "missed out on" (I only kept reading because it was you, Kathryn). I don't feel I "missed out on" anything by not having had a Christian education — if indeed anyone in this Christiano-normative society can be said to have missed massive exposure to Christian culture, however ignorant we, nominal Christians included, may be about the actual religion.

      • Kathryn Harvey

        Elise, "missed out on" was my feeble attempt at irony. Thank you for persisting.

    3. Carole Thorpe

      I rebelled against my Montreal Christian roots in my teens. Later yoga and meditation had more significance for me and I became a member of The Unitarian Church of Calgary. Now I am becoming involved with The Unitarian Church of Montreal. This liberal religious community encourages me to be open-minded and compassionate. Epiphany: snowy first Friday January 2012. In Calgary for many years I was a glassblower and dealt with Christmas planning six months in advance: Christmas ornaments! Perfume bottles, paperweights, vases, jewellery. I published a Christmas story, "Kicking Horse Glass" in Dandelion 1996. The story begins with an anti-Christmas male glassblower disenchanted, overworked. Returning to Montreal after 33 years is a wide-angled epiphany. These Occupy Christmas articles are wee links to epiphanies in small and bigger moments. Thanks Kathryn for revisioning Jesus as poor, homeless, in the context of the Occupy movements and for the possibility of seeing Christianity with new perspectives. Thanks Roverarts for waking me up to 2012!

    4. Vlasta Vrana

      We all suffer the horrors of Bing and Bowie and falalala-laaa oozing out of the great Christmas economic sausage stuffer, but I still like what happens with my friends and family. I have always been a tourist in religion, sitting mass, meditation and bar-mitzvah, hopeful to enjoy the music and the spooky sensation of not really belonging there. I particularly enjoy the ancient winter solstice traditions co-opted by the various religions. To me it's all really one big feast, ostensibly promoting peace and love; and often getting convivial companionship, and a sense of well-being. I think we need that at the longest night, the beginning of the cold and the new year.

    5. bloominglotusyogini

      Compassion is really love in action. If you feel love in your heart you can't but help to express it! When we all awaken to the realization of our true potential compassion is one of the highest virtues that bonds humanity. Thanks for your reflections…I really enjoyed them :)


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