Our local newspaper (The Abbotsford News) has reported that a local public school has decided to stop participating in the Operation Christmas Child program because of “religious concerns.”
For those not familiar with the program, Operation Christmas Child is run by a Christian charity called Samaritan’s Purse. Participants pack shoeboxes with toys, school supplies, hygiene products, and other useful items, which are shipped to needy children in different countries.
The school decided to stop participating in the program when the principal said he discovered that religious tracts were being inserted into the shoeboxes before they were distributed. Apparently, this contravenes British Columbia’s School Act, which requires that public schools be operated as “secular” institutions.
It is not strictly true that religious tracts are inserted into the boxes. However, the boxes are distributed at events which are openly declared to be Christian, and written Christian materials are offered to those who receive the boxes, although they are free to refuse these materials.
In an editorial, the newspaper supported the school’s decision.
The issue raises several questions.
- Why bring religion into it?
The editorial stated, “One local student posed the question of why religion had any bearing on the initiative—why can’t people just help other people? Why indeed? Many Christian organizations do exactly that, with local and overseas programs such as food distribution that do not require attendance at special religious events, or exposure to evangelizing or associated materials.”
In asking why religion has to be connected to this act of charity, the editorial misses the point. It wasn’t “people” who initiated the Operation Christmas Child project. And it certainly wasn’t “secular people.” The program was set up by evangelical Christians and was motivated by their Christian faith, by Jesus’ command to love God and people. If you take away Christian faith, the program wouldn’t exist. In fact, like many works of charity, it is initiated, run, and supported primarily by Christian people.
A study by the religious think tank Cardus discovered that 85 percent of charitable giving in Canada comes from less than 30 percent of the population: 23 percent give at least double what the average donor gives and 6 percent give five times what the average donor gives. Furthermore, people active in their “faith communities” (in Canada, the majority of those are Christians) give more to secular charities (on top of what they give to religious institutions) than people who are not involved in faith communities.
Whether a public school chooses to participate or chooses not to participate in Operation Christmas Child is entirely up to the school. The program will continue to do good work precisely because of those who believe in Jesus.
It is common for people in our society to want all of the benefits Christianity brings while trying to get rid of Christianity itself. It is like demanding God’s blessings while denying God.
2. Are B.C. schools secular?
If you look into the history of British Columbia’s schools, you will discover that most of the early schools were established by Christian churches. When these schools were taken over by the government and incorporated into a universal public school system, they were declared to be “nondenominational.” That is, they were still expected to be Christian but not linked to any particular denomination.
In more recent years, as Christians are no longer a majority in Canadian society, the schools have been declared to be “secular.” This should mean that schools should be neutral on religious and moral issues. However, what it often means is that the schools are antagonistic to Christianity. This has forced many Christian students out of the public system and into private Christian schools.
Recent events have demonstrated that the “secular” argument is unevenly applied. Two lawsuits were recently launched against B.C. schools. One was because a school required students to participate in aboriginal “smudging” ceremonies. The other was because a school required students to participate in meditation exercises apparently linked to Buddhism.
3. Is religion a cultural expression?
A spokesperson for the Abbotsford school district stated, “We want our students to develop empathy, understanding and respect for others, regardless of race or religion. We will continue to celebrate Christmas, Diwali, Chinese New Year and many other diverse cultures that make Canada the great multi-cultural society that it is today.”
This represents a common “secular” approach that reduces religion to a set of traditional “cultural” practices. So, Indo-Canadians celebrate Diwali, European Canadians celebrate Christmas, and Chinese Canadians celebrate Chinese New Year.
This may make some sense if we define Christmas in terms of Santa Claus and Christmas trees.
But religion is not just some quaint cultural tradition practised by certain ethnic groups. Religion deals with ultimate questions of purpose, meaning, and morality. It crosses ethnic boundaries and challenges cultural practices. Religion relates to God, who, by definition, is above all human institutions. In Canada, attendance at Christian churches is higher among those of non-European ancestry than those of European ancestry.
4. Is it wrong for Christians to evangelize?
Both the news story and the editorial noted that many of the Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes are distributed in “Muslim-majority countries.” The editorial implied that it is somehow inappropriate for Christians to give shoeboxes to people in Muslim countries and encourage them to become Christians (evangelize them).
By the same token, would the editorial writer dare to suggest that it is inappropriate for Muslims to come to a “Christian” country such as Canada and attempt to convert people to Islam? Of course, not. We are a tolerant and free society. But somehow Muslim countries seem to be excused from being tolerant. (In many “Muslim” countries, the legal penalty for converting to Christianity is execution.)
Consider that through Operation Christmas Child, Christians give useful and pleasing gifts to people of other religions with basically no strings attached other than being given the opportunity to receive Christian literature. Those who refuse the literature still receive the shoeboxes. Is this not a wonderful example of cross-boundary empathy, tolerance, and respect?
And if the recipients wonder why Christians would do this, wouldn’t it be wrong for Christians to hide their motivation behind some secular smokescreen?
If Christian faith is what motivated such wonderful acts of charity, isn’t it a good idea to try to convert other people to a similar faith so that they will similarly practise tolerance and love?