I am sitting in a Starbucks in Manhattan, passing the time while my son takes an art class, and I am watching three young Asian women wearing red Salvation Army aprons brave the cold. The one farthest from me is ringing the bell—I don’t think her wrist has stopped moving since I started watching—while the one nearest me holds her gloved hands up to her mouth every so often and calls something out to the people hurrying by. The third, walking back and forth between the other two, has been using free candy as bait, trying to get passersby, especially those with children, to stop long enough that they might decide to drop some money in the red bucket she and her companions are hoping to fill. Some people stop and put some cash, or sometimes coins, in the pail, but most, refusing both the candy and the opportunity to give, walk past as if the women aren’t even there, and even most of those who accept the treat choose not to part with any of their money.
One woman, who at first allowed the little girl she was walking with to accept a piece of candy, actually sent the girl back to return it. She placed the chocolate gingerly in the open hand of the woman who’d given it to her and skipped back in the direction from which she came. The Salvation Army volunteer watched the girl go, lifting her eyes out beyond the window frame, where the woman accompanying the girl must have been standing, and then turned to her fellow volunteers with a look of shocked non-comprehension on her face. She shrugged her shoulders and, on cue, as I have watched them do several times, the three of them burst out laughing, revealing a sense of humor about their task that it is hard not to respect, as it is hard not to respect what I hope is the sincerity and commitment they have shown by choosing to spend this first really cold Saturday morning of the season standing outside and being rejected over and over and over again.
The truth is, though, that I would be one of the people rejecting those women, not because I don’t know that The Salvation Army does some very good and necessary work, and not because I am, in the language of the season, a Scrooge, but because I will not give money—and, frankly, I don’t think anyone who claims to be in favor of diversity and tolerance should give money either—to an organization which holds as the seventh of its eleven articles of faith the belief that I, and anyone like me, because we do not have “faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and regeneration by the Holy Spirit,” are not worthy of salvation—assuming, for the moment, that we would want the kind of salvation The Salvation Army believes in.
Granted, at least as far as I know, the Salvation Army no longer injects religion explicitly into its interactions with the people it helps; but the fact that they help poor people, veterans, addicts and the elderly, that they are involved in anti-trafficking work and more, does not erase the fact that this good work is motivated and informed by a religious ideology that has, as one of its unstated goals, the extinction of the religious identity and practice in which I was raised, not to mention all the other non-Christian religious identities and practices that exist in the world today.
I recognize that no one is forcing me to give The Salvation Army my money, and I am sure there are people reading this who are thinking, “Fine! Don’t give, but please keep your opinion to yourself.” The thing is, though, that The Salvation Army does not keep its opinion to itself. It is an unapologetically evangelical Christian organization that looks forward to the day when all people accept Jesus Christ as their savior and Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Wicca, Zoroastrianism, animism and shamanism, not to mention atheism, are mere words connoting systems of belief from which all life has been drained. More to the point, because I think everyone ought to ask themselves whether they want to support the ideology of an organization to which they are planning to give their money, I think people need to understand that when they put money in The Salvation Army’s red pail, they are supporting not only the charity work that the organization does, but the religious values to which the organization subscribes.
Christianity, of course, is not the only religion that thinks its truth is the only truth; most religions, in fact, do. So I am not here trying to suggest that Christianity, or at least the kind of Christianity promoted by The Salvation Army, is any worse than any other religion; it’s just that The Salvation Army is very visible at this time of year. Were there a Muslim, or Jewish–or Hindu of Buddhist or any other–charity that held similar articles of faith and whose volunteers were similarly ubiquitous, I would be saying the same kinds of things about that group; and I want to emphasize that I am talking about a group and its professed organizational values, not individuals and the faith they they hold. The Salvation Army is a Christian organization that wants us to give it our money so it can do its Christian charity work, part of which has nothing to do with charity and everything to do with bringing about a world in which Christianity is the only surviving religion. For the reasons I have given here, I will not turn a blind eye to the latter in order to support the former, no matter how worthwhile the former may be.
Cross posted on The Politics in The Poetry and The Poetry in the Politics.