Have you ever seen the spy comedy “Sneakers,” starring Robert Redford and a stellar ensemble cast?
I won’t entirely spoil it for you, but the good guys win, and as part of their victory, they are able to extract certain promises from an agent of the US government, played ably by James Earl Jones. Some ask for favors for themselves, small or large. One member of the protagonist team, the blind Whistler, asks for something different. He asks for “peace on Earth, and goodwill toward men.”
It’s a great phrase, despite its use of “men” as a generic for “people.” The phrase is drawn from the King James Version of the Bible, and is used in Christmas Carol. I’m a secular person, but it’s tough to deny the power of ritual and symbol, especially when it’s supposed be used to build togetherness. When the holidays work right, whatever your faith tradition, they make you happier than you were before, remind you of your connection to your fellow humans, and make you grateful for all you have in your life.
Yet the holidays can be a tough time for people, religious and secular alike. Not everyone has a family experience that resembles a heartwarming film. Not everyone has the capacity to celebrate. And while religious texts are supposed to be preaching unity, it seems like all we see in headlines is division. During these holy days, this seems wrong.
I have a charity project or two that I’m not quite ready to announce yet. But it’s Christmas Eve, and the project might be thematically related to this, so I want to say something about it. Also, I want to do my part in reminding you that while people are capable of doing great harm, we’re also capable of incredible acts of compassion, self-sacrifice, and love.
All I can say about the project at this time of year is this: When I think about the world’s religions — and, in fact, the world’s people — here’s what I want to be thinking about.
- The Kenyan Muslims that shielded Christians last week during a bus attack, declaring that the militant attackers should “kill them together or leave them alone.” Or, going back further, Adb el-Kader, the hero of the massacre of Damascus.
- Sgt. Roddie Edmunds, a Christian who told a bunch of Nazis that his unit were all Jews so his brothers in arms wouldn’t get sent to death camps.
- The Jews of Sarajevo, saving members of the other Abrahamic faiths.
These stories have a common thread: at enormous personal risk, human beings stood up to protect others who were ostensibly not like them. That’s powerful. Like I said, I’m an avowed secularist, but these examples weren’t hard to find, either. Human history is replete with stories like this, of those truly courageous souls who welcomed the stranger and chanced losing their lives — in many cases, to save someone they didn’t know.
Look in all the holy books, too. You’ll find it. Love your neighbor as yourself. Whoever kills an innocent will be regarded as a murderer of all humanity. What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow human.
That’s not about the specific religion, of course. It’s about the people, and the way we interpret text. If you’re looking for excuses to hurt people, you’ll find them. (Truth be told, I wish you wouldn’t). If you’re looking for reasons to see the better angels of our nature, I hope you find that, too — whatever your faith or lack thereof.
One of the things I love most about jiu-jitsu is that it, too, can be a unifying force. I believe that, or I wouldn’t be doing it. That’s a hint about the project, too. We should find more items of significance that unify us.
Everyone has difficulties that come into their lives, and this time of year can amplify those feelings in the same way that it can amplify good feelings. You might not be in a war zone at this time of year, and I hope you aren’t, but you don’t have to be in order to make a real difference in someone’s life. That same King James Bible, I recall, has some passages about giving gentle answers, turning the other cheek and loving those who might consider themselves your enemy.
My New Year’s Resolution is to respond to hard things by getting kinder, and by thinking about new ways to help the world. This is easy to say. Harder to do. Like most hard things, it’s worth doing. Jiu-jitsu is like life: it’s a constant struggle between what’s right and what’s easy.
I want peace on Earth and goodwill toward men. I want us to do that and I believe that we can.
Happy holidays, y’all.