"You better watch out, you better not cry... "
"Teacher says every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings... "
"Mom, how does Santa get around the fire without getting burned?"
"[Bleep] Santa. He never brings us anything... "
Try to imagine these quotes coming at you over a radio dial. As you tune up and down, they fade in and out. The first is from the song "Santa Clause Is Coming to Town." The second is from the Jimmy Stewart film It's A Wonderful Life. The third is from my 6-year-old son, Jude, who is quite anxious about Santa's health and survival these days. The fourth is from columnist Yvonne Abraham of the Boston Globe, citing the answer an 8-year-old boy gave a school nurse in an urban Boston Public School when she cautioned him that bad behavior might cause Santa to put him on the naughty list.
Normally it would be nearly inexcusable to use that last quote. It's the kind of cheap, voyeuristic inclusion typically designed to help people jaded toward inner-city youth feel better about being jaded, while subtly reinforcing complex, bigoted stereotypes. Abraham put it to reasonable use, however, to demonstrate the range of problems a school nurse can face at a challenged inner-city school. I chose to deploy it to make a point about faith at Christmas time. Not faith in God or Jesus Christ -- faith in our adults and in our institutions.
This is a time of year when we as people put tremendous faith in the grown-ups and institutions around us. Christians and Jews recount age-old stories of sacrifice, redemption and miracle. We renew our faith commitments rooted in these stories. Why? Because our religious leaders tell them to us and they resonate. Children believe, beyond logic and evidence to the contrary, a tale about an old man who gets pulled in a glorified 6-by-10 wagon all over the world by flying animals in order to deliver toys to the planet's good girls and boys in a single night. Why? Because the adults in their lives told them it was true and they want to believe it.
People give. The embarrassment of riches that confronts our households at Thanksgiving and the December religious holidays, combined with the tax-based pressure to complete end-of-year giving, sharpen the focus. People give to organizations that the rest of the year are painfully ignored, even mocked or pitied -- those putting their own faith in poor and marginalized populations by supporting them and their dreams. Why? Because we believe in the need to create right relationships. And, this time of year, we have the will to believe the nonprofit organizations we support actually can help set things right.
We are right to put our faith in all these things.
We put our faith in faith, and its institutions, because they help us figure out how to live together and with ourselves. We put our faith in the adults around us because to do otherwise would be to embrace chaos. We put our faith in nonprofits and like institutions because we know how badly we need them to do the work they do.
It is in this context that I quote the little boy. What lies behind that quote is not some street thug, some cell-block resident in the making. It's a little boy -- one whom life has convinced that he shouldn't have faith in the adults and institutions around him. The school nurse isn't interested in his health. She's trying to keep him in line. Mom and Dad aren't going to take care of him. That's why he's with the nurse in the first place. And Santa? Well, [bleep] Santa.
Let's call ourselves to a special resolution in 2012. Let's be adults who deserve some faith. Let's run institutions people can believe in. Let's do the work -- be it God's, the people's or the government's -- that puts relationships right again, and restores balance to our communities.
Let's be the adults and institutions, every day, that the little boy can believe in. If we do it long enough, beyond logic and previous evidence to the contrary, he might believe in us. Why? Because he really, really wants to.