Christmas is a moment to tune into the needs of our neighbours

Peter Kurti

20 December 2019 | Financial Review
Many were alarmed this month when it seemed the Christmas-hating Grinch had arrived early – and not from Whoville but the heart of the Vatican.For just as Aussie retailers were hoping consumers might shed their spendthrift habits and splurge their way to a prosperous holiday season for all, up popped Pope Francis to warn that excessive Christmas consumption was “a virus that attacked the Christian faith at the roots”.

Whatever we choose to make of that warning, it is hardly fair to accuse the humble pontiff, who has eschewed many of the outward trappings of his office, of having the Grinch’s “heart that’s two sizes too small”. Nor was he saying anything out of the papal ordinary. His two predecessors – Benedict XVI and John Paul II – both delivered scathing criticisms of consumer society.

Of course, the Pope’s admonition about excessive consumerism caused dismay, coming as it did on one of the biggest shopping weekends of the year – between Black Friday and Cyber Monday – when retailers need to boost festive-season spending if they are to have any hope of ending the year in the black.

Yet retailers may not have been the only ones challenged by Francis’ warning that we should not think the meaning of life is all about accumulating stuff.

After all, the recent smoky physical discomfort borne by many of us has been as nothing compared to the trauma experienced by those who’ve lost homes, livelihoods, and even their lives in the fiery ravages.

Pope Francis may be right that “things are never enough”. But for those suddenly stripped of everything due to the terrible bushfires, and who now have to start rebuilding their lives all over again, sermons about the scourge of rampant consumerism may be of little comfort.

In any case, consumer spending remains sluggish, business investment has declined, and productivity is sliding. Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg points to a small rise in economic growth as proof that the government’s economic strategy is on track. But economists and business leaders have ended the year divided about whether we need surplus or stimulus.

A gulf of difference

The Australian Greens blamed climate change, coal mining, gas-guzzling cars and even Scott Morrison (personally) for the infernos, while others pointed to green activists’ long-running campaign against backburning hazard reduction.

Repeal of the medevac law came amid questioning of the political motives of complicit medicos – which, in turn, refuelled debate about immigration policy and provoked the “open border” activists to blast the alleged inhumanity and latent racism of the Morrison government.

A gulf of difference is also widening between those demanding the right to physician-assisted suicide when they say life is no longer meaningful, and those resisting the encroaching normalisation of suicide in our society.

And, of course, religion – an essential component of our multicultural society – provokes an onslaught from progressive secularism when those who practise their faith dare to venture out of the home and into the public square.

Yet in the midst of all this contention, Christmas now offers itself as a short secular summer respite for Australians of any religion – or none – from the heat and smoke and fury of argument and debate.

Not that religion is unimportant to Australians: after all, 60 per cent of us retain a religious affiliation. But Christmas now transcends religious affiliation. It presents a moment for us to reflect on the ties of family and community that help bind our variegated multicultural society into a harmonious whole. Diversity is complex, and a genuine spirit of tolerance demands of each of us a willingness to be generous to one another in the face of that diversity.

By pausing at Christmas to reflect on what it is that makes our society strong and cohesive, and by resolving to prevent the differences between us from turning into division, we can do greater service to our families and communities.

The faith that Pope Francis was talking about was, of course, Christianity. But the meaning of his remarks extend to the faith – and the trust – we need to have in one another, and in the bonds that hold our society together. The “dazzling lights of consumption” the Pope warned of can blind us to those matters of deeper importance.

The path leading to those matters – of deeper meaning, value, and purpose – is not paved with the frantic accumulation of stuff for ourselves.

Christmas is a time to tune into the needs of our neighbours and communities, particularly those who have nothing, or have lost everything,

And in helping them rebuild, we can also support our economy. If we have been reluctant to open our wallets, now is the time to do it – and to help others out.

Even the Grinch finally learned that perhaps Christmas means a little bit more.

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