AMAC Exclusive By David P. Deavel
Those red kettles aren’t doing as much jingling these days. The Salvation Army, long known for its good work for the poor, particularly at Christmastime when volunteers ring bells outside stores of all kinds, is facing a dire shortage of donations and help all across the country. While the organization is attempting to deflect blame onto pandemic fatigue and economic uncertainty, the catastrophic drop is almost certainly due to the revelation that the organization had begun an “anti-racism” training that echoes the worst of critical race theory and its popularizers such as Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo. The Salvation Army would have been better served if they had said no to the woke brigades and looked instead at its own roots and also another English Victorian tradition. I refer of course to Boxing Day, celebrated on the day after Christmas, which teaches that those who have been given much should also give much to those with less.
The Salvation Army is itself a Victorian invention. Founded by William and Catherine Booth in 1865, it was a Christian group in the tradition of the Wesleyan Methodist holiness movements (William was a one-time Methodist preacher) that focused on preaching the Christian message and taking care of those who were down and out. The group was a distinctive one for several reasons. First, the group does not even practice baptism or holy communion, as almost all Protestant Christian groups do, though its doctrines are largely acceptable to all orthodox (small “o”) Christians. Second, it is not simply called an army for nothing—the members are themselves referred to as soldiers and organized according to military ranks. And they have some rather tough rules: members are not allowed to drink alcoholic beverages. But third, the Salvation Army took even more seriously than many other Christian groups the call to care for the bodily and spiritual needs of those to whom they preached. William Booth liked to talk about the “Three ‘S’s’.” These were soup, soap, and salvation.
The Salvation Army quickly spread beyond its origins in England. It became famous for work done in disaster areas. In the U. S., they worked to great acclaim after a particularly severe Galveston hurricane in 1900 and then the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Today, they are known in the U. S. for those red kettles, but also for homeless shelters, thrift stores, and myriad other works of mercy toward people of all races, religions, and nationalities. In fact, today they operate in over 130 nations. Theirs is a lived and consistent tradition of charitable work based in faith and the assumption that all men and women are deserving of soup, soap, and salvation.
So it was a great disappointment to discover that the organization had released a guide earlier this year that took up the language and assumptions of the world of woke on race. Kenny Xu broke the news in an October 3 article in The Daily Signal, including details about the “Let’s Talk About Racism” initiative described in a guide now deleted from the Salvation Army’s website. That guide, Xu wrote, “includes definitions of institutional racism, systemic racism, and ‘Whiteness’ that identify real or perceived differences in life outcomes (‘inequities’) as attributable not to individual effort and other circumstances, but to discrimination.” What was perhaps most offensive was the guide’s denouncement of colorblind approaches as racist (in language redolent of Kendi) and white people who deny that they are racist as simply being unwilling or unable to acknowledge their racism (DiAngelo’s “white fragility” schtick). The guide even “flirted,” Xu wrote, with denouncing the Salvation Army itself as racist.
When this revelation that the Salvation Army was now singing from the anti-white-people hymnal came out and produced pushback among donors, the Salvation Army leadership foolishly were tried to spin what was in the guide. When that didn’t work, they suppressed the guide, supposedly to rework it. The cover-up probably didn’t help. Donations and volunteering for the Army are down in multiple states. A report on the group in Seattle is titled “‘The situation is dire’; Salvation Army facing toy, donation shortage ahead of holidays.” And while the Army keeps blaming things on “the pandemic,” it’s pretty clear that’s not true. A Rasmussen Reports poll showed that the Army’s popularity took a big hit after the racism initiative. It’s not clear they have learned their lesson. In January the Army will host a two-day racial justice forum, though the reported speaker, Anglican priest and Wheaton College (Illinois) theologian Esau McCaulley, seems not totally woke. It is perhaps a bad sign, however, that the link for the event description is broken.
Most people don’t mind if you say they are sinners. That’s comprehensible and undeniable. But they don’t like to be told they are racists, an accusation which has two defects. First, it’s usually not true. And second, we all know that this accusation, unlike being called a sinner, affords no redemption in the woke world. Rather than looking to the world of hip but destructive “anti-racism,” the Salvation Army would have done better to look back at the Victorian world in which they came to be.
The day after Christmas came to be known as Boxing Day in Britain and its colonies. First mentioned in 1833, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and mentioned in Charles Dickens’s famous 1837 novel Pickwick Papers, the name’s origins are usually described in one of two ways, both of which are useful for thinking about motivating charitable action. The first theory is that Victorian Christmas was celebrated extraordinarily lavishly in the thriving middle- and upper-class homes, so that the giving of boxes of gifts—including leftovers—to servants and the poor was an important event for those who believed that their own gifts—or even privilege—gave them a duty to be charitable to those who were not so gifted.
Of course this theory of naming is probably not unconnected to the second one: namely, that the contents of the boxes set up in churches for alms were distributed on this day, traditionally known as the feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr, who was known as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5). In other words, Victorian upper-class gift-giving came from an older, medieval tradition of Christmastime charity that was already in existence. And deeper than even a generic sense of obligation, it came from a more specific understanding of giving of oneself because of real honest-to-God faith.
While today Boxing Day is celebrated in Britain and the Commonwealth more as a day of rugby, horse racing, and shopping, the memory of that tradition is still present in the name of the day. Rather than seek out inspiration in the stale, divisive world of Ibram Kendi, who believes that traditional Christian ideas about the task of bringing people to faith and life in church are a kind of “savior theology” that “goes right in line with racist ideals and racist theology,” the Salvation Army would be better off going back to the Christian traditions of merry old England (or even the works of Dickens). These are traditions that certainly understood the need for social reforms, but also knew that the line dividing good and evil isn’t that between “racists” and “anti-racists” but right down the middle of every human heart. And it was for the healing of those hearts that, the Christian message says, God gave the gift of his own son, who, born in a manger, would feed the five thousand, forgive sins, and provide salvation through offering his own life.
Soup, soap, and finally salvation. Americans are still, in many ways, as the late Richard John Neuhaus put it, “an incorrigibly and confusedly religious nation.” However confused they are, they do understand that they’ve been given much by God and want to give back. They may be confused on redemption, but they know it’s out there. The bad news of “systemic racism” and “whiteness theory” is sin without redemption. The Salvation Army should skip Kendi and DiAngelo and rediscover the King in the manger and the Angels who announce good news to people. If so, they’ll perhaps find that their red kettles chime again, boxes will arrive, and volunteers will come back to give gifts to people of all races and nationalities—all because they believe in “savior theology” and the savior’s commands to do good to the least of his brethren.
David P. Deavel is editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, co-director of the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy, and a visiting professor at the University of St. Thomas (MN). He is the co-host of the Deep Down Things podcast