Monday, November 18, 2013

Hey, Salvation Army, Go Away!

Well, you can always tell it's that time of year. No, not by all the stores stupid enough to start selling Christmas items before Halloween is even over. No, not by the falling leaves and sudden bone-chilling cold. No, not even by the sudden sale on turkey at your local grocery. All these things are indeed tell-tale signs, but you can really tell it's that time of year by the annoying bell-ringing of the people volunteering with the Salvation Army.

I'll admit, I'm of two minds regarding this irritating annual tradition. As a rule, I favor charity, no matter what the lame, religious pretext might be. But I also can't ignore the fact that the food and clothing given to the poor and needy by the Salvation Army is done with a good degree of coercion and proselytizing, which I can't abide. Can't a person in need get a bowl of soup without a sermon? Is it really charity if a needed winter coat to keep out the chill comes with a scolding or a strong-armed 'request' to attend a church service? Or is the charity merely the worm on the end of the hook, meant simply as a means to bring in another catch?

Yes, Jesus himself purportedly called his disciples, "fishers of men," but I hate that metaphor, anyway. I have a real problem with charity being taken advantage of. Helping the poor should be more than just bait. It shouldn't be the sugar which helps the foul-tasting medicine of religion go down. Charity should be done for charity's sake, not be misused as a mere lure.

And all this is true before we get into the Salvation Army's actual practices of hard-right-wing coercion. They have threatened to close soup kitchens if forced to offer help to poor people who happened to be gay or lesbian. Oh, yes, they did! They'll help the poor, but poor homos can starve, for all they care.

Whatever happened to loving the sinner but hating the sin?

This is not a new phenomenon. The Salvation Army is a very old organization, and in every corner of its long existence, it has oppressed, goaded, and cattle-prodded people into accepting their help only on their terms. When it first began, the Salvation Army actually marched down the street during community parades, with pressed uniforms and polished boots! They actually had military rank within their central structure, with Captains, Commanders, Majors and even Generals. And while this Nazi-esque silliness was (thankfully!) stopped after the horrors of World War II, it bears remembering that this militancy is where the organization got its start. Call me crazy, but in a post-9/11 world, military trappings within religion should not be tolerated!

And let's also remember the Salvation Army's well-earned nickname: the Starvation Army. It earned this nickname for its stern opposition to labor unions over the years. Oh, yes. When striking laborers came to the Salvation Army for help, they were turned down, every time. So much for christian charity!

But what about Christmas? Isn't this a time where we ought to show a little mercy to those who really need it? What's wrong, after all, with some organization ringing a bell in front of stores calling for donations to the poor?

I say, nothing, provided that organization is worthy. The Salvation Army is clearly not. So it's time for it to step aside in favor of some other, better, more noble and less religious organization, one whose secular interests will make sure that more of each dollar goes to those who really need it. Let them give their red kettles and loud bells over to the Red Cross, or People For the United Way, or even directly to local homeless shelters. Let's make sure none of that kettle money goes for political action instead of helping the needy.

Maybe then that bell won't be quite so damned annoying.



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