Atheism in the Playground

Who’d have thought that a shoebox full of toys being sent to needy children in less developed countries could have caused such anguish?

Only a couple of people have talked to me directly about this. But I’m aware that it’s been a heated subject of conversation in the school playground. And not amongst the kids! Strangely enough, as I was penning these thoughts I received an e-mail on just this issue.

A few weeks ago the Headteacher of our local primary school launched Operation Christmas Child. The children were invited to go home, find a shoebox, fill it with fun items for a child and then bring it back to school. The box would be sent to Samaritan’s Purse, who oversee the project, and then be sent on to a school, hospital or orphanage overseas. They give away 1.2 million boxes a year from the UK. It is the world’s largest Christmas project and the largest single project of Samaritan’s Purse. When they started in 1993 they shipped 28,000 shoeboxes. By 2008 that had increased to 8 million. They recruit the gifts from 11 countries. Since it started they have distributed more than 60 million shoebox gifts to 145 countries and territories worldwide. In 2009 they hope to collect 8.2 million shoebox gifts. That’s fantastic, isn’t it?

I had no part in suggesting that the school should do this, though I think it’s terrific. I have no idea how many parents and children have bought into it. But every time I go into school I see boxes being carried by children and piled up on a table. Not everyone is happy however. Some are really very unhappy. Their issue is not simply that Operation Christmas Child is a Christian organisation, though they’d prefer it if it wasn’t. Their issue is that this organisation proselytise. The doctrinal position of OCC is historic mainstream Christianity but it’s unpalatabel to some of the parents who don’t like what they stand for.

The Headteacher could have supported something more ‘amenable’ to people of all faiths and none. Though I don’t think it’s been the parents of other faiths that have had such a big issue. It’s been those of the atheistic faith who’ve been most exercised. They could have simply decided to opt out. Instead they decided to create a stink.

But I think the criticism is unfair. It’s true that it’s a Christian organisation and so their motivation for helping the children who receive the boxes is to share God’s love with others. That’s why they started the scheme. But we all have motives for being generous. For a Christians it’s response to God’s love in Christ. For an atheist, the Muslim, the Buddhist and so on there’s a different motivation. People can give for whatever reason they choose and it remains a generous gift to the disadvantaged.

Most of the opposition to Samaritan’s Purse is ill informed and inaccurate. The Guardian article by Polly Curtis and subsequent internet chatter is laregly responsible for this. Lots of the opposition arose originally in 2001 after comments by Samaritan’s Purse President and Chief Executive, Franklin Graham [Billy Graham’ son]. They were subsequently picked up and misquoted by campaigning atheistic groups. What he said was ‘I do not believe Muslims are evil people because of their faith, but I decry the evil that has been done in the name of Islam, or any other faith, including Christianity’. Too often it is only the middle phrase ‘I decry the evil that has been done in the name of Islam’ that’s selected for use as a quotation. In 2003 the Guardian ran an article. That contained several inaccuracies. The newspaper was contacted to correct these and invited at least three times to visit OCC to see how they work. They declined invitations to do so.

There are over 5,000 schools in the UK that support Operation Christmas Child. That’s a lot of schools that are happy with what they’re doing! The tie in with the National Curriculum looks an exciting opportunity for schools to use educationally.

OCC remove all religious material from the boxes if people put it in. They do not add anything else inside the box. If the local churches in the receiving country request it then they can receive a book called ‘The Greatest Gift’, which talks about the birth of Christ, written in the child’s langauge. This is not placed inside the box. And though teh content is Christian the readers aren’t being forced to believe what they read. Samaritan’s Purse remain a Charitable Organsiation that a number of large companies are happy to support eg The Entertainer, Stead and Simpson among others. Following the internet campaign against them in 2003 they were investigated by the Charities Commission [which they were obliged by law to do]. The Charities Commission were satisfied with the Charity and closed the case. It’s true that one or two organisations dropped their support. I suspect this was a politically wise thing to do following the tensions with Muslims following 9/11 and negative press comment. But it’s also the case that companies change which charities they support from time to time. Lots of boxes go to partner churches in the receiving country but many more go to hospitals and orphanages. The churches may add their own literature outside the box. But it’s clear that it’s the churches that do this. No one ought to attend a bible class before they receive a box. If that’s taken place then it’s manipulative and coercive and therefore sub-Christian. It’s supposed to be a free and generous gift. Like the gift of God’s Son Jesus. Of course OCC is motivated by its Christian beliefs to help people and, when asked why they do it, they will share their belief in Jesus. However, shoeboxes should always be given unconditionally to the children regardless of nationality, political background or religious beliefs. Just like Jesus! I’ll post a few more thoughts in a while once I’ve reflected on this a little more.

2 thoughts on “Atheism in the Playground

  1. Phil C November 19, 2009 / 6:07 pm

    I think you’re right to identify the dodgy press coverage – apart from at church, that negative coverage is the only other time I’ve seen Operation Christmas Child mentioned. I’m sure it’s influenced a lot of people.

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