The 'yes' of Christmas amidst a welter of 'no's

Airports are not pretty. But one October afternoon Hamilton airport was for me for a moment a place of beauty.

A young man with the moonish face of intellectual disability waited impassively alongside an elderly woman for a traveller to arrive. He was a reminder of human sadness, the unfairness of chance.

Then his face disappeared into a big, round smile. The person he waited for came in view, then into his hug.

Unfair chance became a huge warmth, an instant of hope, a Christmas story 10 weeks premature.

The message of Christmas is often a “no”, a Christianity of what must not be done, the wrongness of humanness. And there is much that is wrong. The good news of Christmas is a “yes”, a Christianity of what can humanly be done, the rightness of humanness. There is much that is right.

The wrong is so big that it questions the very notion of “civilisation”.

Greens are mistaken to insist we must act now to save the planet. The planet will be here long after humans have run our ephemeral course. The right green message is to act to save humans from our uncivil instincts.

At the macro level there is the evil of Muslims who revel and die in the slaughter of innocents. Mumbai is the latest large example. No god which mounts such missions can be good.

There is the tyrant of Zimbabwe whose self-glorification demands his captive people starve and die of disease. There is in 2000s Congo a reminder of the 1990s Rwanda genocide across the border.

And lest Europeans slip into the sin of superiority, the 1990s in the Balkans were a reminder of their two great tribal wars and mass killings of the twentieth century, the great pogrom against the Jews, the starving and killing of tens of millions in Russia, replicated later in China and then Cambodia.

We are a step away always from barbarity, even in the freest societies. A departing United States president approved torture. Can the new president expunge that obscenity from his once free, now paranoid, nation?

In this society, at the micro level, there is the Rotorua man who maltreated a toddler whom his two sons in turn tortured to death. What did he do to his sons? What did his father do to him?

They were an item in a long menu of humanity’s inhumanity served in our courts and in our salivating media this year. It is a horrific litany of the scarcely imaginable.

So we have turned away to the looking-glass world of celebrity. The vacuous is made real so that the real can be veiled and we can that way slip into innocence. We cannot look in the mirror.

Celebrity is the fame of being famous. David Beckham is no longer a footballer admired for transcendental skill. It is his fame that is celebrated now; impresarios hunt easy profits in that fame; local politicians crave circuses to polish ratings.

But vacuity is not a refuge. Celebrity is a thin veil. Aucklanders, to their credit, rejected the Beckham boondoggle — or, perhaps, were just short of credit after their long debt binge. Perhaps they were redeeming their balance sheets rather than their essential balance.

Redemption in the broader sense is a “yes” message of Christmas. The word “inhumanity” presumes, or at least reflects a hope, that killing and violence and greed are not human, that there is civilisation, that much more is right than wrong with humans.

There is a branch of science which is disassembling humans into puppets of our brains. That reflects humans’ astonishing capacity to inquire into and, bit by bit, make sense of ourselves and our environment and our consequential capacity, if we wish, not just to exploit and destroy but to construct and generate. Those capacities are among the many things that are right with humans.

But humans can’t settle for being brains running bodies. That leaves us without free will and without an explanation for the improbability of life.

So humans still hunt for gods. The downside is that humans often divide according to their gods: gods against gods, humans against humans. The upside is that good, big things are done in the name of gods. That is one of the many things that are right in humans.

But most of what is right in humans is writ small, not large. Large always teeters on the brink of hubris and hubris divides. Small goes unnoticed except between giver and receiver. It is there the Christmas message is to be found.

The latest Economist magazine, in an article about angels (standard fare for business magazines, of course), quotes this response of a man asked who his angel was: “The good in people, that’s always there, in some little way.”

Some exceptional humans make exquisite music and images that add a dimension to our existence. But humans also do multitudinous small humdrum acts that make the everyday better and thereby counterpoint the brutal and vicious and destructive with warmth and hope and beauty.

It is the small betterments that civilise and undo unfair chance and are the beauty of Christmas. The huge smile in the airport told that story.