Christmas Message from the Office of the President, T&T, 2015

Published by Caribbean News Media Group | Friday, 25 December 2015 11:02

The story of Christmas is nothing short of magical. It is a story filled with messages and images that teach and inspire. The birth, in the lowliest of circumstances and of places, of an outcast child who would one day redeem the very world which prosecuted him, remains one of the most remarkable stories ever told. For Trinidad and Tobago, it is a story whose relevance is perhaps greatest at this time in our country’s history.

Like the Christ-Child, our country was once the supreme outcast - “a colonial slum” within the Spanish Empire, as V. S. Naipaul once described it. Persecuted by the “Herods” of neglect and of want, our forefathers, too, travelled dark and lonely roads on their way to our birth as a nation in 1962. Facing an uncertain future in the aftermath of our independence, it was the faith of our people that steadied us, much like Mary’s unwavering faith steadied her anxious heart before the Angel Gabriel, inspiring her surrender to the Divine will. Her faith was an affirmation of the supremacy of God - an affirmation echoed by our citizens in the preamble to our 1976 Republican Constitution.

Among the other messages it contains, the story of Christmas, then, is the story of single-minded commitment to a goal (finding a place to give birth to a child); of unwavering faith in the supremacy of God; and of the birth of the work of redemption in the most hostile of circumstances.

That is why the story of Christmas is so relevant to Trinidad and Tobago today. As we continue to commit ourselves single-mindedly to the creation of a society in which fundamental human rights and freedoms, the position of the family in a society of free men and free institutions, and the dignity of the human person are paramount, we are committing ourselves to an important redemptive work. That is the work our forefathers began. That work, when completed, will redound to the benefit not just of our beloved country, but of the whole world.

As we continue that work today, there is understandable anxiety over the future, particularly as unfriendly economic skies gather. Let us not be afraid. The story of Christmas teaches us that that which brings us our salvation sometimes lies in the midst of the storm. As we celebrate Christmas this year, let us drive out fear with the faith which inspired Mary to open herself up to and to face head-on the uncertainties before her.

Trinidad and Tobago is truly a “Christmas nation”: we are a nation of wise men and women, having been abundantly blessed with our share of Magis; throughout our history, there has been a Divinity that has guided us and shaped our ends; and there have been countless guiding stars that have shone and that will continue to shine in whatever is the darkness that might overshadow us from time to time.

May the magic of the Christmas story take root in our hearts this Christmas and in the coming New Year. May our faith be our constant companion and our guiding star. May we join hands and walk assuredly into the future, confident that we will yet create the nation our forefathers dreamed of and, in so doing, redeem our collective aspirations and find our salvation.

On behalf of Their Excellencies President and Mrs. Carmona, and on my own behalf, I wish all of Trinidad and Tobago a Merry Christmas and a Peaceful and Bright 2016. SOURCE

A Note From The Gull

I thank Her Excellency,  Acting President Ms Christine Kangaloo, for the trust and generousity displayed in this Christmas message to a nation which has been brought to religious pluralism - just one of the achievements of a hard won and continuously evolving cultural awareness.

Some other societies have not yet travelled this road and the extent to which we are shocked by their distrust and fear reflects how far along the path we have come. Earlier this month, on Friday, December 18, 2015, all the schools and school offices were closed in Augusta County, Virginia, USA. The decision was made out of an abundance of caution and based on recommendations by law enforcement and the Augusta County School Board, after an avalanche of complaints via e-mail messages and phone calls had followed a World Geography lesson and accompanying voluntary homework assignment at one school. Apparently the homework assignment aiming to give students an idea of the artistic complexity of calligraphy had instructed the students to replicate the Shahada, the Islamic statement of faith. I cannot say with any certainty if the initial protest was made by just one parent but the reports seem to focus on one female who is featured in the video below. This Christian believed that the lesson was a deliberate attempt to indoctrinate the children in the class, although in his response, Augusta County Schools official Eric Bond, stated that "Neither of these lessons, nor any other lessons in the world geography course, are an attempt at indoctrination to Islam or any other religion or a request for students to renounce their own faith or profess any belief," SOURCE  For reasons unknown this issue could not have been discussed and settled in a more dignified and less inflammatory manner between concerned parents and the relevant county authorities.

The following statement was also issued to inform the public that in the future, a non-religious sample of Arabic calligraphy will be used by the schools.

Statement from Augusta County Public Schools:

"Augusta County Schools and all administrative offices will be closed Friday, December 18, 2015.

Following parental objections to the World Geography curriculum and ensuing related media coverage, the school division began receiving voluminous phone calls and electronic mail locally and from outside the area. As a result of those communications, the Sheriff's Office and the school division coordinated to increase police presence at Augusta County schools and to monitor those communications. The communications have significantly increased in volume today and based on concerns regarding the tone and content of those communications, Sheriff Fisher and Dr. Bond mutually decided schools and school offices will be closed on Friday, December 18, 2015. While there has been no specific threat of harm to students, schools and school offices will be closed Friday, December 18, 2015. All extra-curricular activities are likewise cancelled for tonight, Thursday, December 17, through the weekend. We regret having to take this action, but we are doing so based on the recommendations of law enforcement and the Augusta County School Board out of an abundance of caution.

Finally, the Augusta County School Board and Dr. Bond appreciate parents bringing concerns directly to our attention, and a constructive and respectful dialogue between school and community is always welcome. As we have emphasized, no lesson was designed to promote a religious viewpoint or change any student's religious belief. Although students will continue to learn about world religions as required by the state Board of Education and the Commonwealth's Standards of Learning, a different, non-religious sample of Arabic calligraphy will be used in the future..." SOURCE

Knowing her society and the current climate which makes it problematic to discuss any religions in schools and even more "uncomfortable" to be Muslim in America, I'd say that the teacher was either very courageous or very reckless to have bypassed vanilla pablum and chosen the example of a statement of faith. I haven't yet seen the results of any polls that can tell me if these protesters had the support of the majority in that county or country but maybe that is inconsequential. I have noticed that the majority's opinions mean very little when involving real life and death issues [for example, anti-war protests, anti-police brutality protests, anti-austerity protests] but are given prominence and opportunistic concern when folly and ignorance hold sway. Irony is king these days.

It is already difficult to view with sympathy the evidence of emotional/intellectual malformation as a result of socialization but an even greater cause for concern is the suspicion that neurosis is also involved. My attention was detained by a fleeting event at position 1:34 in the video. Notice that throughout the video the eyes maintain an unblinking bulge but then when she has to say the word Islam, the muscles around the left eye alone pinch with a sphincter-like action. Forgive me for extrapolating but I was left imagining similarly pinching left eyes among the members of lynch mobs.

When I saw the language, the Arabic language, immediately I had a bad feeling come over me,” said Kimberly Herndon," SOURCE


Some opinions from Kimberly Herndon of Good News Ministries:

She felt her rights as a parent had been violated...

She felt the assignment tried to indoctrinate her child into the Islamic religion.

"There was no trying about it. The sheet that she gave out was pure doctrine in its origin."

"I will not have my children sit under a woman who indoctrinates them with the Islam religion when I am a Christian and I want to stand behind Christ."

Regarding the assignment on Facebook, Riverheads parent, Kimberly Herndon, wrote on December 11:

"I am preparing to confront the county on this issue of the Muslim indoctrination taking place here in an Augusta County school. This evil has been cloaked in the form of multiculturalism."

In the same post, she added:

"Christian girls in this class were called to volunteer to adorn the apparel of Muslim women. Unknowingly these children did so. Also unknowingly they were instructed to denounce our Lord by copying this creed of Islam."

The entire post has been shared over 700 times." SOURCE

"That's why we need to join together," Herndon told other parents. "If my truth cannot be spoken in schools, I don't want false doctrine spoken in schools. That's what keeps it even across the board." SOURCE  

This last statement by Kimberly Herndon is the only one which makes any sense to me - the argument that if Christianity cannot be mentioned in schools, then the same should apply to other religions. But was this assignment teaching religion or teaching about religion as part of culture. As a parent I would have raised this with the School Board to be discussed with other concerned parents with at least a modicum of temperance.

In response, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights published the following statement made by their president, Bill Donohue:
"At the same time that schools are censoring “Silent Night” from being sung at their annual “holiday” concerts, others are forcing students to pay homage to Muhammad. Regarding the latter, when a teacher at Riverheads High School in Virginia assigned students to practice calligraphy by writing, “There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is the messenger of Allah,” the school district defended the decision. Many parents strongly disagreed and the ensuing ruckus led officials to close the school today. It should stay closed until sanity prevails.

If a public school teacher were to assign students to write, “Jesus is the Son of God,” here’s what would happen: (a) the teacher would be fired (b) administrators would hold a press conference condemning the indoctrination (c) all teachers in the school district would be ordered to undergo sensitivity training (d) grief counselors, accompanied by dogs, would be summoned to deal with emotionally torn students (e) an ACLU attorney would lecture the community on church and state issues, and (f) the national media would give this incident top billing.

But, of course, no one was fired and administrators defended the assignment. There will be no sensitivity programs, no grief counselors, no dogs, and no ACLU lawyer. And most of the big media have ignored this story.

We checked to see how the most prominent atheist organizations, as well as the most influential church-and-state groups, have dealt with this abuse of power. None have said a word, even though this story was first reported on December 15. They are too busy censoring Christmas celebrations to worry about Islamic indoctrination.

We can thank multiculturalism for this condition. Its goal is to denigrate Christianity and elevate challenges to it. That’s why Muhammad is okay and Jesus is taboo.

Thank God parents are smarter than the educators. We need more of these kinds of revolts." SOURCE

We need more of these kinds of revolts? Revolts against what exactly? Systemic injustice, economic oppression, racism, military aggression, the things that the Christ would have wanted us to address? Is Christianity so weak and threatened in the homes of your countrymen that any reference to another religion sends it into a tailspin. I remained Roman Catholic from childhood into adulthood and I grew up surrounded by Muslims, Hindus and Baptists. My parents never denigrated their beliefs, never screamed bloody murder when their children learned about those other religions or took part in their celebrations.

The lessons are many but the one that stands out for me is that it is the character of the adherent that presents his/her religion to the world. It is said that all will know that we are Christians by our love. But if we continuously boast that we are Christians and yet have no tolerance, or realising that we have no tolerance, we do not demonstrate that we are actively seeking to cultivate some by toning down the rabidity, others will not see Christianity. They will see instead something that is selfish, bloodthirsty, cold and irrational. They can be forgiven for concluding that Christianity is not a religion of peace just like people who are are judging Islam by the actions of a minority and concluding that Muslims are wired to be fanatical or violent.

But I will only speak for Christianity and I believe that Christianity needs at the very least, a year of reflection, a year for adherents to follow a programme through which they will guided by intelligent and honest religious teachers to examine their consciences. We will be assisted in uncovering our own monumental failures and avowing the centuries of active and silent complicity that our three fingers are pointing back at when we point the one accusingly at Islam or whatever scapegoat is in vogue.

In 1979, Muammar Gaddafi, may he rest in peace, was interviewed by John Simpson and these words stuck with me:

"John Simpson: But what about Islam in its social role? Will Islam as a religion, as a structure, play the kind of part that it has perhaps played in other Islamic countries?

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi: I believe it is written in the Qur'an and in the Bible also, the social justice is one of the main goals of these religions. As Jesus calls for, or called for, social justice and equality between all human beings, also Qur'an calls for this and as I said, there is no contradiction between political regime, Jamahiriya, and so on and the Islam. Also there is no contradiction between Socialism and Islam and there is no contradiction between Socialism and Christianity and Jews and so on.

...I wish for all the world, especially the Catholic world, must go back to the words of Jesus and the words of God and read the Bible again and again because now they are acting against the Bible, against the words of Jesus, against the words of God. That I want, and that my wish for all the Catholic world and all the world peoples in the world in this new year."

If you are among those who shake their heads with disbelief and regret whenever confronted by the rope slingers and pitchfork rattlers of this world, then you must understand that more is expected of you. There is a reason why you have been brought to a place where you have been freed of some of the baggage that makes it difficult for many other human beings to evolve, to heal, to realise their original perfection and common humanity. We still have a long way to go but I do believe that we have many blessings.

Sea glass is beautiful. There are some beaches in the world that are treasure troves, where broken bottles finding themselves in the turbulent water have had their sharp dangerous edges ground smooth by the attrition of water driven sand and pebbles. You walk along these beaches and if you are lucky you can collect many pieces of beautiful translucent polished bits of glass of the various but more subdued hues of the original discarded bottles.

Life is not easy but our struggles can put a glow on us like sea glass in the sunshine if we allow ourselves to be instructed and improved by our trials and experiences. Our ancestors suffered like broken bottles at the mercy of forces that threw them where they did not belong, did not at first love and did not all choose to be. We are the products of centuries of different cultures rubbing up against each other in this place that we inhabit, centuries of challenges to integrity - racial, credal, class, many times succumbing to challenges to physical integrity; centuries of grinding off the harsh edges of separateness; centuries of slow realisation that we are all in this life and place together and that it is only in the finding of commonalities that we can establish a home that is truly ours.

When we sing about every creed and race finding an equal place here, there are different levels at which we can actualise this.  Maybe it is not just that the place physically admits a plurality, but that it is only in the plurality that a place will be made. The replacement in 2008 of the Trinity Cross by the Order of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago comes to mind. On one level, I do understand the arguments that were made about the perception of exclusion and imposition/domination that could be triggered by what was originally an overtly Christian symbol lingering in a nation of various religions, but I sometimes find myself wondering if a more courageous and generous spirit would have arrived at a solution where room for all could have been made.

Even if not effected by a simple name change, couldn't the cross which is actually pre-Christian have recognised itself in the sacred geometry of the ancient Swastika, or wouldn't the Trinity have found echoes in Trimurti/Tridevi/Trikuta/Triquetra or some more universally acceptable meaning based on the symbolism of three or Triad? Even if after such an examination, we had arrived at the same conclusion, that the symbol had to be discarded because it could not and would not accommodate us all, we might have been far better off for having sat together and tried to make each other feel at home. Was this one of the times when in selectively discarding some of the bathwater of the past, another baby of opportunity was lost?

The Trinity Cross [above]
The Order of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago [below]

"Patria est communis omnium parens" - Our native land is the common parent of us all. Keep it beautiful, make it even more so.

Blessed is all of creation
Blessed be my beautiful people
Blessed be the day of our awakening
Blessed is my country
Blessed are her patient hills.

Mweh ka allay!