We hear a lot these days about the "war on Christmas," but doesn’t the most important conflict occur within our hearts this time of year?

That’s not to discount the tension that occurs in a society that tries to balance a Judeo-Christian heritage with a tolerance of other faiths – and doesn’t always get that balance right, particularly this time of year. A lot is lost when a lawsuit results in the forceful removal of a nativity from a public square. I think the State Capitol has it right: A manger scene placed next to an atheistic display about the winter solstice. Better to express both ideas respectfully than neither.

But it’s in the human heart where the real war on Christmas occurs – where we, each individually, allow the season’s focus to shift from the Christmas story to buying all this stuff. This is supposed to be a reflective time about faith and family. Instead, it’s become a consumer-driven hassle that now hits fifth gear on, not after, Thanksgiving Day.

I won’t spend another 400 words telling you what you already know if you have a pulse in America during the months of November and December. Apart from political controversies, the focus of the Christmas season is all wrong. The question becomes, what do those of us not inclined to sue anybody do about it?

The ministry Living Water International (www.water.cc) has a suggestion: "Worship fully; spend less; give more; love all." A few years ago, the ministry, which digs water wells in impoverished parts of the world, started a campaign called the Advent Conspiracy challenging Americans to refocus the holiday on the things that matter. Instead of buying so many of what the ministry correctly calls "useless gifts" – mostly stuff made in China, the ministry doesn’t point out, but I will – Americans are urged to give something meaningful, such as their time. Part of the savings can be donated to Living Water’s ministry so it can dig wells for poor people.

Almost 800 million people lack access to an improved source of clean water, such as a well. Diseases caused by unsanitary water kill 2.2 million people each year and result in children losing an estimated 443 million school days worldwide. While Americans will spend this month rushing back and forth from home to work to store to website, women across the world will spend 20 hours a week hauling buckets back and forth between their village and their often unclean water source.

The global problem seems overwhelming, but during the past 20 years an estimated two billion people have gained access to clean water thanks to economic growth and charitable organizations. Living Water says that while Americans spend $450 billion a year on Christmas, an infusion of $20 billion would provide clean water to everyone else. I don’t know if that’s correct because so many parts of the world seem so permanently messed up. But it’s clear that we in still-prosperous America can do a lot for a little.

There are, of course, more good causes in the world than you and I can hope to support. And it should be pointed out that buying stuff, including at Christmas, keeps people out of poverty permanently.

But this is a time to focus not just on higher things, but the highest, and, as Living Water International points out, there are times when it is better to give than to spend. Merry Christmas.


Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is brawnersteve@mac.com