This is what I said on June 27 to the Bethel Religious Display Committee. This committee was convened in response to conflict over the placement of this banner, which, for the first time in the town’s history, was in a public square at the same time as a manger scene:
The committee’s mandate was to make recommendations to the town government about how to deal with that conflict.
My name is Keith Snyder. I live on Main Street.
I timed myself reading this, and it comes to about six minutes, so thank you in advance for allowing me that chunk of time.
The pro-creche side of this seems to honestly believe that people who think differently than they do are mean and petty.
I haven’t been sure exactly how to respond to this. So last week, I didn’t. But something [local blogger] said last week made me realize what I did have to offer. [She] said that when she first moved here, one of the first things she noticed was that very creche in that very square. She said she was struck by how beautiful it was, that it wasn’t religious, that there was no problem with it, and that opinions to the contrary are because of “hatred.”
I would like to share my early experience moving here. It was August, 2014. I had just separated from my wife two weeks earlier, and my two boys and I landed here. And we really liked it. Still do. We liked our street. We liked our neighbors. We liked the grocery store. It had a sushi bar! We liked the bookshops and the bike shop. We felt like we had landed someplace safe.
Four months later, in December, I came around a corner and saw a big creche on what seemed to be a central public square.
And I stopped and just stood there with my mouth open. I know that sounds like the kind of thing you say when you’re exaggerating. But it’s not. I literally stood there with my mouth literally open.
And suddenly, my new, safe little town was a little less safe.
To understand why, you have to understand something that may not be within your experience.
I grew up with swastikas spray-painted on my house and crosses burned into my lawn. Regularly, for years. And, regularly, for years, the local good Christians turned their eyes away, and pulled their shades down. It wasn’t their business. They didn’t want to get involved.
The only person who ever helped us scrub the swastikas off, as far as I can remember, was the German lady across the street, Heinke.
But those weren’t really good Christians.
Here’s something else I saw, not long after I moved here. There was a swastika at the Bethel train station on the sign that says BETHEL. Not big. It was, I don’t know, about this big. And it hung around there for a long time, and none of my neighbors scrubbed it off. Which I understand — it’s just a little graffiti. Probably kids? I finally scrubbed it off myself, as best I could, with a toothbrush. Because it wasn’t important to my neighbors.
But tonight something is really important to you. A little statue of Jesus. That’s important. And which patch of land it goes on, and keeping other people’s things off that land at the same time. Which is odd. Because Jesus never said he wanted a little statue of himself. What he does care about — and he makes this very clear — is how you treat neighbors and strangers. That’s what he says, flat out, that he cares about.
Had you behaved as though you loved your neighbor, and cared for strangers, none of this would be happening. But you didn’t. You want your statues. In a town space. Between certain dates. By themselves. That’s what’s important to you.
And by letting you do it, the town says that’s what’s important to the town.
Okay. I want an atheist sign. And I’m willing to share. I’m hoping to share. I don’t mind that other things are up at the same time. I hope they are. It’s great. It’s sharing. With my neighbors.
I do care that it’s accorded the same respect as other displays. But — respect doesn’t mean that when you’re not using something, you’ll allow everybody else to split the leftovers. That’s not respect. Everybody knows that’s not respect. You know that’s not respect. That’s winning.
To me, sharing is the win.
There are two things I’ve heard pro-creche people say to justify their positions.
One is “I’ve lived here a long time, so my opinion counts for more.” Well, I’ve lived here a long time, too. I’ve lived my entire life in the United States of America. Which is where we are right now.
It’s not the United States of One Group Gets To Choose First And Then Everybody Else Divvies Up What’s Left. You’re entitled to zero special treatment of your display. And I’m entitled to zero special treatment of mine. And this is true whether one of us has enjoyed special treatment in the past or not.
The second thing I’ve heard pro-creche people say is, “There are more of us, so what we want should matter more.”
That’s not what Jesus taught. That’s not what anyone who cares about right and wrong has ever taught.
You’re wrong about this in the moral code of your own religion.
So all that is what hit me when I came around that corner, and saw your creche for the first time. All by itself. In what I was pretty sure was a public space. I saw that my new town doesn’t care. You, I expect not to care. But this was the town putting its stamp of approval on it. Boom. We don’t care either.
Okay. I’m a big boy. I’ve been through much worse than that.
But now that this is all happening? Maybe when there’s a meeting, I’ll show up and say what I think.
You can disagree with me. That’s one of the beautiful things about living here. We can disagree. But next time somebody tells you it’s hate, or you hear that coming out of your own mouth, maybe you can take a second and rethink that a little.
Last thing I have to say. We all have biases. I have one too. I’m gonna own mine. I’m sitting here expecting you to do the least neighborly thing. Because in my lifelong experience — that’s just what my good neighbors do.
Thank you. I have kids to pick up at Quassy, so I’m out of here. Thank you for the six minutes.