First, some background: the unrest started early in the year when a group of students decided to protest the tuition hikes proposed by the Quebec government ($325 a year for the next 5 years). Seeing that tuition rates have been frozen for almost ten years, it seemed reasonable to the government to increase them to reflect rising costs. This did not sit well with some students, and they organised an ongoing protest in which students were encouraged to boycott classes and refuse to hand in assignments. It has now grown into a movement which has staged several organised, peaceful marches numbering in the hundreds of thousands as well as many smaller gatherings, temporarily closed some colleges, and earned student representatives a chance to negotiate with the government. Sadly, the latest talks again resulted in an impasse.
The movement has also been tainted by vandalism, interruption of the city's public transportation system, and the continuing disruption of the lives of peace-loving students and citizens. While I appreciate the fact that some students are willing to stand up for accessible, quality higher education, I also observe that their motivations and their methods seem less than altruistic. Asking corporations or taxpayers to contribute more and more while students pay less and less (in 1964, Quebec students contributed 26.4% of the actual cost of tuition; in 2009, it was 12.7%) is a good deal for the students involved, but taxpayers already carry heavy financial burdens and corporations don't have unlimited resources; Quebec has been witness to the fact that businesses will leave the province if conditions become unfavourable and they believe can be more profitable elsewhere. In the same way that proposed tuition hikes have had consequences, increased taxation or shifting funds away from one source and channeling it into another will also have ramifications. Every action has its consequences (beyond the intended ones) and in my observation, those involved in the protests have not shown much appreciation for this fact. I for one, am grateful to benefit from some of the lowest tuition rates in all of North America, even after the proposed tuition increases.
Anyway, I don't mean to argue a particular point. What I see is that there are two sides of the issue and neither group is willing to give in to the other or offer much in the way of creative compromise. The government is demanding that students pay more. A minority of students believe they are justified in demanding that someone else foot the bill. It is indeed an impasse and it makes me sad.
Back to the story of Esther. Esther was queen to King Xerxes and also a Jew. The Jews were not well-liked by Xerxes' right-hand man, Haman, and he proposed that the kingdom of Xerxes would be better off without them. Xerxes gave Haman freedom to do what he wanted, since he was using his own funds, and Haman began to plan how he would extinguish the Jewish people in Xerxes' lands. Esther's uncle, Mordecai, informed her of Haman's dastardly plan, and at first she was hesitant to get involved because her own position and very life could be in danger if she approached the king. But Mordecai responded with these words: "Don't think that just because you live in the king's house you're the one Jew who will get out of this alive. If you persist in staying silent at a time like this, help and deliverance will arrive for the Jews from someplace else; but you and your family will be wiped out. Who knows? Maybe you were made queen for just such a time as this." (Esther 4, The Message).
Esther then approached the king (and fortunately he extended a welcome to her and didn't put her to death for showing up unannounced, which he had a right to do in those days) and invited him and Haman to dinner. I will stop the story there and you can read how it ends for yourself (a rather brutal turn of events), but the point that leapt out at me when I read it this past weekend was this: Esther was threatened and her response was to extend hospitality. She did not first demand justice; she invited the people she had issues with to her quarters for a fine meal. And at that first meal, there was no discussion of her agenda and no requests made. I believe there is something to learn here. Esther had a life and death issue that urgently required action, and her first action (after praying and fasting) was to extend hospitality. Not to demand something, not to be forceful and aggressive, not to manipulate or malign, not to induce guilt, but to offer hospitality. Everything else stemmed from that.
If we want people to extend generosity to us, I believe we have to be the ones to first show generosity. Before we ever bring up our agenda, there must be hospitality. This is how we must deal with each other if we are ever to cultivate a just and mutually beneficial society. Otherwise, we all end up selfishly grabbing for our own piece of the pie and inevitably putting an elbow in someone's face or jostling them out of the way.
I don't know exactly what this means for me. Perhaps I should invite Mr. Charest over for waffles. Or take some disgruntled students out for Thai food. Or make cookies for both parties. All I know is that I can't sit by and do nothing. I must extend hospitality. I must show generosity and hope that it multiplies.
the photo: a group of protestors blocking the street in front of Concordia University.