Friday, December 24, 2010

Channeling Joe McCarthy

In an op-ed piece in Long Island's Newsday news paper this past Sunday, Congressman Peter King wrote an article justifying his intention to hold hearings on Muslims in America and domestic terrorism.In it Rep. King noted an abrupt change in his attitude toward Muslim Americans after 911 based on a remark by an individual Muslim (uttered in the heat of the moment during a contentious discussion) in which this individual indicated, not that the terror attacks were in any way justified, but that they might have been the work of someone other than a Muslim extremist group- a remark Mr. King says, the public record to the contrary notwithstanding, were never properly repudiated by Muslim leaders. In point of fact, it was not only retracted by the individual who made it, but denounced publicly over and over again- a fact to which I can personally attest.

Even if it wasn't, no one has demanded that I or any other Christian leader publicly apologize for the remarks of Terry Fox, the infamous would-be Quran-burner of central Florida and therein lies the crux of the issue. Peter King, is an elected representative of the US government who is sworn to uphold the constitution. That includes the right to be an individual whose patriotism is not subject to congressional hearings because someone else makes a statement that offends- even if it offends your local congressman. It is a sad commentary on Mr. King's own character that his opinion of an entire religion is apparently turned 180 degrees because of one or even a few ill-thought-out remarks, but it is worse when he uses his office to initiate a witch hunt against a group which, also contrary to what he claims, the Federal Bureau of Investigation as well as our local police commissioner have lauded for their cooperation with law enforcement in the fight against terror. But facts rarely matter when political opportunism rears its ugly head. Muslims are a vulnerable group, easy to victimize under the guise of concerns about security. A few well publicized incidents of domestic terror recruiting among Muslims in America, provide the excuse and anxiety about Islam and Muslims the fuel for a return to the Joe McCarthy-style congressional witch hunts that cast a shadow over our democracy, ruined countless innocent lives and disgraced our nation in the early 1950's. Is the threat of domestic terrorism real? Of course it is- not only or even primarily from Muslim extremists, but from right wing religious extremists in the mold of Timothy McVeigh, from so-called "sovereign citizens," armed militias and a number of other groups, the majority of which have nothing to do with Islam- extremist or otherwise. But King apparently doesn't see a political pay-off in going after domestic terrorism in general. Instead, he is picking on a vulnerable minority, cynically exploiting the fears of Americans and like his predecessor, Senator McCarthy, bringing shame to this nation, even as his enemies rejoice that America seems to be at war with Islam after all.
Shame on you Congressman King, shame on you!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The War on Christmas Revisited

It's that time of year again, when the Christian celebration of Christmas is upon us and the inevitable complaints about the so-called "War on Christmas" are being aired in many quarters in America. As more and more merchants are changing their "Merry Christmas" greetings to "Happy Holidays," as public schools and institutions are changing their "Christmas" pageants to "Holiday" pageants and Menorahs, Kwanzaa candles and even Star and Crescents are showing up in public places alongside of creches and Christmas trees, the complaints get louder and more urgent. Many of us Christians begin to wonder if indeed there really us a plan out there somewhere among the powers-that-be to erase this most important religious and cultural celebration from our land. Hey, what's wrong with "Merry Christmas" after all?

Not a thing- and as a Christian clergyman, I believe not only that Christmas is one of the two most important celebrations of our faith (Easter is the other), but that those who say that any religious celebration or proclamation has no place in the public square are not only wrong about what our constitution says, but profoundly misguided about the nature of religious belief itself. I believe as well that there is a indeed a kind of "War on Christmas." But that war is not being carried out by some secret cabal of anti-religious zealots, or by the so-called "liberal media" or by any of the other boogey-men (or boogey-women) one hears so much about from cable pundits. Rather, the war on Christmas is an internal affair that began when we Christians started turning the celebration of the birth of our Savior into a commercial buying spree so excessive that it became a cornerstone of our consumer economy and when far too many of us began looking for the "Christmas Spirit" at big box stores and malls, or in religious displays in the Village Square rather than where our faith has always said that spirit would be found. That is, in our houses of worship, among the poor and those whom the consumer economy has left behind and in acts of love and generosity that reflect our understanding of the incredible act of love we celebrate in the birth, the ministry, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Christians claim to be disciples of a Messiah who eschewed political and cultural domination, proclaiming instead that his kingdom "is not of this world." We are the followers of one who said that he would be found not among the wealthiest and most fortunate, but among the least and the last, a rabbi who told those who would attain righteousness to "sell all you have and give the money to the poor." When we seek to dominate the public and secular arenas with our symbols at the expense of our neighbors, when we turn his birthday into an orgy of consumption, when we look for the spirit of Christmas in stores, it is we who are waging war on Christmas, not some "liberal" cabal. When we are subjected to skepticism about this day's meaning by others because of those patterns of behavior, that too is a self-inflicted wound and one that should be cause to "look to the plank in our own eye," as Jesus said, and not "the mote in our neighbor's eye."

We have the right as citizens of a free society to proclaim our joy at the celebration of our Messiah's birth and the duty as Christians to put that faith into practice in our public as well as our private lives. But the teachings of Jesus would seem to make it clear that doing so would be more about caring for the least of his brethren, coming together in worship than about demanding merchants say "Merry Christmas" rather than "Happy Holidays." Our religion calls us to struggle in our Savior's name to live our lives more compassionately and our faith more courageously, and maybe worry a bit less about getting "our" symbol up on the Village Green or our celebrations' name on the local school pageant. If those kinds of concerns are what Christmas is about, then the war is already lost because we've become just one more competing special interest group vying for power. But faith, all religious faith is about much more than that. Christmas is about the birth of Jesus Christ, about his love, his grace, his gift of salvation rather than about us. Remembering that and putting it into practice- that's how we'll "win" this one. To my fellow Christians, have a blessed Christmas. To my friends of other faiths, God bless and to all of my fellow human beings of ever faith and no faith, may this year bring you joy and good things!