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!