Christmas

Freedom of Religion in Indiana

Religion is under attack in America. It has been for a long time. But recently, it is specifically the Christian Faith that has been targeted. The classic example is secularizing Christmas; stripping Christ from the celebration with the use of “Xmas.” Yes. I realize that among scholars this a practice dating back hundreds of years and has nothing to do with secularization. X represents the 22nd letter of the Greek alphabet, “Chi”, and has long stood as a symbol for Christ. Therefore, Christmas and Xmas are actually the same—both of them meaning “Christ Mass.” But that’s not the point. The issue is that today it is not just Christian scholars who are using Xmas. So are non-Christians and even non-believers. It’s a little like a family—I can say anything I want about my sister, but you can’t. Infantile? Without question. But there are other, even greater onslaughts against religion.

In more recent years, marriage has become the weapon of choice for attacking the Christian Faith. Everyone knows that marriage is only between a man and a woman. The Bible never says that, but it implies it. In recent years there have been feeble attempts to fight back with slogans such as, “It was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” But if homosexuality is the great sin against God that many Christians believe, we need more than slogans. We must fight back with all the ammunition in our arsenal. Enter the great State of Indiana and Governor Mike Pence.

Pence just signed legislation that guarantees the free practice of religion. Bakeries, florists, dress makers, tux shops and photographers, will not be forced to support same-sex marriage. And indeed, why should they consort with sinners? Indiana had to take a stand. Before this legislation was passed and signed by the governor, every same sex couple in Indiana sought out anti-LGBT establishments to provide the food and decorations, etc. for their wedding ceremonies. Why couldn’t they just patronize gay establishments? We needed this law.

There is another, even more important, dimension to this crisis. Indiana is evangelical territory. As such they always ask the question WWJD? Well, what would Jesus do? Better yet, what
did Jesus do?

Jesus frequented the company of prostitutes. I don’t mean that he slept with them. But they did hang out together and share a few drinks. And when it came to tax collectors, Jesus did more than drink. He enjoyed their lavish meals, even though other religious leaders criticized him for it. And let’s not forget the lepers. Jesus not only allowed them to approach him, he reached out and touched them, thus making even the Son of God unclean according to the religious laws of his day.

Does this mean that Jesus endorsed the activities of tax collectors or the life-styles of prostitutes? Of course not. But he did fraternize with them. More importantly he did not condemn them or shun them. As for the lepers, they did not choose their situation and Jesus embraced them for who they were.

On the basis of these and other things that he did it is reasonable to suggest that Jesus would have attended gay weddings. He would have enjoyed the company and the food. He would have shared in the toast and maybe even danced with the two brides. Who knows? Maybe he did. The Gospels certainly do not say that he didn’t.

Hmmm! I may have been terribly wrong about the Indiana legislature and Governor Pence. As it turns out this law is not about the free practice of religion. It is about the free practice of prejudice, bigotry and hate. There is, after all, another way to view the current situation of religion in America. Christianity is, indeed, under attack. But the threat comes from within.

Many Christians have lost sight of who Jesus is and what Jesus did. Whatever answer one offers to the question WWJD, Jesus certainly would not be supporting legislation that condemns, discriminates and pushes people to the margins of society.

This new Indiana law is not so much anti-LGBT as it is anti-Gospel and anti-Jesus. The irony would be comic if it were not so extreme. Every serious scholar acknowledges that Jesus never appeared in ancient America. But there is a new question today: “Will Jesus ever appear in Indiana?”
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Christmas 2014

Throughout world history and over all the earth, there is nothing to compare to Christmas. No individual’s birth and no religious holiday is accompanied by music conjuring such depth of meaning or magnitude of expression. Look to the carols—both religious and secular. Whether hearing angels from on high on a silent night, or convening people to come and adore, or listening to silver bells on a white Christmas, these songs proclaim a worldwide longing for peace.

But with annual repetition, it is evident that mere musical sentiment does not, indeed cannot, advance the peace and equality proclaimed in song. In fact, if anything this celebration betrays a hypocrisy, if not a schizophrenia throughout most of the world. Historic battles have seen the calling of a one day truce on December 25th, only to resume killing on December 26th. And then there is capitalism.

It is too simplistic to say that Christmas has been commercialized. Many people who lament that reality are unwilling to give voice to the deeper analysis and uncomfortable truth that Christmas was not created to serve or advance a market economy. Such language is deemed politically incorrect. And sadly, many Christians have shown themselves all-too-complicit as monetary concerns have usurped values of peace and goodwill. It is not the ringing of bells, but of cash registers and Wall Street trading that measure the success of the season. How can world peace compete with world banks?

At its core Christmas is an unfulfilled vision, a promise of hope and peace that always remains just out of reach. Perhaps this is because the holiday is not really about mundane endeavors or economic profit. It is about an unanticipated bond between the human and the divine—a presence not recognized in its nativity and adamantly rejected in its adulthood. Christmas is about God becoming human in Jesus. The very idea strains the imagination. It is only approachable and acceptable through faith. At the same time, belief must find expression in action.

Christians, both as victims and perpetrators, have failed the message and mission of Jesus. As perpetrators, they have foisted violence and war on those of different faiths, cultures and political systems. Sometimes even invoking the name of the Prince of Peace. As victims they have refused to embrace the sacrifice of the Cross, instead, forsaking forgiveness and choosing revenge and retribution even at the cost of civilization. It is a disturbing paradox that the followers of Jesus can intently and successfully articulate reasons for war but remain impotently mute when it comes to peace.

So once again we find ourselves celebrating the birth of Jesus, the humbling and undeserved presence of God among us. As we invade and empty the plethora of stores in our shopping malls, even as we clog traffic on the world wide web from our homes, we will be engulfed in the sounds of Christmas.

Since hope springs eternal, this may be the year everything changes. Maybe this feliz navidad will be what the first noel was supposed to be. On this holy night the stars will shine bright, the earth will receive its king, and there will be joy to the world because this child was born. Maybe.
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Why…and Why Not? Questions about the Sandy Hook Shooting

The peace, joy and celebrations of Christmas and the holiday season have been shattered by despicable violence. In many parts of the country, people have been physically sickened and have shed tears, some uncontrollably. The first question, the Why, is not an attempt to seek and understand an explanation for the massacre. Rather, it queries the reason so many in our country care what happened.

Certainly for the families and friends who lost loved ones at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the pain and sorrow are obvious and understandable. Families have been ripped apart, literally, as they lay the bodies of their little ones to rest. Sadly, neither our President, nor local politicians, nor our teachers, nor even our pastors can craft adequate words of consolation. Darkness hangs over the city of Newton; an oppressive darkness that obscures even the light of Christmas. On a basic and intuitive level we understand the concern and care of each of the families and of their friends.

But why should the rest of the country care? Most of us did not know these little children or their families. Could it be that the wanton murder of twenty little first graders creates an existential disruption in our own lives? After all, for most of us, the massacre was, and remains, incomprehensible. Our own sense of order has been distorted and thrown into chaos. Or could it be that we have become afraid? Afraid for ourselves and our own children? Or maybe it is that the massacre of innocent six and seven-year-olds is simply too unsettling to fathom, compounded by the fact that their little bodies were riddled with close-range bullets. Could it be our own repugnance at the terror they must have felt as their bodies were pierced and life ripped from their tiny frames? There are many legitimate and humane reasons to care. And as a nation, we care deeply.

But we are challenged by the second question:
Why Not? Why do we not demonstrate the same outrage and grief for the innocent children killed in Pakistan and Yemen? I don’t mean children who are victims of floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters, or even children who die of starvation or disease. I am not speaking of children caught in the crossfire of soldiers’ rifles in the midst of war. No. I mean the 178 children killed by drone attacks ordered by our own government, the United States of America. That is nearly nine times the number killed in Newton!

The children at Sandy Hook faced a madman. Children living in Pakistan and Yemen faced unmanned drones. Is their terror any less because they cannot see their killer? Are they any less innocent? Are their futures filled with any less promise? Are their dreams of being teachers or doctors, scientists or musicians any less deserving? Why don’t we rise up in anger and protest? Why don’t we care?

Could it be that they are not massacred together in a single violent act? Could it be that the media doesn’t deem these deaths worthy of news coverage? Could it be that we do not see their faces or know their names? Could it be that we consider them the “other” because they are not us? Could it simply be that they are different?

We try to justify our drone attacks by saying we are pursuing an enemy. We are hunting the “bad guys.” Well, little children are not the bad guys—no matter what country they live in. The fear that overwhelms them as they hear a drone humming in the sky above is just as real as the fear of children who hear gunfire in the next classroom. And it is just as evil.

This is not a lecture, and I do not have the answer. I have only the question:
Why don’t we care?
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The Messiah?

Every belief system requires a certain leap of faith. By its very definition, faith is not something that can be proved. At the same time, it must be reasonable. Karl Marx remains famous for calling religion the opiate of the people. And Nietzsche may be most remembered for his statement that God is dead.

This may seem an odd beginning for a Christmas blog. But it is precisely because so many people get lost in the romanticism of Christmas, that it becomes an escape, rather than a time of reflection, thus given some credence to the remarks of Marx and Nietzsche.

Whether or not faith can be proved, a pre-requisite for religious belief should be its rationality and whether or not it holds up to investigation. For example, Jews believe that Moses parted the Red (or Reed) Sea during the Exodus from Egypt. Christians believe that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. Mormons believe that Jesus appeared in ancient America.

Let’s dismiss the most silly of these claims. There are no serious scholars, even among Mormons, who accept the belief that Jesus appeared in ancient America. One reason for discounting that tenet is that there is absolutely no archeological evidence of such an event. It would be irrational to continue to hold to that belief, thus raising echoes of Marx.

The Jewish belief (also shared by Christians and Muslims) in the parting of the sea is also subject to investigation. There are a number of scenarios whereby the land beneath the sea was, indeed, dry enough to cross. It was a periodic occurrence. So subsequently, the waters that had receded returned, thus miring Pharaoh and his army in the mud. There remains a reasonable miracle here, in that God intervened to assure the timing of the event. The art of storytelling simply embellishes the crossing with the image of water walling up on the right and the left.

Whether or not Jesus is the Messiah is a little more complex. There is no question that Jesus existed as a real person. His life and death are not the invention of sacred writing. They are also mentioned in non-biblical documents. But is he the Messiah?

The Old Testament writers left us numerous ways to identify the Messiah upon his arrival. One of the principle Messianic promises was peace. So, how does this fit in with the story of Jesus?

The Roman Martyrology of the Catholic Church includes a Proclamation of the Birth of Christ. In very brief and poetic language, it traces the passage of time from the creation and biblical events, through Greek and Roman civilization, to the arrival. Of particular significance is the situating of Jesus’ birth in real time:

“The forty-second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus; the whole world being at peace, Jesus Christ…was born in Bethlehem of Judea of the Virgin Mary.”

Setting aside the fact that the phrase “the whole world” is a touch Judeo-Roman-centric, the real issue is the question of peace. Since Christians already believed that Jesus was the Messiah at the time of its composition, it is understandable that an observation of peace would find its way into the Christmas Proclamation.

It is also true that at the time of Jesus’ birth, the Roman Empire was not engaged in an ongoing war. Still, Rome was a foreign power that controlled ancient Palestine. Since peace is not just the absence of war, it would take a Rowlingesque imagination to observe occupying forces patrolling the streets and deem that reality as peace.

It is understandable that many in ancient Israel, as well as many today, find it difficult to recognize Jesus as Messiah. Peace was not only absent at the time of his birth. Christianity, itself, has been darkened with war and other forms of violence throughout much of its history.

It might be too simplistic to reject Jesus due to the absence of one Messianic promise, even if that promise is as significant as peace. At the same time, that very absence might serve as motivation for those who really do believe in Jesus.

At the core of the Gospels and of authentic Christian Faith, is a peace that is rooted in forgiveness and love. The absence of peaces is not just a historical issue surrounding Jesus’ birth. It is an existential issue that questions the authenticity of believers today.

If the Christian Faith is to circumvent the condemnation of Marx and not serve as a collective drug; if it is to counter the declaration of Nietzsche and keep God alive and present in our world today, then “Peace on Earth” cannot be just decorative phrasing on a holiday card or sentimental lyrics in a Christmas song. Peace must drive who and what we are. War is not only
not the answer, it cannot even be part of the discussion.

Maybe peace really is that important. I, like millions of others, believe in Jesus. However, until peace defines the followers of Jesus, there is not sufficient reason to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.
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