The intersection of sectarian and secular is crowded with dented fenders and smashed bumpers. At no time is that more evident in the United States than the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
In a nation that values free speech, individual freedom and the ability to worship the deity of one’s own belief – or not – the co-opting of a religious observance into the commercial world makes for trouble.
Advertising on city buses, a sign on city property, an artificial tree in a bank and the greetings that store employees offer patrons have all become fodder for some Christians’ perceived slights to their faith.
Why are so many of my brothers and sisters in Christ consumed by the trivial?
As Christian researcher George Barna has said, we Christians too often are our own worst enemies when it comes to showing the world what real, biblically centered Christianity looks like – the one that calls for loving your neighbor as yourself.
Sadly, to the unbeliever, the average Christian doesn’t act any differently than they do.
Even sadder is the realization that many of the folks who are raging against bus ads and seasonal slogans are behaving precisely as the Pharisees did – and were roundly denounced by Jesus for it.
The Pharisees of Christ’s day were a powerful leadership body that claimed to be more righteous than the rest of Jewish society. They set themselves up as models of what was right and godly. They didn’t see themselves as bad people; they simply were hyper-zealous in their desire to protect the name of God and his laws.
In Christ’s eyes, that behavior was destructive. Fixating on laws – or the minutia of slogans and signs – distracts from what we’re called to do as Christians: Love God.
Proclaiming one’s faith through an uttered “Merry Christmas” – or becoming angry at the restaurant manager who doesn’t – isn’t the way to display our humble faithfulness to the mission our Father gave us – to love our neighbors.
Living out that faith – putting our muscle and minds and money into tackling hunger and poverty and homelessness – is what keeps Christ in Christmas.
A couple of years back, Charles C. Haynes, senior scholar and director of education programs at the First Amendment Center, wrote a thought-provoking column titled “To save Christmas, separate Christ from commerce.”
“If the aim is to keep ‘Christ’ in the shopping-mall Christmas or to ensure that pagan trees and mistletoe don’t lose their Christian labels, then it might make sense to attack presidents and business owners who commit the ‘happy holiday’ sin,” Haynes wrote. “But if the goal is to restore the religious meaning of the Christian holy day, then they are aiming at the wrong Target.
“Once the birth of Jesus was made a ‘national holiday,’ taking ‘Christ out of Christmas’ was destined to happen.”
Therein lies the answer for all who bemoan the corruption of Christianity or get annoyed at the bank official who removes a gaudy tree or feel compelled to post anonymous complaints on a website about the company that dares to allow its employees to say “Happy Holidays”: The United States should no longer “celebrate” Christmas (or Easter, for that matter) as a national holiday. Let the retailers have the days – just don’t call them “Christmas.”
The celebration of winter solstice (whether it be Christmas, Hanukah or Kwanzaa) is a cultural observance, no matter the name we put on it. It belongs to the rich, diverse community in which we live and can no longer be claimed exclusively by one group or another.
To expand on an idea posited first by the Puritan minister Roger Williams (who warned about the worldly pollution of faith back in 1635) and developed by Haynes in his column, let the merchants and banks have their peacock blue trees and “Jingle Bells,” Santa Claus and the elves, red-and-green ribbons and shiny tinsel and ornaments.
Leave the manger out of it.
If you want to put Christ back into Christmas, then instead of battling the mall crowd to spend outrageous amounts of money on presents that will be forgotten by Easter, use that time and money to feed the hungry, clothe the poor and visit the infirm.
Jesus’ new commandment was not for “them” to love us, but for us to love them. Jill “J.R.” Labbe is the editorial director of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.