Each Advent in recent years, around the time when those prefab, do-it-yourself gingerbread house kits appear on supermarket shelves, Fox News launches its (allegedly) defensive campaign commonly known as the “War on Christmas.”
Fox News’ “war” is designed to criticize the “secularization” of our culture wrought by atheists, agnostics, liberals, leftists, progressives, and separation of church and state zealots — i.e. Democrats. This irreligious coalition force is allegedly waging a strategic offensive on Christmas, trying to banish the sacred symbols of the season, denying our religious heritage, and even undermining the spiritual rubrics upon which our great nation is built.
Fox News positions itself as the defender of the faith and all things sacred. And Bill O’Reilly fancies himself the “watchdog” of Christmas.
Fox News’ usual targets include shopping malls and stores that replace their “Merry Christmas” greetings with “Happy Holidays,” and state governments that no longer call their official "Christmas" trees by their rightful name, or municipalities that ban any depictions of, or references to, the Christmas season in public places. Those who are attacked defend themselves, often claim that they are really religious too, and the perennial war is on.
But what we actually have here is a theological problem, where cultural and commercial symbols are confused with truly Christian ones, and the meaning of the holy season is missed all together.
The war on Christmas is really about what brand of “civil religion” America should have. The particular (read: biblical) meaning of Christmas, for Christians, has almost nothing to do with the media war.
What a surprise.
What is Christmas? It is the celebration of the Incarnation, God’s becoming flesh — human — and entering into history in the form of a vulnerable baby born to a poor, teenage mother in a dirty animal stall. Simply amazing. That Mary was homeless at the time,a member of a people oppressed by the imperial power of an occupied country whose local political leader, Herod, was so threatened by the baby’s birth that he killed countless children in a vain attempt to destroy the Christ child, all adds compelling historical and political context to the Advent season.
The theological claim that sets Christianity apart from any other faith tradition is the Incarnation. God has come into the world to save us. God became like us to bring us back to God and show us what it means to be truly human.
That is the meaning of the Incarnation. That is the reason for the season.
In Jesus Christ, God hits the streets.
It is theologically and spiritually significant that the Incarnation came to our poorest streets. That Jesus was born poor, later announces his mission at Nazareth as “bringing good news to the poor,” and finally tells us that how we treat “the least of these” is his measure of how we treat him and how he will judge us as the Son of God, radically defines the social context and meaning of the Incarnation of God in Christ. And it clearly reveals the real meaning of Christmas.
The other explicit message of the Incarnation is that Jesus the Christ’s arrival will mean “peace on earth, good will toward men.” He is “the mighty God, the everlasting Father, and the Prince of Peace.” Jesus later calls on his disciples to turn the other cheek, practice humility, walk the extra mile, put away their swords, love their neighbors — and even their enemies — and says that in his kingdom, it is the peacemakers who will be called the children of God. Christ will end our warring ways, bringing reconciliation to God and to one another.
None of that has anything to do with the Fox News Christmas. In fact, quite the opposite.
Making sure that shopping malls and stores greet their customers with “Merry Christmas” is entirely irrelevant to the meaning of the Incarnation. In reality it is the consumer frenzy of Christmas shopping that is the real affront and threat to the season.
Last year, Americans spent $450 billion on Christmas. Clean water for the whole world, including every poor person on the planet, would cost about $20 billion. Let’s just call that what it is: A material blasphemy of the Christmas season.
Imagine Jesus walking into the mall, seeing the Merry Christmas signs, and expressing his humble thanks for how the pre- and post-Christmas sales are honoring to him. How about credit cards for Christ?
While we’re at it, here’s another point of clarification: The arrival of the Christ child has nothing to do with trees or what we call them.
Evergreens and wreaths, holly and ivy, and even mistletoe turn out to be customs borrowed from ancient Roman and Germanic winter solstice celebrations, assimilated and co-opted by the church after Constantine made peace between his empire and the Christians.
Now, my family loves our Christmas tree, but its bright lights and wonderful ornaments don’t teach my children much about why Jesus came into the world. We do that in other ways, such as giving needed gifts — goats, sheep, and chickens and the like — to the poorest children and families of the world though the World Vision web site on Christmas Day. The goal is to make our sons more excited about the gifts they give than the ones they get, and it usually works. Last year, my boys sponsored a child in Ghana.
I have no problem with the public viewing of symbols from all of the world’s religions at appropriate times in their religious calendars (which can actually be educational for all of our children) and believe that doing so is consistent with our democratic and cultural pluralism.
But I don’t believe that respectfully and publicly honoring those many religious symbols has changed many lives, for better or for worse. Much more important than symbols and symbolism is how we live the faith that we espouse. And here is where Fox News’s war on Christmas is most patently unjust.
The real Christmas announces the birth of Jesus to a world of poverty, pain, and sin, and offers the hope of salvation and justice.
The Fox News Christmas heralds the steady promotion of consumerism, the defense of wealth and power, the adulation of money and markets, and the regular belittling or attacking of efforts to overcome poverty.
The real Christmas offers the joyful promise of peace and the hope of reconciliation with God and between humankind.
The Fox News Christmas proffers the constant drumbeat of war, the reliance on military solutions to every conflict, the demonizing of our enemies, and the gospel of American dominance.
The real Christmas lifts up the Virgin Mary’s song of praise for her baby boy: “He has brought the mighty down from their thrones, and lifted the lowly, he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich empty away.”
The Fox News Christmas would label Mary’s Magnificat as “class warfare.”
So if there is a war on Christmas it's the one being waged by Fox News.
Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at www.godspolitics.com. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.