Every year, around Thanksgiving, with an apparent lack of more important issues to discuss, the cable news media revives the old cold war.
Not that Cold War, of course. The fear today is not of communists infiltrating our society to take away our precious freedoms and way of life, though the fear today is not dissimilar to the older iteration. I'm talking about The War on Christmas.
If you didn't know better you might think this "war" was a modern-day Dickensian Ebenezer Scrooge story or a real life Grinch who "stole Christmas"--ironically, both cautionary tales about cold-heartedness toward others--especially those in need--and general meanness due to personal loss and loneliness.
As a Christian minister who counts the Christmas story among the most important stories in the Bible, I have a couple of thoughts about this "war."
First of all, I think Christmas can stand up to the challenge of pluralism. Christmas is not so fragile. Hanukkah has never enjoyed cultural dominance and the celebration seems to being doing just fine. I don't need to see a nativity scene on the grounds of City Hall to prop up my faith in God or my confidence in the central message of the Christmas story.
Secondly, if there is any violence done to Christmas I'm concerned it comes primarily from within the community of Christmas observers. The greatest risk to Christmas--and what Christmas might mean as a public good--is not in failing to say "Merry Christmas" or forbidding public displays of religious icons. It comes from getting the story wrong.
How might the Christmas story be a public good? The answer lies in the details of the story itself. To wit...
Jesus was born to peasant parents at a time of economic oppression. The reason Jesus' folks were in Bethlehem and not their hometown of Nazareth when the auspicious moment arrived was that the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, had called for every person in the realm to be registered and taxed. The first of the Caesars to fancy himself a "Son of the Gods," Augustus wanted to consolidate his power and wealth. So Joseph and Mary head out for Bethlehem, some 80 miles to the south. If they could travel at 20 miles per day, which might be a challenge given Mary's very pregnant condition, they could make the trip in 4 days.
And then there are the circumstances of Mary's pregnancy--very suspicious. Honestly, who of Mary's contemporaries is buying the story that she was impregnated by the Spirit of God?
This is not a happy time. Jesus' birth is clouded by imperial occupation, economic hardship, and social shame. Not only this but when King Herod of Judea hears about a so-called king being born in Bethlehem in fulfillment of some ancient prophecies, his pathology is aroused, and he orders all the babies two years old and under to be executed. Mary, Joseph and the newborn Jesus narrowly escape from this infanticide as refuges to Egypt for a number of years.
As sentimental as we Christians can often get around Christmas, the actual story is harrowing. It is a story of the underclass being oppressed by the Empire. Jesus then lives out his adult life as a friend of every type of oppressed, poor and outcast person. Finally, (spoiler alert) he is tracked down and murdered by the Roman Empire.
For Christians, Christmas means one thing: God has come to be with us. So the real war on Christmas, it seems to me, is distracting the world with questions of political correctness while we let the poor, sick and cast aside suffer under a similar imperial oppression. How God chooses turn up in human history reveals so much about God's character and priorities.
Those who would use Christmas as cover for their political agenda and to protect their white, middle class, privilege are waging the real war on Christmas.
To deny DREAMers the chance to become citizens, in the name of a Palestinian refugee who was, himself, an immigrant, is the real war on Christmas.
That we could use Christmas as a source of cultural division when in the Biblical tradition Jesus was visited in that lowly stable by three wisdom teachers from the East is the real war on Christmas. The Christian tradition says that these three were an Indian, a Persian and an Arab (in the memorable words of that Jewish Scholar, Adam Sandler, "Not a Jew").
So the visit of the three so-called Magi from the East makes the birth of Jesus a profoundly interfaith event, indicating from the beginning that God did not send Jesus as a sectarian savior, but as someone who would love and seek the redemption of the whole world.
In the Christmas story, God identifies with the poor, the occupied, the refuge, and the immigrant. It matters little whether you believe Jesus was immaculately conceived, or born to a literal virgin. It's not vital that you solve the riddle of whether and how Jesus is God in human flesh. The important thing, whether you think of yourself as a follower of Jesus or not, is the hope that the story of Jesus might inspire; that good could triumph over evil, that love wins in the end, that goodness and generosity, not greed and violence, have the last word.
Follow Ryan J. Bell on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ryanjbell