01/23/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

In the Spirit of the Season

Troubled by the bitter ironies and profound contradictions military chaplains embody, I took a long walk. The inescapable facts are that the military's job is to kill people on behalf of the State, and that Christian ministers say they are guided by a "Prince of Peace" who died in defense of a message of love.

I asked myself, "Does 'Give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's...' include relinquishing one's soul for an extra paycheck? Require compromising one's integrity? Wouldn't working for peace be more appropriate than being an enabler within a killing machine?" And so on.

I thought hard about Dr. Cornel West's important distinction between the "prophetic" tradition Jesus followed and what Dr. West and other theologians call "Constantinian Christians" -- the long and compromised line stretching back to 325 C.E. when Constantine made Christianity Europe's official state religion* and allying Christianity with those who had executed Jesus.

But, I thought, what of the young people who join the military because our nation's public education has failed them so miserably that they see no other viable options open to them? Surely they need comfort? Heavy stuff.

By now I was deep into thought and only gradually realized I was about to walk through a heated argument. Half a dozen of the homeless men with whom I share the park were passionately debating...something.

"Ah!" I said to them in the interest of staying my course and easing the tension among them. "The Council of Elders!" Most of them chuckled.

They were arguing about ... Christmas!

Suddenly, I was very much in the present. "Well, joys of the season to you all," I said, thinking that would give me safe passage. Instead, two sprang to their feet, gesturing and shouting at each other and ME, and suddenly I was PART of the debate.

"See?" said the less inebriated one, "She said 'season' and that comes from God, so this is strictly a religious holiday!" He'd been complaining bitterly about "pagan" practices. "Well," I said, "Wouldn't it be better to include everyone and put our labels aside? They do more harm than good as near as I can tell and it's a season we can all share."

Now the man who'd been furious about being left out by the first guy declared I was on HIS side, and it was his turn. What I thought he said was, "I want to say something important," so I listened respectfully. Silence.

He repeated himself, more forcefully. "SAY SOMETHING IMPORTANT," he demanded of me. Now the entire Council of Elders fell silent.


Then I heard myself say, "Love each other. And put that love into action."

As the Council consulted, then concurred, I realized they'd given me a gift. I had my answer to the questions which had set me off on my walk in the first place.

* -- from Wikipedia: "According to Roman Catholic tradition Constantine I adopted Christianity as his personal system of belief after the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312. ... In 313 the Edict of Milan legalised Christianity alongside other religions allowed in the Roman Empire. In 325, the First Council of Nicaea signalled consolidation of Christianity under an orthodoxy endorsed by Constantine. ... In 380 Emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the Roman Empire's official religion..., in 392 he passed legislation prohibiting all pagan cultic worship."
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