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Christmas: Beliefs Without Borders

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Nativity scene by Fra Filippo Lipi.

It’s that special time of year again! When three Wise Men see a star in the East. Follow it to a manger. Where a virgin gives birth to a baby. With “an angel of the Lord “suddenly” appearing and telling “terrified” shepherds not to be “afraid,” as the angel “bring[s] good news of a great joy for all the people.”   It’s about the birth of “a Savior, the Messiah, the Lord.” For that “child . . . lying in a manger” is a “sign” of divine intervention. Confirmed by “a multitude of heavenly hosts” appear[ing], and praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the heavens, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.’” (Mathew 2 and Luke 2)

These divine revelations signaling the birth of a “Savior” are heartening and endearing, and serve to authenticate Christianity’s assumed uniqueness. But they divert attention from the true pathway to peace. Obviously, “those whom God favors” is in the eye of the believer. There have been many wars throughout history in that “child’s” name — and against others who also professed that “child’s” name.

But there is a “sign” in the manger that does point the way to “peace on earth.” Ironically, the “sign” is obstructed by the special supernatural effects accompanying the birth of that baby. These divine trappings help to legitimize Christian exceptionalism and creation of The Other. Quite simply, the peace “sign” in that manger is the baby himself—not his assumed special divine delivery. The pathway to “peace on earth” is not by way of his divinity, but his humanity—his human potential for great love and compassion, which he shares with every other human being. (See A.E.A. Warren, Strengthening Human Potential for Great Love-Compassion Through Elaborative Development, in Thriving and Spirituality Among Youth: Research Perspectives and Future Possibilities, edited by A.E.A. Warren, R.M. Lerner, & E. Phelps, John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, N.J., 2011)

Peace is paved with the realization that the bonding power of love between parent and child is universal. The universal human bonding of love is seen in a family’s joy and celebration over a child’s birth—whether in a thatched hut in the Middle East, or in a big city hospital in the West. The enduring strength of human bonding and love is beautifully expressed at a wedding ceremony—whether in a cathedral, or a refugee camp. The intensity of that human bonding is revealed in the sorrow people everywhere feel deeply when they lose a loved one. Whether a grief-stricken father in Ferguson, Missouri, moaning uncontrollably as his 18-year-old son’s casket is lowered into the ground, after his unwarranted killing by a police officer. Muslim families in an Afghanistan village, mourning the death of mothers and children and older persons, killed by illegal U.S. drone strikes, and made invisible by being reduced to “collateral damage.” American families—and communities—overwhelmed by the supreme sacrifice of their sons and daughters in our country’s endless “war on terrorism.” Or, the death of an older person, whose presence and caring filled the lives of relatives and friends with connectedness to their history and to each other.

Muslim, Christian, Jew, Buddhist, humanist, atheist. Black, white, brown, yellow. Capitalist, communist, socialist, anarchist. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, straight. There is nothing in anyone else that is foreign to us. And nothing in us that is foreign to anyone else. The universal humanness, wrapped in swaddling clothes in that manger, is the peace sign “for all of the people.” In that common humanness, all are favored– with the empathy of the Golden Rule guiding beliefs without borders.

The pathway to peace begins early in life—when we bring children into the world with intention, mindfulness and respect for their intactness as whole human beings. The pathway to peace, through justice, begins when we honor the 30+ million-year-old social mammalian needs of the human infant for peaceful perinatal experiences, caregiver responsiveness, constant touch, affectionate love, and species-specific nourishment. (See Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development: From Research to Practice and Policy, Edited by Darcia Narvaez, et al, Oxford University Press, New York, 2013)

Compared to other primate mammals, the human infant is born the most vulnerable, dependent, and slowest developing of all. Thus, the physiological systems of the “half-baked” infant (born in a manger or anywhere else) continue to be regulated like they were while being carried inside the mother’s womb, no matter her language, skin color, nationality or religion. (See J.J. McKenna, H.L. Ball, L.T. Gettler, Mother-Infant Cosleeping, Breastfeeding and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome: What Biological Anthropology Has Discovered About Normal Infant Sleep and Pediatric Sleep Medicine, Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 50: 133-161, 2007) All human infants require this type of intense parenting—our inherited developmental niche—to nurture their optimal physical, cognitive, and socioemotional health—the individual, humanizing underpinnings of peace through justice.

In turn, the pathway to greed, hatred, injustice war and other forms of egocentric morality begins early in life. The evolved needs of human infants are the same everywhere. But some adult cultures advocate the violation of those needs, as if they can be retracted by the baby, or subjugated by his caregivers. When we neglect the basic physical and emotional needs of children for parental closeness and security, we undermine their feelings of self-worth, trust in others, and social-emotional capacity to care about what happens to other persons.

Imagine, therefore, the struggle of parents with children born and being raised in war-torn countries– like Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria. Countries invaded by U.S.-led military forces, whether by boot, aerial bombardments of war planes or weaponized drone strikes. Imagine the fear of just looking into the sky. The mere sight of occupiers in one’s land. The death and destruction in their wake.   All of this terrorizing insecurity—and hatred-producing.   The very opposite of a “silent night,” where “all is calm, all is bright,” and a child being able to “sleep in heavenly peace.”

Imagine also the struggle of countless millions of parents in this country. Trying to make ends meet. Many holding down more than one job. In many homes, the parental bonding with small children interrupted by the necessity of day care. As the security-undermining economic divide increases between the politically influential wealthiest and the 99%.

Peace does not come to “those whom he favors,” but through those who are loved for themselves, rather than the objects of favoritism—or conditional acceptance. Parental love provides the emotional bonding that enables children to identify with and feel empathy for other persons. Children have no preconceived notions about others—or themselves. Respect for others begins with self-respect. Caring for others begins with being cared for. Loving begins with being loved. In homes where there is emotional room for children to explore, question and grow. Free of biases and indoctrinating restraints. Free to be and to belong and to become. Nurtured by those who possess beliefs without borders. Humanizing beliefs that transcend religious and political exceptionalism and revere all people as members of one human family. In Christianity’s case, it is a child in a manger, who is not unique but representative of every child everywhere and thus the real “sign” for “peace on earth.”

“Glory to God in the heavens, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” Ironically, the greatest threat to peace are self-identified Christians themselves—who believe they are “those whom he favors.” Like Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump— the real hollow Christian deal. His quoted pledge: “I’m a good Christian . . . [and] if I become president, we’re gonna be saying Merry Christmas at every store . . . You can leave happy holiday at the corner.” (“Donald Trump’s pledge: ‘We’re gonna be saying Merry Christmas,’” By MJ Lee, CNN Politics and Finance Reporter, CNN, Oct. 22, 2015)

Donald Trump demonstrates that it is much easier to deal in symbolism by saying “Merry Christmas!” than embrace the substance of life represented by a child. Actually, Trump is no different from King Herod, who ordered the massacre of all the Jewish children in and around Bethlehem, two years old and under, in an attempt to kill off the threat prophesized by the birth of a “Messiah.“ (Matthew 2: 13-18) Trump advocates similar behavior: “I would bomb the hell out of them [ISIS]. . . . And the other thing is with the terrorists. You have to take out their families. . . . They care about their lives. Don’t kid yourself.” (“Trump: Islamic State Is Our No. 1 Threat,” RealClearPolitics, Dec. 2, 2015)

Like Donald Trump, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, a born again evangelical Christian, finds his Christmas model in King Herod, not the child in the manger. Cruz reacted to the San Bernardino massacre by saying, if he is elected president, “We will carpet bomb [ISIS] into oblivion.” For emphasis, he added, “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.” (“Ted Cruz vows to ‘carpet bomb’ ISIS until he finds out ‘if sand can glow in the dark,’” By Hunter (/user/Hunter), www.dailykos,com, Dec. 8, 2015)

Carpet bombing is a war crime, as indiscriminate bombing kills innocent mothers and fathers and children—like the child and his family in that manger. Ted Cruz reminds us of the evil that can exist behind the thirst for presidential power. So many presidential candidates thirsting for unbridled power. They are a threat to the very security of Americans they promise to protect, a threat to the world’s security, and a sorrowful commentary on our country.

Last year, the Justice Department launched a pilot program that seeks to identify and prevent American extremists from joining terror organizations like ISIS. The most threatening American extremists to deter are among those running for president of the United States. The mouthing of fear and hatred of Muslims, by Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and their ilk, has led to an alarming increase in violence against American Muslims and mosques in the U.S.—which provides its own fertile recruiting ground for homegrown anti- American extremists. (See “Threats and Violent Attacks Against Muslims in the U.S., Just From This Week,” By Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept, Dec. 12, 2015)

“I’m a good Christian.” “Merry Christmas!” To applause and cheers from Republicans at a political rally in South Carolina, Donald Trump’s latest reported pronouncement calls “for the United States to bar all Muslims from entering the country until the nation’s leaders can ‘figure out what is going on’ after the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, Calif . . . ‘where this hatred is coming from and why.’” (“Block Muslims Entering the U.S., Trump Urges,” By Patrick Healy and Michael Barbaro, The New York Times, Dec. 8, 2015)

An Angel of the Lord said, “Fear not.” But Donald Trump seeks to instill fear by turning some 1.6 billion Muslims into The Other, as such fear is “good news” for his presidential poll numbers. After ISIS’s attack on Paris, Trump was quoted as saying “he’d monitor select mosques, bring back waterboarding and keep refugees on a watch list.” (“Trump: Track refugees, monitor mosques, waterboard,” By Eric Bradner, CNN, Nov, 22, 2015) His proposals are just a step away from monitoring and harassing those civil rights and faith leaders and their organizations courageous enough to call such fascist scare tactics what they are.

Fear-monger Donald Trump has plenty of reported company among the other Republican presidential candidates. Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz “devised a compromise: The U.S. could admit Syrian refugees so long as the refugees are Christians”—because, as Cruz said, “There is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror.” Marco Rubio “switched his position from being ‘open’ to the idea of taking refugees to saying, ‘It’s not that we don’t want to. It’s that we can’t.’“ Rand Paul is “preparing a bill to halt refugees from countries with jihadist activity.” And Chris Christie “said that not even ‘3-year-old orphan’ refugees should be allowed to enter the country.” (“Jeb Bush & Ted Cruz Only Want to Save Christians,” By Olivia Nuzzi, The Daily Beast, Nov. 16, 2015)

Governor Christie would shut America’s door in the face of orphaned children, with no awareness or moral concern about the estimated 4 ½ million Iraqi children turned into orphans by the United States’ illegal, falsely based war. No moral concern either about the countless orphans and refugees the U.S has created with its national sovereignty-violating weaponized drone warfare and continues to create with its bombing of Syria. Never mind all those nativity scenes now on display all over Gov. Christie’s state of New Jersey.

Donald Trump says, “Bar all Muslims from entering the country until the nation’s leaders can figure out . . . where this hatred comes from and why.” Trump doesn’t want to know where the hatred is coming from and why! Nor do many of the nation’s political and religious leaders.

Nor do many mainstream media– guardians of the status quo– want to really investigate and say why.   A number of media—and political– apologists tell us that former president George W. Bush clearly stated that the “war on terrorism” is not against Muslims, but against radical Islamists. Never mind that Bush originally slipped and called his global “war on terrorism” a “crusade,” until his handlers assumedly helped him to become politically correct and never use that anti-Muslim term again. But it is what he did, not said: illegally and unnecessarily invading two Muslim countries, killing hundreds of thousands to over a million civilian women, children and men in Iraq alone, devastating the country’s life-sustaining infrastructure, uprooting millions and creating intense sectarian violence—which led to the birth of the vengeful, brutally violent, predatory ISIS.

All of this death and destruction committed against Iraq was inspired by President Bush’s “God.” As the “Christ-changed- my-heart,” prayerful President said in justifying the invasion of Iraq to applauding Republicans: “Freedom is not America’s gift to the world; it is the Almighty God’s gift to every man and woman in this world.” (“Text of President Bush’s Acceptance Speech to the Republican National Convention,” FDCH E-Media, The Washington Post, Inc., Sept. 2, 2004) Here is an example of radicalized white Christian terrorism—which its apologists divert attention from with their fixation on “radical Islamic terrorism.”

The last thing Donald Trump, other presidential candidates, and our “nation’s leaders” want to understand is “where this hatred is coming from and why.” Such “radicalization” comes from our own government’s imperialistic foreign policy—controlled by U.S. corporations’ capitalistic greed, justified by American exceptionalism, and reinforced Biblically by the belief that Americans are “those whom he favors.”

“I’m a good Christian” “Merry Christmas.” If Donald Trump were the innkeeper when Jesus was born, Trump would not have allowed Mary and Joseph into the manger. Instead, he would have called the immigration officials to deport them. Trump’s popularity, as the Republican Party’s presidential front-runner, is a frightening commentary on the extent to which authoritarian tendencies are taking root in the United States.

It is not just Donald Trump. The Republican presidential candidates held a political debate on December 15—ten days before Christmas. None of the mostly self-identified Christian candidates referred to the birth of a “Prince of Peace,” or to his emphasis on empathy and peace in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. They called for warmongering, not peacemaking. The debate proved to be a contest to see which candidate would be best at killing everyone in ISIS, including mothers and children—and barring refugees from entering the United States. And the Republican audience clapped the loudest in response to candidates who promised to draw the most blood.  Carly Fiorina did wear a necklace with a cross dangling in view.

The manger possesses a peace sign. It is wrapped in a child, who, like all children everywhere, is free of any kind of bias—and does not need a Christian group to tell him/her that she/he is born in sin and in need of the church’s sacramental blessing to be favored and saved. Children are born whole, and open and responsive. Ready to explore and trust and love. Born without borders of the mind or heart.

With authoritarianism on the rise in America, faith leaders need to do much more than pray for peace—which can be another way of folding one’s hands and doing nothing. More faith leaders and their congregations need to join together, publicly confront America’s fear-and war-mongering politicians with truth and moral power, and provide sanctuary for Syrian and other refugees.

The “sign” in the manger leading to “peace on earth” is embodied in all children everywhere. Peace is not a gift from above to “those whom he favors.” Peace is created by those who possess beliefs without borders. Who become free to love– like children.  As Jesus himself is quoted as saying, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18: 3)

Amy Eva Alberts Warren, Ph.D. is a Research Associate at the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development at Tufts University. She was project director of the John Templeton Foundation (JTF)-funded study, The Role of Spiritual Development in Growth of Purpose, Generosity, and Psychological Health in Adolescence, 2009, and has examined spirituality in the context of humanitarian aid (Feinstein International Center). She is co-author of Thriving and Spirituality Among Youth, Wiley, 2012, and Current Directions in Developmental Psychology, Prentice Hall, 2004, and co-author of the textbook, Visualizing The Life Span, Wiley, 2015. Her e-mail address is amy.warren@alumni.tufts.edu) Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister. His book, The Counterpunching Minister (who couldn’t be “preyed” away) is available on Amazon.com. The book’s Foreword, Drawing the Line, is written by Counterpunch editor, Jeffrey St. Clair. A diplomate in the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy, Alberts is also author of A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, which “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review of the book in the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling.  His e-mail address is wm.alberts@gmail.com.  

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