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The Message of the Manger Beyond the Myth

At Christmas, the human infant in a manger disappears with the angelic announcement of his being conceived by a virgin.  His divine transformation is aided by a mystical “star” guiding three wise men seeking “to pay him homage.” (Matthew 1: 18-23; 2: 1-12)  He is majestically elevated by “an angel of the Lord,” who appears to “terrified” shepherds, tells them of the “good news of great joy for all the people” because of the birth of a “Savior,” and says that the “sign” will be “a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”  Then “a multitude of the heavenly host” join in transporting him further upward with, “ ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’ ” (Luke 2: 8-14) It is a festive, family-connecting, enchanting, empowering Christmas story.  A story that brings joy to countless people, and hope to others who are marginalized and feel unloved.  But it is also a myth that promotes favoritism in believers, and leads many Christians to create – or accommodate — ill will, division and conflict on earth, far more than good will and peace.

“On earth peace among those who he favors!”  For countless Christians, these words are the bottom line of the mythical story of Jesus’ Virgin Birth.  They believe that the biblical birth narrative of this one true “Savior” of the world makes their religion – and them – superior.  And those who hold different beliefs are often viewed as lesser and thus treated paternalistically and not as equals and also as fair game for conversion – and even conquest.  Ironically, the superiority and salvation of many Christians depend on the inferiority and damnation of others.  Thus Jesus’ supernatural birth story is about exceptionalism, not empathy; about dogma, not diversity; about exclusion, not inclusion; about right belief, not just behavior; about favoritism, not fairness.

The baby in the manger represents the universal humanness of all children and their families – everywhere.  But that message is covered up by mystical props and drowned out by heavenly voices proclaiming a “Savior” of the world and promising “peace . . . among those whom he favors.”  Consider the myth about “those whom he favors” that negates the universal message of the manger.

A survey of the mission statements of major American denominations reveals their fundamental belief in the uniqueness of the child in the manger and thus the superiority of Christianity.  The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops emphasizes that “the mission of evangelism . . . entrusted by Christ to his Church” is “to transform the world.” (“Mission Statement,” www.usccb.org)  This mission is in keeping with the opening words of the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: “Christ is the light of humanity; and . . . by proclaiming his Gospel to every creature, it may bring to all men that light of Christ which shines out visibly from the Church.”  (‘ARTICLE 9 I BELIEVE IN THE HOLY CATHOLIC CHURCH,’ Catechism of the Catholic Church,  www.vatican.va)  The implication is that non-Christians live in darkness.

The supremacy of Christianity, foretold by the birth of a “Savior for all the people,” is heralded in the “missional vision” of the Southern Baptist Convention, which is “to present the Gospel of Jesus Christ to every person in the world and to make disciples of all the nations.”  The Southern Baptists are “fully committed to the proposition that Jesus Christ is the only hope for the world.” (“Southern Baptist Convention: Mission & Vision,” www.sbc.net)  And the Southern Baptists embody that hope, which makes them special indeed.

The United Methodist Church “believe[s] in Jesus as God’s special child” (“Our Christian Roots: Jesus,” www.umc.org).   Thus “the mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  United Methodism “affirms that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Savior of the world, and Lord of all.”  And in the next breath, the Church seeks to mask its brand of Christian sovereignty with this softener: “As we make disciples, we respect persons of all religious faiths and we defend religious freedom for all persons.” (“Book of Discipline Section 1: The Churches,” www.umc.org)  It is about having your cake of superiority while eating with others at a round table.

The Episcopal Church believes that “although Jesus is a human being, he is believed to be truly distinct from all other human beings.” (“Virgin Birth,” www.episcopalchurch.org)  Thus “the mission of the Episcopal Church . . . is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”  The mission includes: “to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom” and “to teach, baptize and nurture new believers.” (“About Us,” The Episcopal Church, www.episcopalchurch.org)  Here the human condition is one of impairment and alienation, with the Church’s unique message of proclaim[ing] “the Good News” of restoration “in Christ.”

In time, the human child in a manger was “re-wrapped” in heavenly royalty, and now “sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead,” so states The Apostles’ Creed, which Christians of various denominations say in union each Sunday.  (“The Apostles’ Creed,” www.reformed.org)   And during Advent, along with repeating The Apostles’ Creed, Christian congregations will also be declaring the dominance of their faith in singing a favorite Christmas carol: “Joy to the world!,” which declares, “He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.” (“Joy to the World,” hymnary.org)

The focus on Christianity’s assumed superiority is not meant to minimize the empathy and social justice beliefs of denominations.  Pope Francis provides timely words in saying, “We are all equal – all of us – but this truth is not recognized.  . . . We all have the same rights.  When we do not see this, society is unjust . . . and where there is no justice, there cannot be peace.” (“Pope’s quotes: No justice, no peace,” by NCR Staff, National Catholic Reporter, Jan. 22, 2016)

The Southern Baptist Convention believes that “all Christians are under obligation to seek to make the will of Christ supreme in our lives and in human society.”  Thus “in the spirit of Christ, Christians should oppose racism, every form of greed . . . [and] provide for the orphaned, the needy, the abused, the aged, the helpless, and the sick.”  (“Basic Beliefs,” Southern Baptist Convention, www.sbc.net)

The United Methodist Church’s “Social Principles” declare, “We affirm all persons “as equally valuable in the sight of God.“  Thus the Church “supports the basic rights of all persons to equal access to housing, education, communication, employment, medical care, legal redress for grievances and physical protection.“  And it “deplore[s] acts of hate and violence against groups or persons based on race, color, national origin, ethnicity, age, gender, disability, status, economic condition, sexual orientation, gender identity, or religious affiliation.” (“Social Principles: The Social Community,” www.umc.org).

The mission of the Episcopal Church is “to seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation.”  That means “respond[ing] to human need by loving service.” (“The Five Marks of Mission,” The Episcopal Church, www.episcopal church.org)

Catholics have an admirable history of following Jesus’ teaching to welcome strangers, reportedly “hav[ing] long fought for compassionate immigrant reform.” (“Catholic Leaders, Long On The Side Of Immigrants, Condemn Trump’s DACA Decision,” By Antonia Blumberg, www.huffingtonpost.com, Sept. 5, 2017)  “After the Red Cross and the Salvations Army,” the Southern Baptist Convention is reported to be “the biggest disaster relief organization in the country.” (“For Some, Helping With Disaster Relief Is Not Just Aid, It’s a Calling,” By Kim Severson, The New York Times, May 9, 2011)  The United Methodist Church’s Global AIDS Fund,  reported by Rev. Don Messer,  supports “284 projects in 44 countries,” addressing a “stigma” with compassion: “people with HIV/AIDS need to be loved and touched and cared for just like Jesus would do.” (“AIDS is not over yet’: United Methodists continue fight,” By Polly House, Interpreter Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 2016)  Similarly, “in 1976, the General Convention of the Episcopal  Church declared that “homosexual persons are children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the Church,” and Episcopalians are committed to “working toward a greater understanding and radical inclusion of all of God’s children.” (“LGBT in the Church,” The Episcopal Church, www.episcopalchurch.org)

The ecumenical good works of people of faith are many.  On the horizon is a renewal of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign, with faith groups reportedly “hop[ing] to mount protests over 40 consecutive days next year, in at least 25 state capitals and other locations, with crowds in the tens of thousands courting arrest.”  Rev. Dr. William Barber, one of the campaign’s faith leaders, said about the severely growing problem of poverty in America: “Nothing is going to change until we put a face on it, until we drive the public discourse, until we restart the moral narrative.”  That “moral narrative” is about “wages, health care, immigrant rights, gay and transgender rights, criminal justice reform, and clean water and air.” (“Ministers Look to Revive Martin Luther King’s 1968 Poverty Campaign,” By Laurie Goodstein, The New York Times, Dec. 4, 2017)

Similarly, a reported diverse group of Christian theologians recently issued the “Boston Declaration,” reminding everyone that, “in 1934 Karl Barth, Martin Niemoller and pastors of the Confessing Church released a Barmen Declaration, calling out the German Church’s complicity with Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Regime.  “Inspired” by these Confessing Church leaders, “the Boston Declaration contends that following Jesus today means fighting poverty, economic exploitation, racism, sexism, and all forms of oppression from the deepest wells of our faith.”  The diverse theologians “are outraged” by “many Evangelical Christians [who] have embraced the politics of exclusion and hatred, such that the Good News of Jesus has become cover for a social and economic order that can only be understood as bad news for many.” (“Diverse Group Releases ‘Boston Declaration’ Challenging U.S. Christians’ Corruption: Called ‘A Prophetic Appeal to Christians in the USA,’ ” by Press Release, United Methodist Insight, Nov. 20, 2017)

The above are merely examples of the manifold good works of Christian denominations and the calls of interfaith leaders for social justice.  Still, Christianity’s history reveals that belief in the supernatural birth and superiority of the manger child is the root of endless oppression and war, not good will and peace on earth.

Ironically, the divisiveness that undermines good will and peace is inspired by The Bible itself.  As with Jesus’ birth, belief in his resurrection is another supernatural sign that he is the only Son of God and savior of the world, which further validates the superiority of Christians.  Believing that one is superior fosters imperialism.  And Christianity’s ingrained imperialism is seen in the Biblical belief in a resurrected Jesus’ own words to his disciples: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28: 16-20)  Never mind that the doctrine of the Trinity (belief in Father, Son and Holy Spirit as comprising the threefold nature of one God) was not formulated in Christianity until 325 AD, at the Council of Trent, some 300 years after Jesus’ death. (See “Trinity,” www.religiousfacts.com)

After enduring persecution and becoming recognized as the religion of the Roman state, Christians, following their imperialistic savior’s commission, joined the state in persecuting and evangelizing Jews and pagans – and other Christians promoting heretically-judged beliefs.  And as Christianity increased in power, its mission changed from liberator to evangelizer.  Salvation was interpreted as a personal matter of confessing one’s “original sin” of being born human and accepting Christ – who died on the cross for sinful humankind.  Never mind the political, economic and legal realities that greatly determine who shall be oppressed and in need of prophets who “proclaim good news to the poor” and seek to “set at liberty those who are oppressed.” (Luke 4: 16-20)

Belief in the supernatural beginning — and end — of the human manger child has given Christianity a superiority complex that has victimized countless non-believers and their families.  Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism, who inspired the exclusive belief in “justification by faith” in Jesus Christ alone, practiced “sharp mercy” toward the Jews, whom he judged to be beyond justification and redemption. (See Luther’s “On the Jews and Their Lies,” www.awitness.org)

Adolph Hitler is reported to have been a “Christian and Catholic in good standing,” who “openly admired” Martin Luther and considered him a “brilliant reformer.” (“The Great Scandal: Christianity’s Role in the Rise of the Nazis,” By Gregory Paul, Free Inquiry Magazine, churchandstate.org.uk, Oct. 11, 2003)  And with the support or accommodation of most of Germany’s Catholic and Protestant Christians,  a superior religion helped to breed a “master race” – and the extermination of six million Jews, and Gypsies, political dissidents, people with disabilities, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others. (See “Mosaic of Victims: In Depth,” www.ushmm.org)

In our time, a “Jesus-changed-my heart” United Methodist, President George W. Bush, committed what is judged to be the worst war crime of the 21st century – on bended knee.  (See “Duty, Honor and Atrocity: George W. Bush Receives a Character Award at West Point,” By TomDispach On the Teaching of Revisionist History, by Erik Edstrom, www.printfriendly.com, Oct. 23, 2017)  Shortly before launching his unnecessary, falsely-based, UN-judged illegal invasion of Iraq, Bush said, at a news conference, “I pray daily . . . for guidance and wisdom and strength.  .  . I pray for peace.”  (“Transcript of Bush news conference on Iraq,” www.cnn.com, Mar. 6, 2003)  And a high majority of white evangelical Christians, who believe in the Virgin Birth of a “Prince of Peace,” supported Bush’s horrible war crime again millions of Iraqi children and their families – certain faith leaders reportedly seeing the invasion of Iraq as offering “exciting new prospects  for proselytizing Muslims.” (See “Wayward Christian Soldiers,” By Charles Marsh, The New York Times, Jan. 20, 2006)  Christian Imperialism “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

President Obama continued President Bush’s illegal wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Obama also intensified drone warfare, which has killed untold numbers of children and their families.  He also developed a “kill list” of “terrorists,” including Americans, whose execution, without due process, the president alone has the authority to order.  The manger child was welcomed at the White House each year for eight years during Obama’s presidency, and the U.S. government policy of killing “enemy combatants” — and children and their families — continued in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Lybia. (See ‘OBAMA’S COVERT DRONE WAR IN NUMBERS: TEN TIMES MORE STRIKES THAN BUSH,’ By Jessica Purkiss, Jack Serle, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Jan. 17, 2017)

Then came presidential candidate Donald Trump, who promised Christians that, if he is elected “we’re gonna start saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again.” (“Trump: ‘We are going to say merry Christmas again,’ “ By Brooke Seipel, The Hill, Dec. 13, 2016)  These words hit a chord with many evangelical Christians, who believe there is a “War on Christmas” that is forcing them to take a back seat in a “politically correct” drive for “Happy Holidays”-diversity in the public square — a diversity that makes room for Chanukah, Kwanzaa, the Winter Solstice and other traditions that bring light and life to pluralistically-living people.

For many Christians, “Happy Holidays” blunts their supreme belief that “He is the Reason for the Season.”   They can say “Merry Christmas!” all they want in their places of worship and homes; but they want it to be the predominate greeting in department stores, public squares and on the air.  Christmas is about “peace on earth among those whom he favors” (italics added).  Thus their battle cry, “Keep Christ in Christmas.”  And Trump heard them!  Ironically, the universal appeal of the human infant in a manger is turned into belief in a god who plays favorites.

For President Trump, being able to say “ ‘Merry Christmas’ again” is about appealing to white evangelical Christians’ Advent belief in being “favored” – and thus superior.  Saying “ ‘Merry Christmas’ again” goes with “Make America Great Again”: both are about white evangelical Christians regaining their favored position– which was existentially threatened by eight years of a black president, who may not have been born in the U.S. and who could be a Muslim – even though every year he said “Merry Christmas” from their White House.

“We’re gonna start saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again” are code words that legitimize Christians, whose need to feel superior and dominate others takes the form of racism and xenophobia.  Such Christians hail the birth of the “Prince of Peace,” while supporting the ill will and violence of President Trump’s massive deportation of undocumented immigrants and barriers and bans, and ffhis bombing campaign  against Muslim families — and a budget that will take from those Americans with less and give even more to those who have the most.  A budget that is actually a big tax cut for the richest, dressed up in Trump’s disingenuous words, “We want to give you, the American people, a giant tax cut for Christmas.”

President Trump’s “Merry Christmas” is his divisive way of playing favorites.  Another example is his favoring the Israelis over the occupied Palestinians in declaring that the United States government now recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and will move the American Embassy there.  Applauded by Israelis, Trump’s unilateral decision has triggered violent confrontations by the oppressed Palestinians and widespread protests across the Middle East.  The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as their future capital in any future two-state peace solution with Israel, which Trump’s action has effectively further undermined.

President Trump’s decision to select Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is also an early Christmas gift to millions of evangelical Christians in his base.  They share an “end times” Biblical prophecy that predicts:

 when the Jews regain God’s eternal city of Jerusalem, where Jesus was crucified, he will return and establish a reign of peace for a thousand years, which begins with his judging the nations, including the Jews who will have a final opportunity to accept him as their savior or suffer eternal damnation with other unbelievers.  Naturally, Israeli Jews welcome Trump’s gift for other, more worldly, autocratic, reasons.

Christians have always been able to say “Merry Christmas.”  No one is stopping them.  Nor is there any intent here to minimize the joy, comfort, peace, empowerment and salvation that the birth of a savior brings to countless Christians.  As a former hospital chaplain, I witnessed firsthand the empowering  meanings of Christmas for countless patients.  The issue here is the assumed supremacy of belief, which, deep down, leads many Christians to resist making equal room for people who believe, look and speak differently.  If what’s good for me is bad for you, then there is something bad about what’s good for me.

The issue is that evangelical Christians’ belief in the superiority of their “Savior of the world” makes other people lesser.  Motivating the mission to “transform the world for Jesus Christ” is the belief that one’s faith is superior to others, who are judged to be inferior and in need of “reconciliation” – imperialistic religion, wrapped in professions of inclusion – which accommodate the U.S. government’s capitalistic pursuit of world domination.

If belief in the superiority of the manger child were not so, George W. Bush would not have been able to launch his unnecessary, illegal wars, or continue the Iraq war once his lie about Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction was exposed.  Nor would Barak Obama have been allowed to continue Bush’s wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, or create a “kill list.”  And Donald Trump would not be deporting people and creating a wall and bans to keep America from welcoming strangers. (Matthew 25: 31-40)  In America, Christian Churches often tailor their missions to accommodate imperial governmental power, which is contrary to the universal meaning of Jesus’ birth.

The message of the manger is that children everywhere have a right to be and to belong and to become – whether born in Bethlehem, the Palestinian Territories, Rohingya villages in Myanmar, Pyongyang, Baltimore, or anywhere else.  The human manger child grew up to become a prophet who taught universal truths about love that favors everyone:

So In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7: 12)

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart . . . and your neighbor as yourself, All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Matthew 22L 36-40)

Blessed are the peacemakers; for they will be called the children of God. (Matthew 5: 9)

Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the Kingdom  of God belongs.  . . . And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them,  and blessed them. (Mark 10: 13-16)

The infant in the manger represents human love that transcends culture, class, race, nationality, religious belief, political ideology, straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.  People with less, love as deeply as people with more.  As with birth, death reveals the humanness everyone shares, and love is the heart of that humanness.  Everyone laughs and cries and loves and grieves. To hear each other’s laughter and to see each other’s tears is to experience each other’s humanness.  That is the human message of the manger.

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Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister. His new book, The Counterpunching Minister (who couldn’t be “preyed” away) is now published and available on Amazon.com. The book’s Foreword, Drawing the Line, is written by Counterpunch editor, Jeffrey St. Clair. 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 in the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. His e-mail address is wm.alberts@gmail.com.

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