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Humanizing Christmas

Peace in our world—and in any would-be inclusive community—greatly depends on un-deifying the “Prince of Peace.” Christians need to un-wrap the supernatural signs surrounding the baby in the manger and see in him the humanity that is within every human being. That is a great challenge for many Christians who find their identity—and superiority—in the New Testament’s heavenly signs heralding the prophesized birth of a “Prince of Peace.” (See Isaiah 9: 6)

The stories of Jesus’ birth are filled with the supernatural. In Matthew’s Gospel, it is about the birth of a Messiah: The Holy Spirit impregnating Mary; an angel of the Lord telling her husband Joseph that the pregnancy is a miracle of God’s doing; three wise men following a guiding star that magically leads them to where the child is so that they can worship him, then being warned in a dream not to tell King Herod; who sees Jesus’ prophesized birth as a threat to his power; and Joseph, being warned in a dream by an angel, taking Jesus and his mother to Egypt to escape Herod’s intended wrath. (Matthew 1: 18 – 2: 1-15)

In Luke’s Gospel, “the highest heaven” embraces Jesus’ birth. An angel appears to frightened shepherds with “good news of great joy for all the people.” It is about the birth “this day” of “a Savior, who is the Messiah.” The “sign” is “a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” His messianic birth is made even more dramatic when there appears with the angel a heavenly choir of angels “praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.’ ” (Luke 2: 1- 14)

The divinity—and imperialism—of the manger child is also strongly expressed in Christmas carols. Like,

Joy to the world! The Lord is come:
Let earth receive her king; Let
Every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing. . . .
He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness,
And wonders of his love . . .

If these divine revelations are not enough, there are the reported miracles Jesus later performed, and especially the resurrection story. Indeed, the manger child is portrayed as not like everyone else, and that is intentional.

The basis of our compassion for others, at its most fundamental level, is our sense of “at-homeness” with them, the extent to which we see in them our own humanness. (“Including Others in the Self,” By A. Aron, et al, European Review of Social Psychology, Vol. 14, pp. 101-132, Edited by W. Stroebe & M. Hewstone, Psychology Press, 2005) Had Mary and Jesus’ humanness been affirmed and not kept under wraps, it would have provided a powerful reminder of our shared humanity with all others. After all, it is the reproductive process that is the basis for connection among all living beings. But that is not how the manger story goes. Instead, the manger child’s human conception is concealed by the mystical, and in this transformation, he is made more special than other children. And for those who identify with him, they are made more special, too, more entitled, more deserving of compassion.

This “splitting” of humanity, with its exaltation of the ultimate Real and marginalization of the rest, is by design. (H. Putnam, The Many Faces of Realism, Cambridge University Press, 1987) It creates powerful in-group/out-group boundaries and helps to rationalize dehumanization and moral exclusion. Moral exclusion justifies aggression and violence toward – even the torture, slavery, and genocide of – a part of the whole of humanity. When justified by moral exclusion, aggression and violence may even be regarded as a moral imperative, as “deserved, fair, and furthering the greater good.” (“Aggression and Violence,” By S. Opotow, The handbook of conflict resolution: Theory and practice, pp. 403-427, Edited by M. Deutsch & P.T. Coleman, Jossey-Bass)

For many Christians who believe they are “among those whom he favors,” it is not about creating peace among people, but gaining power over and imposing their assumed biblically revealed truths on those believed not to be “favored.” Here the “Prince of Peace” is transformed into a divisive and predatory pied piper. The result is not peace, but sectarian discord, and, ironically today, unending wars in the name of peace.

Diversity is a threat to many traditional Christians, who believe that they are “among those whom he favors.” A classic example is seen in a Dionne Searcey’s New York Times Christmas story on Charleston, West Virginia, where Mayor Amy Goodwin changed the name of the city’s annual “Christmas Parade” to “the Charleston Winter Parade.” She wanted the parade to be inclusive, by recognizing and celebrating the variety of faiths in the city. She believed the change was an extension of her having invited clergy of different faiths to offer prayers at City Council meetings. (“The 72-Hour War Over Christmas,” Nov. 29, 2019)

Many of the city’s residents were not having it. Within 72 hours, the Charleston “Winter Parade” was dead in the snow, and the “Christmas Parade” was back on. Critics saw the change as an attack on Christianity, declaring that “Christmas is about Christ, not some winter parade.” Local talk show host, Hoppy Kercheval, with a statewide audience, asked a question with an obvious answer: “Was City Hall deluged with tax payer citizens who viewed the parade as not inclusive?” He argued: “The decision . . . ‘created a division where none existed.’” With all this pressure, Mayor Goodwin reversed herself, saying “the Winter Parade is no more.” Hoppy Kercheval responded, “Everybody is going to be happy again.” (Ibid) For him and a majority of residents, a Christmas parade was inclusive enough for “those whom he favors.” Never mind that the Christians of Charleston could have created their own Christmas Parade tradition – just as Jews and Muslims celebrate their special holy days.

Hoppy Kercheval is wrong. Not “everybody is happy again.” Furthermore, a “division” always “existed” – out of the sight and circle of caring of those Christians who believe they are God’s favored ones. Like the reported “ACT For America” Republicans who, on “G.O.P Day” last March, erected a booth inside the state Capitol and “displayed a large poster depicting Representative Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat and the first Muslim woman elected to Congress, juxtaposed with the burning World Trade Center.” (Ibid)

The display caused a “fracas,” and led reported Ibtesam Sue Barazi, vice president of the local Islamic Association to say, “The incident . . . gave us the most heartache.” She “said she thinks anti-Muslim and anti-immigration rhetoric has been on the rise since the 2016 presidential election. . . . ‘People have been given a right to declare their hate,’ she said.” (Ibid)

President Donald Trump has used Christmas to stoke the fear and hatred of those Christians who believe their one true faith and traditionally favored political position are being threatened by immigrants and democracy’s demand for real inclusiveness and equality. Trump created an issue where none existed, except in the minds of those Christians who need to be “favored.” If elected president, he promised that America would be saying, “Merry Christmas again.” Not that Americans were being prevented from saying “Merry Christmas.” But democracy’s pluralism made certain Christians feel less special – and thus less advantaged.

President Trump turned “Merry Christmas” into an exclusive white Christian greeting, made palatable for many by him repeatedly denigrating former black president Barack Obama as an illegitimate imposter, who avoided saying “Merry Christmas,” which was not true. And Trump fortified this traditional white-conditioned Christmas mentality with bans against Muslims and walls against immigrants – the very contradictions of the story of immigrant-like travelers, Joseph and Mary, looking for a safe place to bed down and give birth to their child. In the face of Trump’s brutal policy of separating immigrant children from their mothers and fathers at the Mexican border, his wanting to “restore” people’s freedom to say “Merry Christmas” again is morally repulsive.

Ibtesam Sue Barazi is right. President Trump has given “favored” biblically-believing Christians “a right to declare their hate.” And, ironically, during Advent, the code words for that hatred are “Merry Christmas,” which should be about peace among all people, not divisive preferential treatment for Christians.

President Trump’s manipulation of “Merry Christmas” serves another purpose. The wealthiest Americans are enjoying tax breaks, while less advantaged citizens, including many in West Virginia, are struggling to get by – thanks to the Trump administration’s policies. (See “West Virginia poverty gets worse under Trump economy, not better,” By Aimee Picchi, CBS News, Sept. 28, 2018; See also Common Dreams staff writer Julia Conley’s story, “‘Staggering’ New Data Shows Income of Top 1% Has Grown 100 Times Faster Than Bottom 50% Since 1970,” Dec. 9. 2019)

President Trump’s so-called restoring of people’s right to “say Merry Christmas again” taps into their economic grievance and encourages them to redirect their grievance toward those even less favored. Dehumanized members of minority groups serve as convenient scapegoats for Trump’s polarizing policies.

For many white evangelical Christians, President Trump is replacing the manger child as
God’s “Chosen One.” To encourage this divinely ordained image of himself, Trump looked to the heavens and declared, “I am the Chosen One.” And no doubt, countless evangelicals said, “Amen.” Certainly he has answered their prayers in appointing pro-life judges and promising the “religious freedom” to discriminate against LGBTQ persons – fulfilling their selective biblical mandates. Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also have said, “Amen.” (See “Many Evangelicals Excuse Anything Trump Does – Because He’s the ;Chosen One,’” By Sasha Abramsky, Truthout, Nov. 30, 2019) Never mind that Trump is a pathological liar who exploits others for his narcissistic ends. Here, sadly, the literalistic biblical beliefs of countless power-seeking evangelicals trump truth and morality.

President Trump is not alone in exploiting “Merry Christmas.” On bended knee, two weeks before launching his pre-emptive war against defenseless Iraq, a prayerful President George W. Bush said at a press conference, “My faith sustains me because I pray daily. . . . I pray for peace. . . . I pray for peace.” (“They Both Reached for the Gun,” By Frank Rich, The New York Times, March 23, 2003) He also said, “We fight as we always fight, for a just peace. . . . As we defend the peace we also have an historic opportunity to preserve the peace.” (“Text of Bush’s Speech at West Point,” The New York Times. June 1. 2002) Unending wars in the name of peace.

Endless war for peace? Or to maintain presidential power and for the profit of the military/industrial/intelligence complex? A recently reported “major Washington Post investigation . . . is a confirmation of the peace movement message that ‘there’s no military solution in Afghanistan.’” Investigative reporter Craig Whitlock’s report,” called “‘THE AFGHANISTAN PAPERS: A SECRET HISTORY OF THE WAR’ . . . exposes how top officials spanning the George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations waged a deliberate misinformation campaign to conceal the total failures of the 18-year war in Afghanistan.” This glaring immorality is stated by “progressive commentator Krystal Ball, who said, “Three administrations have lied to us about Afghanistan. How many lives have been lost and fortunes spent for nothing?” (“Read Every Word of This: WaPo Investigation Reveals US Officials’ Public Deception Campaign on Afghan War,” by Andrea Germanos. Staff writer, Common Dreams, Dec. 9, 2019) (See also, “Lots of Lessons From Afghanistan: None Learned,” By The Editorial Board, The New York, Times, Dec. 10, 2019. The complicity of mainstream media as apologists for America’s endless war against Afghanistan is addressed by Dave Lindorff in his article, “The Perils of Embedded Journalism: ‘Afghan Papers’ Wouldn’t Be Needed If We Had a Real Independent News Media,” Counterpunch, Dec. 13, 2019)

Endless wars perpetrated by presidents of both parties, with bipartisan support. Justified by the ethnocentric-peddled belief in “those whom he favors,” and the moral exclusion it affords. Like, America is “the greatest nation on the face of the earth.” (President George W. Bush) Also, “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.” (President Barack Obama) And Donald Trump, who “alone” has now restored America’s squandered greatness, thus his 2020 slogan, “Keep America Great.”

These claims of America’s greatness are repeatedly wrapped in the presidential words, “God bless America.” Thus God’s favored nation is “defending peace,” not waging unnecessary imperialistic wars for capitalistic profit. Here many traditional Christians can maintain their belief in the “Prince of Peace” and still morally accommodate wars launched by “God bless America”-mouthing presidents.

For many mostly white evangelical Christians, “peace on earth is about authority and control over people, not affinity and mutual empowerment. The real issue for many traditional Christians is not promoting the authority of The Bible, but using the selective literalistic interpretations of The Bible to promote their own authority and power.

The manger story covers up the humanity everyone shares. Sadly, Joseph and Mary are reduced to props, instruments of the divine, which hides the humanity they share with all people. They represent all human beings everywhere: Who experience and express their love for each other, enjoy sex together, and, as mothers and fathers, delight in the birth of their children. Similarly, in the manger child we have the chance to see our shared humanity: we are all born with the common human need to be, and to belong, and to become. Humanizing Christmas provides a touchstone for our shared humanity and heralds the shared teachings of the major religions: Do to others as you would have them do to you. Christmas should be about empathy.

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. 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.

Amy Eva Alberts Warren, Ph.D., is an applied developmental scientist, author, and practitioner. She is Founder and Director of Rooted Education, LLC, as well as Co-Founder/Organizer, alongside her husband, of Home Base Learning Center, a nature-based, experiential, and holistic elementary school and parent cooperative, housed at New England Base Camp, Milton, MA. Dr. Warren is co-editor of Thriving and Spirituality Among Youth (Wiley, 2012) and Current Directions in Developmental Psychology (Prentice Hall, 2004), and co-author of Visualizing the lifespan (Wiley, 2015). Her e-mail address is amy.warren@alumni.tufts.edu.

 

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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