Friday, 23 December 2016

The Christmas Wars

Another December, another War on Christmas.

This year it is Australia's Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, stepping out of his portfolio for a moment to call for an "uprising" to protect Christmas in the face of "political correctness gone mad".  This extraordinary call to arms was prompted by one of his local constituents calling a talkback radio program to complain that the end of year festivities at Kedron State School contained "not one Christmas carol" and that the words to "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" had been changed to "we wish you a happy holiday".  Apparently this makes Dutton's blood boil.  We are a Christian country and we should sing Christmas carols.

How much do we care?  Well, personally, not at all.  I would happily join in a song wishing a bunch of young children a happy holiday as they disappear for six weeks of leisure in the balmy Brisbane summer.  I pray that this wish comes true.

Not that I don't care about Christmas.  It's one of my favourite Christian stories and I feel sad when evangelicals devalue it by wanting to skip straight to Easter.  I also felt slightly odd last weekend when we took my little grandson for a drive to see the Christmas lights and saw only one nativity scene among a dozen Santa-festooned suburban homes.

But of course we are a secular nation not a Christian one and most Australians don't attend church.  Christmas has become a very secular event, a celebration of families and generosity.  Also, there is a clear constitutional separation between church and State.  The idea of a supposedly conservative Minister of the Crown inciting Australians to rise up against the nation's constitutional arrangements is a little bizarre, especially over something as trivial as a song sung by a group of primary school children.

As chance would have it, a few days ago I played my guitar to accompany a bit of carol singing at one of Love Makes a Way's Carols for Compassion events, at which Christian activists remind us all that Jesus and his family were refugees and that we should not be locking up similar refugees in our own time.  One of these events, although not the one I was at, was held outside Mr Dutton's office. For some reason he didn't join in.

There is no War on Christmas.  People of no religion are happy to celebrate it as a secular festival.  Nor is our increasing religious diversity a threat to the festival - few if any Muslims are offended by Christmas and many celebrate it, given that they revere Jesus as a prophet second only to Mohammed in importance.

There is, however, a war (or at least a non-violent disagreement) about Christmas.  This dispute is not two-sided.  Rather it is a babel of voices.

There is of course the religious/secular part of the dispute.  Many people are happy to have Christmas but uncomfortable when it becomes too religious.  They are happy to see Santa and tinsel but the baby Jesus makes them uncomfortable. Or they may be happy to sing songs about the baby Jesus, because it's traditional and the tunes are pretty, as long as no-one expects them to take it seriously.  For Christians the season is all about Jesus and we feel uncomfortable when he's not taken seriously, feeling people have missed the point.

There is also a dispute within Christianity.  Conservative Christians see Christmas as a prime evangelistic opportunity.  It is the time, they think, when secular Australians are most open to religion. It is the only time, aside from weddings and funerals, that many Australians attend church.  Evangelical churches bring out the big guns, using it as an opportunity for well crafted gospel sermons which draw the line between Jesus' birth and his death, and then on to our need for repentance and conversion in order to be saved from our sins.

Progressive Christians feel a bit uncomfortable about this procedure.  It seems very exclusive, a way of saying Christmas is only for people who are in our tribe.  If it is successful (and usually it isn't) it leads people into a conservative version of Christianity which is often blind to the wider meaning of the season.  They point out that Jesus was the child of a poor family in a far corner of of the empire.  He was born in a borrowed room during a forced journey to do the bidding of the Emperor's bureaucrats.  Shortly after he and his parents had to take refuge in Egypt to escape a brutal massacre.  The Christmas story shows, as clearly as any story in the Bible, that God identifies not with the rich and powerful but with the poor, the ethnic minorities, the homeless, the world's refugees.  This kind of reversal makes the devoutly evangelical Peter Dutton and his colleagues very nervous, given their day jobs involve protecting the rich and demonising the poor.

When Peter Dutton sings his beloved Christmas carols on Christmas day this year, he will be thinking of a Jesus who will save his soul and take him to heaven, not one who resembles the children who will be spending the day the detention centres he oversees with so much enthusiasm.  This Jesus, and the activists who represent him, make Dutton's blood boil much more than school children singing un-Christmasy lyrics.  Hence his pointed absence as activists sang these very same carols outside his office.

In the end we all feel a bit uncomfortable at Christmas.  This is not an accident, and its not just a result of eating too much turkey.  If we come away from an encounter with Jesus without feeling uncomfortable we are missing the point.  Jesus didn't come to make us feel comfortable.  He came to confront the evils of the world and as long as we participate in these he will be confronting us.

I think the key is to listen to the voice of Jesus, whoever his is speaking through.  Our secular lovers of Christmas remind us that Jesus is not confined to the religious establishment, conservative or progressive.  When people of no formal religion carry out acts of kindness and charity, this too is God's kindness and charity.

As for Dutton and his progressive critics, I am perhaps a little too close to the action to give an unbiased assessment.  I would certainly like to see Dutton experience some genuine repentance and even suffer a little humiliation (or at least be forced into a face-saving backdown).  However, I have been playing the Christian game for long enough to know that when I seek someone else's humiliation I am liable to end up suffering the same myself.  It's no more than Jesus has warned us - first take the log out of your own eye, then you will be able to see to take the speck out of someone else's.

So although I didn't seriously expect it to happen, it would have been great to see Peter Dutton stroll out of his office and join in the singing of 'Oh Holy Night'.

Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name

He would have had to overcome his discomfort at the idea that Jesus is a liberator of slaves and prisoners and not just a saver of souls.  But the members of Love Makes a Way would also have been put to the test, because despite their commitment to loving non-violence they are surely a little angry with Dutton for what he and his government are doing to innocent people.  I like to think they would have risen to the occasion and stood side by side with him, despite their serious differences, as everyone present humbled themselves in song before this amazing child in a manger.

May you all have a happy but slightly uncomfortable Christmas, and may we see more chains broken in 2017.


Andrew said...

Yep... I am an atheist, but I completely enjoy Christmas.... and I would enjoy it more if it were not for the yearly war telling me I am not enjoying it right! :)

Jon Eastgate said...

Ha ha! Merry Christmas, Andrew.