Friday, December 09, 2005

Manufactured Christmas Controversies Undermind The Spirit Of The Season

Did you ever notice how quickly those of us who are in the majority – this time, I’m thinking Christian – can advise the minority to quit being so sensitive and to be more tolerant about our religious intrusions into their lives?

It’s reminiscent of years ago when the Saul Alinsky-inspired neighborhood movement put down its roots in Memphis on the eve of the Memphis population becoming majority African-American.

There was a panel at Rhodes College to talk about the changes that were inevitable in Memphis’ future. The Alinsky advocate on the panel described a city where black concerns would be paramount, the civic agenda would be drastically changed, the political power would shift to the poor and disenfranchised and the people who had been ignored in civic strategies would now be in charge. It was a stark description of the political realities that he saw in Memphis’ future.

One Caucasian city official on the panel responded with this comment: “It just wouldn’t be right for black politicians to ignore the concerns of the white community. Black elected officials need to reach out to whites, they need to create a balanced agenda that recognizes the concerns of white citizens and they need to govern with compassion and unity.”

The response was swift: “Who do you think we learned politics from? The white community.”

It was a telling reminder that it is often hard for those of us in the majority to exhibit the very qualities that we are urging on others. The best example of this paradox in this special time of peace, love and brotherhood is the manufactured battle over Christmas trees, Christmas greetings and nativity scenes.

It was bad enough that far right Congressmen dreamt up this controversy, so they could cast a vote to "defend" Christianity, but it’s even worse that the news media are willing co-conspirators, whipping up viewers’ emotions with the notion that the most Christian nation in the history of the world is under siege and in danger of being overrun by secular humanists.

Watching television news each night, Memphians are left with the impression that we are witnessing American civilization on the slippery slope of destruction with the decision by a Bartlett library official that a public building is not the place for a religious exhibit.

The nightly outrage engendered by television reporters and radio talk show hosts fuels the flames of intolerance without ever asking a simple question like: How would you feel if you walked into the Bartlett library and the only religious display allowed there was Muslim? Or Buddhist?

As a Christian, I would be outraged, just as outraged as I am now by the proposition that only my religious observance should be recognized by a government whose services are funded by the taxes of Christian and atheist alike.

I’ve got a nativity scene in my home and there is one at any church I chose to attend. To listen to the nightly debate over holiday versus Christmas trees, my nativity scene must have been historically inaccurate for all these years, for apparently, Jesus Christ was born in a manger under a decorated evergreen tree.

It’s a little like those displays in some front yards where Santa Claus and his reindeers mingle with the wise men, Joseph, Mary and Jesus. Why do we care what an evergreen tree in my living room or in the nation’s Capitol is called? It has no connection to the meaning and purpose of Christmas anyway.

And yet, somehow, media hysteria has been whipped up in a context that Christmas symbols and Christianity itself are under attack. Meanwhile, commercials are filled with Christmas themes, the radio will soon be filled with Christmas songs,the television airwaves will soon be filled with Christmas specials and t.v. series feature Christmas parties and family gatherings.

So, why should the lack of Christian religious exhibits in the public square be a source of agonizing consternation?

It’s yet another trumped-up, pandering, politically-driven issue that encourages Americans to take their eyes off the ball. Rather than concentrate on the war, tax policy or gas prices, these kinds of wedge issues are fed by the most cynical political strategists who see narrow benefits in dividing Americans along religious lines. One day, the enemy is the homosexual agenda. The next day, it is the liberal media. The following day, it is Wiccans. Today, it’s Christmas trees.

And yet, despite this alleged culture war on Christianity, the vast majority of our people are Christian, the vast majority of our legislators are Christian and the vast majority of us beaten down and weary from these political ploys are, yes, Christian.
Despite the revisionist history marketed by the Religious Right, there is an historic doctrine of separation of church and state, and it was created knowingly and wisely by our nation’s founders. In fact, amazingly, there was a time in our history when the Baptist Church led the fight for it and for tolerance, because its members were so frequently the subject of persecution in early America. There was a time when Thomas Jefferson was vilified for his liberal notions of religion and his wise belief that it should be separated from government decisions.

These days, we often seem to ignore the lessons of our own history, but we also seem to ignore the lessons that are played out each day on CNN. As we watch, we shake our heads in disgust at the pain and hatred that flow from religious leaders in the Middle East who deny the validity of every other religion, who adopt their religious principles into law and who condemn anyone who disagrees with them in religious terms.

It’s not just dangerous in the Middle East. It’s just as dangerous here at home.

Those of us in the Christian faith who call for other religions to “get over it” and to quit being so sensitive so we can put our religious displays in public buildings might take a step back and embody the same values that we are so quick to urge on others.

What would Jesus do? There are many these days who profess to know, but the Jesus we know would say to quit worrying about symbols and focus on reality, making the world a better place by radiating a faith that embraces every person inclusively, tolerantly and lovingly.

For this season at least, why can't we simply show some Christian compassion and understanding, embrace our fellow men and women and actually reflect the Christmas spirit, the Golden Rule and the real message of Christ’s ministry?

Now that would be worth celebrating.

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