I am a big fan of the Christmas season. I like the wacky Santa Clauses, kitschy baby Jesus displays, and constant ringing of carols in stores. The variety of Christmas music is a joy; I am a big fan of Brave Combo's "It's Christmas, Man," and Charles Brown signing "Merry Christmas Baby," to just name a few. It's neat the way Christmas has become a common cultural holiday, more than a religious one. I recently returned from a trip to the Navajo Nation in New Mexico. In honor of the season, many members of the Native American Church there will be holding celebrations in their traditional structures with all-night drumming and chanting sessions fueled by peyote. Meanwhile, a Dutch gay group is having a "Pink Christmas" featuring a nativity scene with two Marys and two Josephs.
Goodwill and good cheer often seem universally infectious during this season, at least in most years. Wholesome personal and family traditions get established, strengthening bonds and community, even if the religious trappings are completely ignored. That is the stealthy message of Christmas; it pushes us all to interact harmoniously with our fellow humans. We all surely need more of that.
But beneath these trappings, contradictions between Christianity and larger society lurk. One, of course, is the dispute between the Christian community and those supporting gay and lesbian rights. According to a poll released this month by the Public Policy Institute of California, the ban on gay marriage in Proposition 8 received its strongest support from evangelical Christians. Within the Christian community, 85 percent of evangelicals supported the ban, along with 66 percent of others who call themselves Protestants and 60 percent of Roman Catholics. These results have to be disheartening to liberal Christians in the Bay Area, but certainly they are not surprising. In fact, these results are but a reflection of the culture war within Christianity itself, which has moved front and center in today's politics through issues such as Proposition 8.
On one side are those who could be called "Sermon on the Mount" Christians. President-elect Obama has cited this Sermon on the Mount, which contains the "turn the other cheek" language and a version of the Golden Rule, in his support for gay rights — although not gay marriage. On the other side of this chasm are those who have a vision of Christianity based on the death of Jesus and the redemptive effect of that crucifixion on the world today. You might call them the "With God on my side," Christians. Their vision is a harsher version of Christianity, seeing the death of Jesus as a self-sacrificing love that should be followed in order to reach an other-worldly heaven in the afterlife. This view of Christianity is embraced not only by conservatives such as George W. Bush and James Dobson of Focus on the Family, but also by some surprising figures. For instance, the letters of Mother Theresa reveal that she believed that one must sacrifice one's self to truly live as a Christian. Pain, she wrote, is "the kiss of Jesus."
Such divisions may seem esoteric and of little value to many, especially in a country that is becoming more diverse each day. Yet we remain a culturally Christian nation. The individual moral codes of most of us — even many atheists — resemble the principles laid out in the Ten Commandments.
Stepping into this dispute, in a book published earlier this year, are two progressive East Bay theologians, Rita Brock, director of Faith Voices for the Common Good, and Rebecca Parker, the president of Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley. In their book Saving Paradise, Brock and Parker work a little historical anthropology to argue that around 1000 A.D., Christianity made a fateful turn away from being focused on a love of this world and the seeking of paradise on earth to a focus on crucifixion, violence, and a taste for empire.
Their ultimate aim in Saving Paradise is the rediscovery of humanistic roots in Christianity. Trying to penetrate debates about the "true meaning" of any religion is difficult; trying to understand what religion teaches about how to live in the world is hard as well. That the three Abrahamic religions — Christianity, Judaism, and Islam — are engaged in a violent global version of the Ultimate Fighting Championship while jointly embracing many similar sacred scriptures is mind-boggling.
In their combination travelogue and intellectual history, Brock and Parker criss-crossed Europe looking for images of Jesus in early churches. What they found is that, for the first thousand years after Christ's death, his life and death were used to promote a vision of an earthly paradise. Their argument fits in with recent historical scholarship arguing that Jesus was a Middle Eastern revolutionary, leading people who were looking to escape the difficulties of life in the Roman Empire. This is important for Brock and Parker as they argue that these facts conflict with the version of Christ's death that, as Parker has written, "places victims of violence in harm's way and absolves perpetrators of their responsibility for unethical behavior." The villain of their historical whodunnit is Charlemagne, who originated the idea that killing for Christianity was a noble act, thus making the religion a "colonizing tool."
Brock and Parker believe the cross and the crucifixion are the theological props for this view, a mistake we still suffer from today. And they are not the only high-profile Christians to challenge the image of the cross. Noted black theologian James Cone, who praises Saving Paradise on its book jacket, has argued that the cross served a purpose similar to the lynching tree in the American South. Crucifixion-centered Christianity has justified war and colonization, counseled people to accept abuse they should resist, and glorified pain, he believes. While criticizing Christians who do not do enough to combat racism, Cone argues that both the cross and the lynching tree's purpose was to establish dominance through terror and murder, silencing dissent and fortifying martial control. Think about this when you see the cross in the nativity scenes.
The goal of Brock and Parker is to restore the idea of earthly paradise to its rightful place at the center of Christian thought and to redirect thoughts to making life better here and now. I like this approach and I think it is an appropriate way to think about Christmas.
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