Monday, December 24, 2012

Rethinking Christmas During a Time of Darkness

Usually, the Christmas season cultivates an uplifting spirit among people in the United States. People travel across the country to be reunited with their families, Christmas music plays in the background in stores, decorative lights offer evidence of joy in neighborhoods, and plays, parties, or presentations abound that can put anyone in "the Christmas spirit." [E1] This year, however, there has been a different feeling in the United States. "The Christmas spirit" has been darkened by the outbreaks of violence that have unfolded in the past two weeks. In a small town Connecticut, mothers were wailing over the senseless slaughter of their children. As the media covered this event, all who followed it were affected by these tragic events. After all, how can you go on buying gifts and attending parties as if nothing happened when you are so painfully aware that other people are deeply suffering? As if that wasn't enough, a random shooting in Philadelphia yesterday and a murderous ambush against heroic firefighters today open up our wounds anew, preventing us from finding some solace on the night that Santa Clause comes. [E2] And this is to say nothing of the tragic events happening elsewhere in the world, like the mass shooting on a civilian population in Syria, which barely make a headline in our news sources because we are so wrapped up in our own pain.

How are we supposed to respond to all of this evil on Christmas? We are tempted to ignore it, at least for 24 hours, so that we can enjoy the holiday with our loved ones, but that would be such a betrayal to those who can't ignore it. We are tempted to offer some inspiring answer that would make those who are suffering feel a little better in the season, but this would most likely cut into their grieving process, and it is more likely about us than them. So what then? Should we to throw away our presents, change our holiday plans, and try to do some good in the world in response to these tragic events? But what good would any of this sacrificial action do anyway other than to appease our bourgeois consciences?

Our sober reaction to these events may actually prepare us for the "true spirit of Christmas" in a way that lights and music never could. Although we usually imagine Jesus' birth as a picturesque and calm event, this is not how the gospels describe it. Shortly after Jesus was conception, Joseph considered divorcing Mary because of the shame that pregnancy would bare on his family. Thus Jesus was born into an environment of social hostility. When Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem, they could not find/afford a decent living situation in which Mary could give birth. Thus Jesus was born into an environment of economic hostility. After the Magi came with the news that Jesus was born, Herod ordered the slaughter of all babies under the age of two. Thus Jesus was born into an environment of physical violence and political hostility. The cry of the mothers in Newtown, Connecticut should be painfully reminiscent for Christians of the cry of the mothers in Bethlehem mentioned in Matthew 2:18. The Christmas story is not a feel-good tale about how we all have childlike goodness inside of us if only we believe in ourselves. It is the story of light coming into darkness; it speaks of the kind of hope that is forged in a world of great suffering.

After the Sandy Brook shooting, the media was filled with political cries to fix our broken society. Some people have called for a ban on weapons, some have called for greater security at schools, some have called for improved care for the mentally ill. This cry for justice, for a better society, for a new set of rules, is actually very appropriate, although the specific policies that people ask for are often misguided. [E3] When the Old Testament looked for a Messiah, this is what it meant. It was not asking for a solution to guilty consciences or fear of death, but to the problem of an unjust culture, an insufficient politic, an evil world. Thus, Isaiah begins his famous "Christmas" chapter by saying, "The people  walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned." [E4] He goes on to predict: "the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever."

Thus, Jesus came as a political Messiah, to combat the social, economic, political, and physical hostility of the world. But he didn't do it through the standard political channels - not through an empire or a democratic election - no, his political solution was much more innovative than that. Instead, he founded a nonviolent, forgiving, serving community that worshipped God with all its heart, soul, mind, and strength. And in this community, he offered a real alternative to the never-ending cycle of violence and the impotent political promises to stop it: The love of this community would eventually reign supreme in the world, and salvation would come by joining it.

So I encourage you not to trivialize this Christmas season by ignoring the events around us, but to remember that true peace only comes through the suffering Savior, the one who vulnerably placed himself among us to offer us a way to heaven even in a broken world.


[E1] Of course, even in the "good times," there are people who suffer tremendously due to personal tragedies in their lives. In fact, the holiday season often heightens their pain because it tells them that their grieving isn't appropriate or condemns them to experiencing it alone.

[E2] This is not an endorsement of Santa Clause.

[E3] I do support those who cry for a ban on weapons in our society, but at the same time, I think that relinquishing weapons must happen voluntarily. After all, there is something ironic about coercing people (with the ultimate threat of force) to give up their tools of force. But more on my political theology later.

[E4] Isaiah 9:2, 6-7



Zack Crist said...

Hello Brian,

First, I'd like to wish you Merry Christmas from Istanbul to you and your family.

I don't want to focus on the political aspects of this article, however, there is one thing that I didn't quite understand. I'll be frank, I never understood this specific aspect of Christian theology found in your conclusion, and I couldn't find any solace to the problems you stated:

So I encourage you not to trivialize this Christmas season by ignoring the events around us, but to remember that true peace only comes through the suffering Savior, the one who vulnerably placed himself among us to offer us a way to heaven even in a broken world.

Specifically, why does true peace come from Jesus's suffering? Please, remember that I also consider Jesus to be the Mesiah (Mesih, is the Arabic word used to describe him in the Qur'an), however, I don't know why his "mesiahship" entails suffering on a cross and why suffering is the key. Could you pleace go into details about this? The way you stated it makes it seem very much a taken for granted statement.

Please don't take offence by my frankness. I sincerely do not understand how you came to the conclusion you did.

May the All-Mericiful bless you and your family!

Brian Bither said...

Merry Christmas to you too, Zach. Thanks for the greeting and for your question. I certainly do not take offense. On the contrary, I am very pleased to have the opportunity to answer it.

As Jesus expanded his ministry of teaching and healing in Israel, his followers came to believe that he was the promised Messiah or "Anointed One" of the Jewish Scriptures. This term has a variety of meanings in the Old Testament, but for his disciples, it most certainly included a political meaning: the Messiah would free Israel from Rome's clutches, set up a new reign ("the kingdom of God"), and restore the relationship between God and Israel. The realization that Jesus is the Messiah is a dramatic point in all the gospels. In Matthew 16, for example, Jesus praises and blesses Peter when he first identifies Jesus in the Messianic role.

Jesus embraced this term, but he simultaneously redefined it. He told Peter that the Messiah, this promised political and religious leader, must suffer and die to liberate the people. But this is not because suffering or death are good things in and of themselves. Instead, it is because this Messiah would conquer, not by the threat of the sword or by the power of fear, but by the power of love, truth, and righteousness. Jesus taught his followers not to retaliate against their enemies but to "turn the other cheek" when they are attacked (Matt. 5:39). He taught them not to demand justice when they have been wronged, but to offer mercy, just as God the Father offers mercy to them (see Matt. 6:12 and the parable in Matt. 18:23-35). He taught them that there is no limit to forgiveness (Matt. 18:21-22) and that there is never an appropriate time to use force (Matt. 26:52), for the only way for the world to be healed is if some people refuse to retaliate when they feel wronged, for enemies to do the hard work of reconciliation, and for people to be persuaded - rather than coerced - into God's kingdom.

(continued below)

Brian Bither said...

(continued from above)

Thus, for the first three hundred years after Jesus rose from the dead, his followers were pacifists. [E1] However, there were a series of changes in the Roman Empire that eventually made Christianity a state-sponsored religion. And in return for this sponsorship by the state, Christians began to feel obligated to bless its wars. The "Roman Catholic Church" articulated a theory under which violence was justified (one which had NO ground in Jesus' teaching), and over the centuries, it began to justify more and more, until it climaxed with the Pope ordering violent crusades against Muslims, Jews, and other Christians. However, throughout this history, there have always been a minority of Christians who have challenged the "Catholic Church" for holding this view and who have called Christians back to their pacifist roots. The Mennonite Church, one that broke off from both the violent Catholics and Protestants in sixteenth century, is one of those groups, the one that I am in the process of joining. But there have been many, many others.

Pro-war Christians articulate the "necessity" of Jesus' death in other ways, ways that make as little sense to me as they do to you. I am very familiar with these "atonement theories," - in fact, I wrote my seminary thesis on how they developed - but I don't personally endorse them. When I speak of a "suffering Messiah," I speak of one whose obedience to the point of death led to our salvation. Because through his perfect obedience, he showed us that there is a greater force in the universe than Death, and he taught us to follow his example, which will inevitably lead to our suffering (if not death), because it is how God's kingdom will ultimately be established in the world.

[E1] This is an oversimplification of the history of the Catholic Church, the Roman Empire, and their relationship for sure. While scholars may quibble over the details, I am convinced that the overarching narrative is accurate. I am willing to discuss this in greater detail with anyone who wants to know how Christianity slowly converted from a pacifist religion to (arguably) the most violent one in history.

Zack Crist said...

Thank you Brian for your response. You might not know this, but before my family came to the USA they were Mennonites in Germany and the Ukraine/Crimean. They came to America before the Bolshevics did their business in that area.

Anyway although I wasn't raised in the Mennonite church and my father's side is Catholic while my mother's is Presbyterian, I had very close relations with members of the Anabaptist movement, especially Quakers while at University.

As much as I respect the passiveness of the Anabaptist movement in its intention to stay true to the law of Jesus, I still cannot grasp why "suffering" is the key to salvation.

You mentioned in a previous article how the focus is not on the death, but on the resurrection (life) of Jesus. I really liked that perspective because it makes death into true life - which is how I look at it too. Yet, even with this being how I understand it, I still don't grasp the intense focus on "suffering" to be the key. The whole idea of suffering is kind of a focus on violence and in which one actually perceives violence being done to him/her. Isn't that the very anti-thesis the message of Jesus' non-violent preaching? I mean doesn't his message transcend violence, be it active or passive?