The War on Christmas
One of the fashionable memes of the season offered by our more educated elite is the mocking of “the war on Christmas.” In their view, Christmas faces little meaningful social constraint and the metaphor of ‘war’ is the furthest description from the soft Christian world evident in current social practices, and the gentle correction of “Happy Holidays” to respect the many reasons for the season is pressed into conversations.
Initially, Christmas is in many respects an un-Happy Holiday. The advent of Jesus takes place in desperate times that continue to accurately signify the human condition: violence, desperation, and misery. Mary and Joseph are unmarried -- yet Mary is pregnant and an embodied offense to cultural norms. The government compels them to make a long journey to Bethlehem as part of a political census. They cannot find lodging and Jesus is born in the ‘mean estate.’ King Herod unleashes an unholy slaughter of male children that creates great mourning. Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus escape to the origins of Hebrew slavery: Egypt. The good news given to the shepherds is the beginning of a staggering counter-symbolism against the powerful and elite who have so consistently ruled humanity with barbaric ruthlessness. Jesus’ story is always the story of an underdog overcoming the worst and most stubborn habits of humanity.
Two millennia later, this rhetorical insurgency is still crashing against the hard realities of global brutality. In India, more than 8,000 women were compelled to be burned alive with their deceased husbands as part of cultural tradition this past year. In Pakistan, Islamic supremacists continue to exact deadly violence against anyone professing to be Christian. Asia Bibi continues to be denied refuge from the deadly plans against her, plotted by those who say they know God best. In Egypt, where Jesus and his family fled in the original Christmas story, dozens of Coptic Christians have been killed in bombings of their churches by the Muslim Brotherhood. Forgotten in Burma are the Karen Christians who, like their Muslim counterparts, bear the brunt of a Buddhist supremacist military aiming to erase them from the nation. Christians in China face an escalating violent suppression from the Communist government. An incredible wave of arrests and church building destruction is unleashed by this statist supremacist movement.
When Paul was put to death by the Roman government, there was the same detached certitude about the persecution and killing of the innocent that would surely allow the powerful to prevail for the thousands of “civilized” years leading to that moment. But Paul’s teaching about Jesus would indeed begin to overturn these ‘deaths as text’ and carve out the liveliest of human political alternatives to genocide as law. Billions of followers later, the struggle continues.
While the American repudiation of Christianity is not nearly as harsh, it remains in its own way disturbing and dangerous to human life. American intellectuals passively applaud the growing population of ‘nones’ who have no religious affiliation and the corresponding decline in Christian affiliation seen primarily in cities and collegiately educated populations. With this philosophical war on Christianity in America, young people are experiencing a 30% increase in suicides since 1999 and a deadly opioid epidemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans as more and more stare into the spiritual pit of meaningless lives. The peril is apparent to red state America observing three consecutive declines in annual life expectancy in the United States. That kind of deadly decline has not happened in nearly 100 years. Drug overdose and suicide are two of the primary drivers of the death road Americans finds themselves upon. Many of the highest death rates are in places such as Kentucky where a “war on coal” has destroyed the working lives of the communities there. Secular doctrines such as the separation of ‘Christian Church’ and State are used as a bulldozer -- to use Scalia’s apt description -- to push Christianity out of public space. When Dylan Roof went into a Bible Study in Charleston, he had killing as his purpose: “Roof researched and scouted the church full of innocent people, whom he targeted for their vulnerability and “to magnify and incite violence in others.”
A further account of Dylan Roof’s further explanation is provided by New Yorker magazine:
“Roof can be seen in the background, sitting in the Bible circle. “He was there for forty-five minutes to an hour,” Sanders continued. “We stood up and shut our eyes to say a prayer.” When she heard the first shots, she assumed that the noise stemmed from a problem with a new elevator that was being installed, but then she looked at the defendant. “I screamed, ‘He has a gun!’ ” she said. “By then, he had already shot Reverend Pinckney.”
Roof began firing randomly. At one point, he paused to ask Polly Sheppard, a seventy-two-year-old retired nurse, if he had shot her yet. “My son rised up to get the attention off Miss Polly, even though he had already got shot,” Sanders told the jury. “He stood up and said, ‘Why are you doing this?’ She continued, “The defendant, over there with his head hanging down, refusing to look at me right now, told my son, ‘I have to do this, because you’re raping our women and y’all taking over the world.’ ”
Secular anthropologist E.O. Wilson in his 2012 book, The Social Conquest of the Earth, documents the deadly tie that binds humanity together -- killing. This is the darkness pouring out of the human heart that Christmas rises against with piercing light. Perhaps death is not humanity’s last word on politics. Though Christmas day in 2018 will likely be celebrated in the same deadly terms offered by Cherif Chekatt in France who shouted “Allahu Akbar,” as he killed, Christmas is still a holiday from human hate. If our lives are wrapped in warm yet peaceful distractions this season, we can consider ourselves blessed by the advent of Christmas within the cruelty of human experience.
Ben Voth is an associate professor and director of debate at Southern Methodist University and author of three award-winning books on how to fix problems like those noted here: The Rhetoric of Genocide: Death as a Text (2014), Social Fragmentation and the Decline of Democracy (2017), and James Farmer Jr.: The Great Debater.