Recently I saw a news article on a local TV channel about a family here in a Boston suburb that has been celebrating Christmas for decades with an extravagant display of lights. This year, for the first time, an anonymous “neighbor” sent them a letter claiming to be insulted by the display.
Now it is true that there are many who react negatively to such celebrations of Christmas. Comments I’ve heard and read include people saying they feel insulted, offended, disgusted, oppressed and/or marginalized because of this Holiday, and this letter writer certainly sees the display as a statement of exclusion – Christians celebrating their cultural dominance in an insensitive way. And, they’re not alone, many have written similar anonymous letters (some with threats) in the past.
OK, Let’s accept that: many do feel this way, including our anonymous letter writer, just as the owners of that home, and many others, are feeling hurt and insulted by what the anonymous letter writer had to say. Such feelings are a reality and cannot be denied. But I wonder, was this letter a healthy way of expressing one’s feelings about the display of lights? (In this case, given what they said, I’d say not!) But, it does raise the issue: is such a display of Christmas lights as insensitive and insulting as this person claims it to be, and how should we react when such concerns are raised?
I was talking with a homeless woman the other day who is not a Christian. Her young child has been taking in all of the Christmas celebrations going on around them. As you might imagine, the receiving of gifts and all the celebration and fun, especially for a child who is homeless, is a big deal. So, the mother is struggling. How does she deal with this? How does she remain faithful to her own faith, a faith central to her identity as a person, and teach her child about it, while at the same time not making her child feel humiliated or excluded because of the celebration going on around them? How does she deal with the fact that many groups want to come and bless them (and the other people who live with her in that homeless shelter) with gifts and celebrations this Holiday season, despite her non-Christian faith?
On the other hand, in the New Testament, Paul teaches us in his Epistle to the Romans that he “is not ashamed of the Gospel” and that we should follow his example. The homeowner implied this when she was quoted in the above mentioned article, saying “I don’t see the problem, you can be whatever you want to be and celebrate it. However, you want to be proud of what you are. We are not bashing anybody for being anything…”
Not being true to who we are, as Christians, or – as she put it, “you want to be proud of who you are” can be as problematic as the response of these letter writers and others to her Christmas display (or ours). So, it would seem that we should be happy to express our faith, not hide it away because we’re afraid of insulting our neighbors. Similarly, and again as the homeowner noted, it is right for our non-Christian neighbors to be equally welcomed when they desire to celebrate and observe their own faith in whatever ways they are called to do. So, she wondered (as do we), what’s the problem?
Paul wrote in a time when Christians were a misunderstood and frequently persecuted minority. The believers in Ancient Rome were in the same position as my non-Christian friend and her child are today. There were many questions about how to live as their faith taught them to live in a society that demanded obedience to practices and beliefs that were condemned by the faith. Christians certainly objected to being forced to do these things, and many died or experienced severe hardships because they refused to do so. Back then, it was dangerous to live and practice one’s Christian faith in public.
In Matthew 22:36-40, Jesus tells us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” and also to “love your neighbour as yourself.” Paul’s statement in Romans is based in this teaching: if we love the Lord our God with all our heart, then we will not be ashamed of the Gospel. But, Jesus also limits this by immediately adding that we must also love our neighbors as ourselves. So, it seems clear that we need to allow those who do not wish to participate in Christmas, and those who are not Christian, an equal chance to express and live their own faith as they see fit.
Finally, there is one other aspect. The authors of the two letters that I cited at the beginning of this posting were condemned by many for making their complaints anonymously, and there is some justification for such feelings. But we must also ask why they made their complaints anonymously. The answer, obviously, is that they feared condemnation and perhaps retaliation, just as the Christians in Paul’s time did, and their concern is well-justified. The history of our nation proves that those who stand up for what they believe, or who simply try to live a quiet life in the way they feel called to do, often pay a high price for doing so, if their way does not conform to the expectations of the society around them. It seems that it is human nature to reject and marginalize those who are different, often because they are seen as a threat to “the established order” of those who are in power. So, while we may feel led to condemn them for writing anonymous hate letters, we must also understand that the reason they do so is because they do not feel safe expressing their feelings any other way, which is due to how we, as members of the dominant society, have treated those who are different from us.
As already noted, Jesus commands us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, but also demands that we love our neighbor. Now that we’ve reviewed the landscape in which this issue exists, how do we apply Jesus’ commands in this situation? Our anonymous neighbors are feeling unloved. And, whether justified or not, that they have chosen to express this anonymously shows that they fear how we (or at least some of us) would respond if we knew who they were.
For me, the solution is to explicitly make room for “the other” – those who are different from us. We can begin by opening our minds and our hearts to what they have to say. “Loving our neighbor” drives us to encourage dialog, to demonstrate to our neighbors that it is safe to come out from behind the walls they’ve had to set up to protect themselves, and we must provide concrete assurances that they will be heard and respected. We must demonstrate that our Love of God drives us to love all of God’s children (as we believe all humans to be); and that means loving them exactly as they are, without judgment or condemnation, just as God loves us. We need to value and respect their faith (or non-faith) for what it is, just as much as we expect others to value and respect our own. So, how do we do so?
One way might be to contact neighboring Synagogues, Mosques Temples, etc., or neighbors whom we know are not Christians, and ask them to help us find ways to better respect them and their faiths while remaining faithful to our own faith and traditions.
Another avenue might be to learn some more about their faiths, learn what it is that is central to what they believe and how and why they live their lives, and learn how to live and act in ways that respect and embrace these differences that could otherwise divide us.
Finally, we need to make room for our neighbors, we are called to respect (at the very least, if not actively support) celebrations of their own faith. We need to encourage them to do so, and we must therefore also protect them from the reactions of those among us who are unwilling to make room for those who are different.
Even so, we must also recognize that this is a problem that can never be totally solved. There will always be people who take offense, no matter how hard we try to be respectful of them and what they believe. We are merely called to do our best, and to respect such people even if they show themselves to be unworthy of our respect. Because, when Jesus said “Love your Neighbor,” he did not limit that command with any qualifications as to who we should love and who we should not.
And as for my friend and her child, when we are thinking about bringing gifts to those who are disadvantaged, especially to those in homeless shelters like the one where she lives, we need to talk with her and with any others there who do not wish to celebrate Christmas as we do. We need to listen, and to ask how we can be respectful of their faiths: how we can make room for them in a way that celebrates and respects the faith that is central to their lives, an identity that they feel they must pass on to their children, just as we wish to pass on our own Christian faith and identity to our children.
So, in answer to the question in the title of this posting: “Who owns Christmas?” The answer is we don’t own it, God does – and it is a big God that we love! God doesn’t need us to be defenders of the faith, and will never ask us to do so. Instead, we are commanded to love both our God and our Neighbor – no matter who they are. Love requires relationship, and relationship requires communication and respect, which in turn means we must demonstrate that we are open to being changed by our relationships-with (and our love-for) The Other.
Love and Relationship are a two way street. We cannot wait for The Other to make the first move. We must open our own doors and show that while we are as deeply committed to our faith as they are to theirs, we recognize that we are called to respect them for who they are, and that we are committed to doing so. This does not necessarily mean scaling back our Christmas celebrations, but it does mean that we are open to what they have to say, committed to making it safe for them to take the risk of telling us how and why they are hurt (or offended) by us, and that we are determined to respect and value the faith that is central to their own identity.
In closing, I ask (no matter what your faith is) that you will allow me to hope and pray that this season and coming year will be richly blessed and full of joy for you and all whom you love.
Copyright (c) 2013, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or gaining) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site).