Our multi-cultural age is entangled in complex ideologies that are as diverse as there are people on the planet. In our shrinking world where today’s plane has eclipsed yesterday’s train, ethnic demographics once thought impenetrable have been altered by rapid rates of migration. Here in America, many immigrants tenaciously cling to their ancestral faith as they exhibit a religious obstinance akin to the first European settlers who shunned the spiritual practices of the tribal nations.
Some feel threatened by this new religious diversity, and have difficulty coming to terms with local manifestations of our global reality. Among these are those who have been beguiled by the myth of an America ordained by God to preserve and propagate the Christian faith. They see the changes in the religious scape as a Satanic strategy to seduce unsuspecting citizens into silent slumber as the faith of foreigners finds a foothold on fertile soil. The most radical appear to take pleasure in spewing vitriolic curses against those who have disturbed the equilibrium of this “Christian” nation.
Interestingly, none of these voices has stopped the flow of immigration as tens of thousands of hijab wearing Muslims continue to take pleasure in calling America home. I suggest that in the face of inevitable change, it behooves us to exercise tolerance towards those who may adhere to belief systems that conflict with their own. In my estimation, ideological inflexibility is the bedrock of ignorance, and the key to harmonious relationships among humans necessitates the willingness to empathize with the multiple world views of our neighbors.
Having said this, I don’t believe that my willingness to accommodate those with differing outlooks on life should come at the price of my own cognitive discomfort. Nobody has the right to demand that I sacrifice my religious or ideological convictions for the sake of political correctness.
The Logical Conclusion
Unfortunately, in this wishy-washy age, people are too quick to surrender logic and “conviction” in the name of social tolerance. In recent years, this has become most evident in the tendency of western societies to substitute “Happy Holidays” for “Merry Christmas.” The Christmas Scrooges claim that the reference to “Christ” is offensive to the many religious factions that form the mosaic of our neo-imperial societies.
Here in America, if one were to follow this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion many more national holidays would have to be placed on the altar of cultural sensitivity. For instance, proud Britons who revere royalty should not have to endure the ecstatic revelry of Independence Day; let’s just change the name to “Fireworks Day.” And how can we explain Thanksgiving Day to the survivors of the great aboriginal nations that roamed this land before the pilgrims dropped their nuclear anchor on Plymouth Rock? Lets just call the day what it really is – Turkey Day.
Further, what gives us the audacity to position New Year’s Day on the first of January when our Chinese, Moslem and Jewish friends have different ideas about the commencement of the calendar cycle?
Please don’t misunderstand me. I know this is a “holiday” season. In fact, my Jewish ancestry and Christian sensitivities compel me to reflect on the victory of Judas Maccabeus over the oppressive Greeks during the nine days of Hanukkah. As a son of the African diaspora, I am also driven to capitalize on the opportunity to celebrate community during the seven days of Kwanza.
However, I do not allow my scattered loyalties to distract me from the fact that – even for the secular world – the central event of the season is the day reserved as a memorial to the first advent of the world’s Messiah. It commemorates the incomprehensible miracle of the God who was transformed into a helpless embryo and implanted in the womb of a Jewish virgin. It recalls the images of eastern astrologers and Palestinian shepherds who are miraculously led to the Christ child who lay innocently in a straw lined manger. It celebrates the fact that this nursing babe wrapped tightly in a swaddling cloth is the mysterious agent of human creation and re-creation.
A Life of Christmas
Recently, my friend and brother, David Person, invited me on his daily talk show to discuss the “Theology of Christmas.” I initially thought that the interview would focus on the biblical rationale for celebrating the birth of the Messiah. However, my dear friend caught me off guard when he threw me some tough questions about the theological basis for the symbols of Christmas in our modern age (the day, the tree, Santa Claus, snow, etc.).
I carefully negotiated the answers as I reported on the double foundations of the Christmas tradition in early Christianity and paganism. Indeed it was a second-century African theologian, Clement of Alexandria, who informed us of some Christians in Egypt who observed Jesus’ birth some time in May; hence setting a foundation for celebration. The figure of Santa Claus is also drawn from a benevolent fourth-century Turkish bishop, Nicholas of Myra. However, other symbols have no association with Christianity. The day, for instance, suspiciously corresponds with the pagan festivals in honor of Bacchus, Mithra, and Sol Invictus. Further, the tree has special significance in a number of ancient religions as a symbol of fertility.
Fortunately for me, just as the pages in my historical memory book were getting blurry, David changed the subject and inquired about my recent mission trip to South Africa. As I spoke passionately about the many opportunities I had to empower, lift and share, the Holy Spirit spoke to me. In a very clear way, the God who entered our human reality through Immanuel told me to remind the listeners that Christmas is not just a season; it’s a way of life. If Christ is indeed the focus of our lives, we should be celebrating him every day through acts of kindness and charity.
As we cross the threshold of a new year, let us not get distracted by the inevitable challenges of changing demographics. Instead, let us focus on the unchanging God who has called us to be His ambassadors. May our time not be consumed in “defending” the faith but in “attacking” the strongholds of hunger, homelessness, abuse, intolerance, delinquency, addictions, and any other demonic manifestation that is destined for the lake of fire. As we face each day of 2010 with the theme of Christmas, may we learn to live like we’ve never lived before.
Keith Augustus Burton is the Executive Director of Life emPowerment, Inc., a non-profit organization that promotes community cooperation and personal responsibility. On January 21, 2010 he leaves for a ten day mission trip to Uganda where he will minister in Kampala and Masaka and provide assistance to the children at the Triangle of Hope Orphanage. Details can be found at http://www.empowermylife.org or http://www.lifeheritage.org.