America, Christmas, and the Great Commandment

Though I’ve heard a lot of people voice anger and angst over not feeling comfortable saying “Merry Christmas,” being urged to say “Happy Holidays” instead, I find myself thinking that it’s good that America is really living up to its legacy as a pluralistic nation.

When I was a kid, nobody said anything else about any other religion. It was simply, “Merry Christmas,” and it was fine. There was Santa and Christmas Carol, and there was the baby Jesus. We never mentioned Hanukkah, though there were plenty of Jewish children around, our classmates, actually. In fact, some of my Jewish friends said that their families celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah …not the Jesus part …but the tree and gift part.

We Christians didn’t hear much, if anything, about Hanukkah, and if we did, we certainly didn’t know what it was about. That is so …not cool…for a religion, Christianity, which sprang from Judaism. The eight day celebration, commemorating the dedication or rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem seems to be as central to our existence as Christians as it is to the history of Judaism.

In other words, had the Jews not regained control of Jerusalem, there might not have been a Christianity.

That opinion aside, there is something larger here. America is not monolithic. Our motto, “E Pluribus Unum,” or, “out of many, one,” is what America is supposed to be all about; it is what marks us as a unique place, a democracy that is different from every other country in the world.

Instead of celebrating that, though, we have had an environment where everyone has tried to assimilate into the mainline culture, which was white and Protestant. In doing that, we created boundaries between us, something Rev. Dr. James Forbes once called “verusism” in a sermon he did about the woman at the well. We became a nation which was diverse according to the census, but closed according to the reality of how we lived. One had to be “better than” or “truer than” another in order to feel affirmed.

Meanwhile, what happened to all of the other faces in the crowd?

The worst thing about being a pluralistic yet closed society is that such a state creates, increases and incubates ignorance, which leads to hatred, fear, and bullying.

Saying “Happy Holidays” acknowledges that we are appreciative of all of the people who live in America and who have made important contributions; it says that we are secure enough in our own religion to respect another. There is Christmas, the birth of the Christ, surely, but there are also other religions which, to their adherents, are just as important to them as our religion is to us.

Sarah Palin blasted President Obama for sending out a Christmas card that says “From our family to yours, may your holidays shine with the light of the season.” But a card sent out by President Reagan in 1987 says, “The President and Mrs. Reagan extend to you warm wishes for a joyous holiday season and a happy and healthy new year.”

The card is signed by Mr. Reagan.

On a caustic note, every politician knows that he or she cannot govern or expect to win re-election by being exclusivist. They must be diplomatic and use language that does not offend any of their potential supporters.

But on a humanistic note, to use “neutral” or “inclusive” language is just plain …American, not to mention polite. A mentor of mine, the late Rev. Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor, shared with us that we Christians should never do an invocation at a public event and end the prayer with “in the name of Jesus,” because many people in the audience will not be Christian and will feel left out.

The thing is this: at the heart of every religion is the need for love, and love is inclusive. In the Christian Bible, we are fond of quoting 1 Corinthians 13, where it says “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal…Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking…it does not delight in evil but rejoices at the truth.” Paul the Roman Jew touched and converted by the Christ, wrote that.

And the truth is, America is a pluralistic nation.  We don’t often embrace that fact.

A candid observation …

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