Keep the Chrazies out of Christmas

‘Tis no longer the season to be jolly, but to be bitter and derisive. Too many people have a stake in Christmas and that stake has nothing to do with peace on earth and goodwill toward others.1 Christmas has become a platform for political platitudes and posturing. To listen to the religious right and their secular opponents, the fate of America’s soul, and every Christian or free thinker’s soul, depends on the outcome of the war.
Two recent examples:
A post office manager raised the ire of Fox news when he allegedly evicted Christmas carolers from his branch. I say allegedly, not because they were asked to leave, but because differing accounts depict him as irate or conciliatory. He claims he simply asked them to move to the sidewalk outside; according to Fox News, he was irate.
Of course, if you managed a post office and had to answer to bureaucratic supervisors who held you responsible for running things smoothly and avoiding customer complaints, you might be irate if a group of costumed carolers started singing during the rush at Christmas without even asking your permission. To me, their would be no “might” about it. I would be pissed.
Nor does this excuse the carolers for overlooking the need to ask for permission. I understand the philosophy that it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission, but if you practice that philosophy you should consider yourself lucky you don’t end up in jail. To protest their removal is disingenuous, if not dishonest. So I side with the post office manager on this one.
We would expect people to get upset if pro-life or pro-choice protestors tied up business in the post office. Or girl scouts selling cookies when we’re just trying to get to the counter. Or JW’s started passing out Watchtowers. Or even if a guitar player set up shop and let loose a riff from Jimi Hendrix on his Stratocaster.
In another culture clash, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), representing atheists in Pittman, New Jersey, protested the constitutionality of a sign “Keep Christ in Christmas” hung by the local Knights of Columbus. Maybe, they should have kept their mouths shut because the sign maker is now selling the sign as a bumper sticker at cost, so it should be popping up all over the country.
The constitutionality question borders on the placement of the flag. The mayor and town council claim that one side of the sign is anchored on private property and can only be removed by zoning restrictions. The FFRF says the other side is on public property and therefore impermissible.
My feeling is that members of the FFRF should just post their own banner, “Keep Christ out of Christmas,” and attach one side to their own private property. Then they could listen to the Christians howl.
To both the carolers and the FFRF, I say, get over it. We’re all Americans and we’re allowed to celebrate holidays as we choose. We’re also allowed to piss and moan about people we disagree with. In public. What we have is not a war on Christmas, but a war of words.
Speaking of wars of words, President Obama has evidently declared a war on faith itself. I didn’t know that, but Texas Governor Rick Perry says it’s true. According to the esteemed Texas Governor, Obama was responsible for banning prayer in schools, even though the Supreme Court ruled on the issue when Obama was in grade school. (Perry also thinks the Supreme Court is unelected and unaccountable and wants to stop this practice and restore the original intent of the Constitution.) Perry also believes Obama initiated “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and insists on stopping foreign aid to countries with policies of suppressing homosexuals.
Let’s be honest. Faith can not be reduced to gay rights, or even abortion. Not even the Christian faith. Even if we consider abortion to be murder, it still doesn’t make it into the top five commandments. In the Bowl Championship Series of commandments, it would never reach the title game. Being gay, or even marrying someone of the same sex doesn’t even rank until lying under oath or adultery become involved.
Nor can Christmas be reduced to the expression of personal faith or political opinion. Reggie McNeal, in his book The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church considers the modern church to be part “civil religion and in part a club where religious people can hang out with other people whose politics, worldview and lifestyle match theirs.”
Christians on both sides of the political spectrum would smugly smile on reading this and know, in their hearts, it applies to those “other Christians.” It applies to all Christians, including me. But, at Christmas, we need to recognize that the holiday Christmas no longer belongs to Christians.
Christmas has become a social festival to be enjoyed by all. We are supposed to celebrate the Joy of God in the world even if we don’t believe in him. Peace on earth, good will toward everyone. If Christmas isn’t for everyone, even those who choose to celebrate differently or not at all, then we should remove it as a Federal and national holiday.
But the Christian Right would never accept that. They want us all to celebrate Christmas on their own terms. In the words of Tiny Tim, “God bless us, every one! As long as we celebrate the way Jesus intended.” Bah, humbug, indeed.


1 Oops, I already did it (to twist the words of that great philosopher Britney Spears). I misquoted the Bible. It should be “good will toward men.” If God wanted good will toward women, he would have said it that way.2back

2Who, to be honest was merely parroting the words of song writers Max Martin and Rami. But what a great excuse to chain a footnote off a footnote. If it seems as though I’m treating the war on Christmas with too much levity, I would say that, to the contrary, levity is all the subject deserves.back

The real war on Christmas

Thanksgiving ended Thursday night, and at midnight the nation launched the official celebration of Jesus’ birthday with the most holy of holy events: Black Friday. That’s right, before the dinner table is cleared of the remaining leftovers, families began the Christmas holidays with their annual pilgrimage to the gilded cathedrals and the world’s largest houses of worship.I mean the malls, of course. Not to mention Walmart, K-Mart and Target who have announced the newest dispensation to worshippers in the form of layaway. You no longer have to use credit to buy things for Christmas. On the other hand, what do you think all those businesses expect to happen on Christmas eve when people discover they still can’t afford to remove those items from layaway in time for Christmas?Credit cards out, layaway redeemed.What better way to end a day devoted to thanking God for his blessings than by gorging on consumer crap? What better way to set aside a day to think about God and the gift of his son than by wading through seas of shoppers in aisle after aisle crammed with stuff we will most likely shelve or regift—or even toss—before the next Thanksgiving holiday?Thanksgiving also marks the beginning of the season of declaring yet another war on Christmas. The Christian right will begin to lament the fact that

  • We can’t make Arab, Hindu, Native American, Asian Black and Hispanic children celebrate the way Protestants do, and, at the same time
  • We can’t forbid children from other cultures exposing our own kids to their beliefs.

According to the Christmas warriors, even the phrases “Happy Holidays” and “Seasons Greetings” are subliminal secular propaganda designed to rob us of our faith. The rationale being, I assume, that true faith is far too fragile to risk exposure to the devil’s distractions.The real war on Christmas begins on Black Friday. At least, Black Friday may well be the equivalent of the season’s Normandy invasion. I can think of nothing so likely to tempt us away from a Gospel of salvation, service and love than the false gospels of greed and consumption.I spotted a book, “Christmas is Not Your Birthday” by Mike Slaughter advertised in the latest issue of Sojourners. The book challenges Christians to remember that we should recall that Christmas is not about going deeper into financial debt, but recalling that Jesus wrote all of our debts off the books. It’s hard to take a stand against rampant consumerism, because the main target in the war is our children. It’s tough to tell children that Christmas is about something greater than toys, because every television show, every Christmas special and every TV ad says, “Christmas means more stuff.” The Christmas classic Polar Express is little more than an exposition of the glory of toys.Nor is it enough to buy one or two presents, and help our children make presents or work hard to earn money to buy a few. As soon as they turn on the TV or rush over to see their friends, they will feel cheated and deprived. Stressing the spirituality of Christmas makes them feel robbed of something greater, something far more tangible (something which, in reality, is valueless).We can lay the blame directly at the feet of the culture warriors, who try to distract us from the real war on Christmas with accusations against a secular society, a society that cannot be expected to preserve Christian, Jewish, Amish, Mormon, Adventist, Moslem or Buddhist values except as cultural traditions which make our society richer as a whole.We can safely lay the blame at culture warriors, because they chose to climb into bed with the corporate interests who reap massive profits off of conspicuous Christmas overconsumption. Anyone contributing to a campaign to stop the wars on Christmas is building the political war chest of the very interests who undermine everything truly Christian in our society.I’ve recently labelled this the Corporate Christian Complex, but that’s another post altogether. I understand that the gift giving tradition at Christmas can be justified (very thinly) by the story of the Magi in the Gospel of Matthew. The Magi bought gifts to Christ on his birthday. But if we are to truly honor that scripture, shouldn’t we be giving gifts to Jesus by feeding and clothing those in need as he would have done? Jesus got the gifts, not his parents and siblings.1We should also remember that Jesus rarely became angry, except when commercial interests tried to profit off worship at the temple. I can think of no greater analogy to the merchants in the temple than the merchants who steal the sacredness of Christmas from our children. I don’t mean the shopkeepers who want to make children happy in order to feed their families. I mean the corporate, media and advertising executives who place children in the front line of battle.We can’t fix our family Christmas overnight any more than we can fix our economy. I do think we can start to make some changes. We can still give gifts, but limit the number of gifts. We might say one per family member. Period. We could insist that before they expect a present from Uncle Phillip and Aunt Carol the nieces and nephews should find or make a present for them. We can explain to our children that they may get only six gifts, unlike their friends, but other children get none.Limit stocking stuffer items to fruit and books (real books, not comic books). Trade one or two presents for events (or tickets to those events) our children enjoy so that they can appreciate an experience and not the disposable plastic.We could ask the children to select a gift for Blue or Brown Santa. We could ask our children to pick one of their unopened gifts to take with them to church to give to needier family members. We could encourage children to perform other family members’ household chores as Christmas gifts.Instead of a Christmas eve service, why not sponsor a soup line for the poor? After the soup line closes we could invite the servers and those we served to a service. We could end the service by washing feet instead of lighting candles. Church families could agree to ceilings on their Christmas budgets, and make sure to involve their children in the decision. Families with more to give could have their children bring an envelope to the Christmas service containing a check to help families too poor to reach those ceilings.If the Corporate Christian Complex intends to declare war on Christmas through our children, then we need to fight back by teaching our children that they should be giving at Christmas and not drowning in wrapping paper. One of the ways the can give is by expecting less.

Where should Christians mingle?

I’ve been thinking this week about how easy it is to miss the obvious. The sports section in the local Austin American Statesman does this all the time. Just yesterday, for instance, the editor gave an entire first page column to the first Rangers/Tigers game, how well Detroit does against the Rangers and forecasting pitching match ups.

Since I’m a die hard Tigers fan (I spent many evenings with my son Bryan at the old stadium when they won the Series in 1984) and a Rangers fan as well, I actually read the entire column. When I finished, I noticed a small box at the bottom of the page with a picture of a Phillies pitcher.

The caption described how the Phillies ace only gave up one run and then went on to mention, as an afterthought, that the Phillies lost 1-0. As an after afterthought the next sentence said the Cardinals, who won, would advance to the NL Championship. Then, as an after after afterthought, they added that the Brewers advanced to the championship series as well.

Sorry, Statesman, but in order of importance the real stories should have been “Cardinals and Brewers win their divisions, advance to Championship Series,” and then run a story about the first game between two teams that had already won their divisions a few days earlier. I’ve heard of burying the lead in a story, but never burying the story and the lead as well.

And, yes, if you hadn’t guessed, I will be rooting for the Tigers in the ALCS, but I’ll be happy with either team in the series.

The press made a big deal announcing that Sarah Palin wouldn’t run for the Republican nomination. But wasn’t it already obvious that she wouldn’t run? She doesn’t finish anything. She’s been not campaigning long enough to get bored with that by now.

On top of that, I heard three ads on TV this morning for the Christian Mingle dating service, a place for young Christian singles to go to meet the mate God intended for them. I finally looked them up out of curiosity.

Christian Mingle promises to find your true love if you’re a good enough Christian. Backsliders need not apply.
Click on image to see full size

The message on the splash page couldn’t be more clear. Faith pays for love across state boundaries.

First, the verse over the photo of an irresistibly cute couple: “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” The implication being that faith will get you laid. Which, of course, is not what that verse is about at all. The psalm is about the desire for justice to prevail over evil and being rewarded for righteousness.

The caption with the photo explains how two Christians had to fly from the east to west coast to find love. The subtext seems to imply that Christians don’t have to search the world to meet other single Christians and can only do it online.

What about church? Can’t you meet the love of your life in the next pew? After all, if God is really all powerful and plans for you to marry that special someone, he can move that someone to your town and guide them to your church.

And if you can’t be bothered to switch pews and say, “The peace of the Lord be with you, and by the way, my name’s Phillip and are you free for coffee after prayer meeting,” do you really think you’re going to suck less at romance on line?

I hate to sound like a curmudgeon, but that seems like the obvious place to meet someone to date, and if your church doesn’t have anyone datable, there are always other churches.

Furthermore, if God was really going to give you the desires of your heart, would he make you pay a monthly matchmaker fee? I thought you could go to gypsies for that.

Christian Mingle feeds the same idealized vision of romance that pundits blame for all the divorces ripping families apart. The romanticized version of romance is that we can find the perfect spouse by finding someone with a computerized checklist.

“I want someone who worships God as we walk hand in hand along the beach; is willing to cuddle up with scripture, non-alcoholic wine and Amy Grant music by the fire; will share the housework and daily devotionals, and isn’t afraid to be moved to tears by the spirit.”

Why would anyone think an online Christian dating service is any different than the miserable failures in the secular world? Even if you do get to pray before you fill out your computer checklist.

Do you ever wonder what really goes on in those chat rooms? It seems just as likely people will cheat on their spouses with righteous sexting as they would with regular sexting: “I feel the spirit moving. The Lord wants me to rise to this occasion. That’s a big verse you sent.”

Only now it’s okay, because you’re not really cheating, you’re counseling.

The irony of all this to me is that when I went to church I didn’t do it to meet girls. In fact, I avoided romance with Christian women like the plague. Being raised Baptist Preacher’s Kid (BPK), I learned that the love of Christian women always masks a hidden agenda. Sure, they say the love you, but they really love the man they know Jesus wants you to be.

I had enough of that with the family I was born into. I didn’t need to add another one by marriage.

My experience with my first wife should have given me a clue that approaching marriage with such clearly drawn presumptions rarely works out. We were fine until Bryan was born, and then she turned into a righteous woman. Bryan had to get baptized. So we joined a Presbyterian church, took Presbyterian lessons and finally got confirmed so Bryan could get baptized.

We never missed a Sunday, never missed a lesson. Until the day came and Bryan was baptized Presbyterian. After that she never woke up on Sunday until football started. After we got divorced I had to take Catholic lessons, so she could get the marriage annulled and the church would allow Bryan to get baptized when she remarried a Catholic.

I also learned you didn’t have to be raised BPK to have religion make you nuts.

Ironically, I met Carol in church. I had no intention of dating her because she looked so holy and so righteous. She served on the altar guild and everybody she walked by could see the halo over her head. I knew she was bad news.

Then, for some reason, we ended up sitting next to each other one Sunday and had to share a hymnal because Episcopalians encourage that kind of thing. I heard this voice say quite clearly, “You need to marry her.”

God never spoke directly to me before. Ever. Or since. Even during my fervent days in the Jesus movement when everybody had visions and angels dropped in like bad acid trips, God answered with silence. So I figured I was having my first schizophrenic episode.

But later, at a pot luck, I thought I should at least say hello and cover my ass with God. Just in case.

The voice wasn’t wrong. Carol is such a catch that my own mother still asks her if she wouldn’t have been better off marrying someone better.

And while I don’t think everyone will have God shout out who they should meet, I’m not sure they need an algorithm either.

Put your money where your faith is

In 1972, the first year I could vote, I proudly wore my McGovern for President T-shirt every where, even to the Well in Austin and the Morningstar Coffeehouse in San Marcos, two coffee houses where the Christian kids would hang out and evangelize to the generation of love.

The elders who ran the Well had no problems with the shirt, or at least they never expressed their concerns to me. On the other hand they also dealt with an international community of students at the University of Texas, an international community that included Israeli and Palestinian students, students from the liberal east and west (or so the mythology went) coasts, hippies, homeless veterans, hard core drug dealers and bikers.

The elders at Morningstar coffeehouse constantly suggested I leave the shirt at home because Christians don’t engage in politics. The college community they dealt with, I might add, consisted of primarily central and west Texas kids who grew up in farm communities and hippies rebelling against the farm communities they grew up in. In those days San Marcos was as much a farm community as a college community.

I would ask these elders if they intended to vote for Nixon. Not surprisingly, they were. I reminded them that voting was getting involved in politics too. They would laugh and tell me that voting wasn’t politics.

During the next forty years conservative Christians (and many of the charismatic students they embraced) evolved into the Moral Majority and then the Christian right. They no longer believed Christians didn’t get involved in politics. They now believe Christians have a responsibility to promote Christian values in the pursuit of governance.

Strangely, however, this agenda includes a number of platforms I find absent in the Gospels and New Testament. They want to eliminate taxation, even though Jesus clearly commanded us render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s (i.e., pay taxes). They want mandatory public prayer in schools, even though Jesus said the faithful shouldn’t pray in public make a display of piety. They want statues of the Ten Commandments in public places, even though Jesus spoke out against idolitry.

They want to teach creationism as a legitimate science even though Jesus showed no concern whatever for public education. They want to ban abortion even though the Bible explicitly forbids the sacrifice of living children but never mentions the rights of the unborn. They want to stop medical research and deny health insurance and health care to the poor even though Jesus made it clear that one of the missions of Christians is to heal the sick.1

They do, however, make the case that it isn’t government’s responsibility to provide for the poor. The responsibility falls to private citizens and the faithful. And I accept that principle. It isn’t government’s responsibility as a matter of pure principle. But when the government represents the people, and twenty percent of the people live in poverty (and many more close to it), that government has a responsibility to everyone’s welfare.

If we accept the belief that private citizens are responsible to the poor, needy and sick, we must also recognize that Jesus taught his followers they were the private citizens responsible for the poor, needy and sick. We can rightly expect the religious right to step up to the plate and provide those services out of their own pockets. If, in fact, they want to do as Jesus did.

So we should also expect that, instead of pouring millions into political campaigns to unseat the Democrats, members of the religious right would be inviting the homeless into their homes, feeding them and paying their medical bills. If not that, they should be spending those millions on homeless shelters, food lines and free health clinics.

For some reason that isn’t happening. Where are the Palin sponsored homeless shelters? Where are the Salvation Army centers funded by Rick Perry’s wealth? Where is Michelle Bachman’s campaign to raise funds for medical care or to build free clinics? Why is it that the only Republican to show any desire to provide for health care for the poor is Mormon?2

When I was still a member of the church that founded the Morningstar coffeehouse, they sponsored a revival a few weeks after a flood that ruined the homes of several of the poorer members. During the revival they asked for clothes and food for those displaced by the flood. But they also collected thousands to help the visiting evangelist buy a private jet.

Several of the elders made sure to let members know how much they raised for that jet, but never mentioned the clothes and food. I even asked why they couldn’t have taken ten percent of the money raised for the jet and given it to the displaced families. I was assured that God would take care of the needy; the evangelist couldn’t spread the gospel without that jet.

Jesus walked on foot to spread the gospel, and collected money and food for the poor and starving. In 1972 (and now) I think he would have at least settled for driving to make sure those in need were clothed, housed and fed. And whether or not he would have voted for Rick Perry, Jesus would have told Perry and Palin and Bachman and Romney to sell everything they have and give it to the poor.


1Yes, I know I’m playing verbal sleight of hand here, since Jesus didn’t use doctors to heal the sick. But we could assume that it is not in the spirit of Christianity to deny treatment to those in need in order to make a political statement.back

2Sure, the Religious Right turns down the anti-Mormon rhetoric now that they’re all political bedfellows. But, trust me, deep down inside they believe Mormons are more like that weird spin-off program adopted by the SyFy channel than the official broadcast network variety of the faith.back


Is being mean becoming the social mean?

I know I’ve written about this before, but it just seems like American and Christian culture embrace an essential meanness I can’t recall experiencing previously in my lifetime.

This could be old fogey syndrome. I remember laughing at my father and grandfather when they complained how things were better when they were younger. But it seems that for all the members of the radical left who advocated violent action when I was young, there were as many, if not more of us who preferred peaceful resistance and fighting gun barrels with flowers.1

I also doubt that times are as contentious as the decades preceding the civil war when Congressman Preston Brooks beat Congressman Charles Sumner to the floor with his cane. Admittedly, Sumner compared one of Brook’s relatives to a pimp during a speech in the House, which was mean spirited in itself, but the caning may have been over the top.

Still, it seems to have been a week filled with incivility. The Florida courts decided that Casey Anthony should pony up court costs even though she was found not guilty of murder and served her sentence for obstruction of justice. These added penalties may make people feel good and that she got what she deserved, but it also seems like double jeopardy.

This is an interesting precedent in meanness. We don’t like the original verdict so we’ll make you pay for the cost of the trial. It kind of reminds me of schoolyard fights where the small kid nobody liked won, so everyone ganged up on him afterward.

An even meaner gesture may have been Lakewood, New Jersey’s lawsuit against members of a homeless camp because they “irreparably” ruined public property. The city claims they would never remove them until they have somewhere to go, but the homeless haven’t vacated the property until now precisely because they have nowhere to go.

In addition, homeless advocacy groups have already been working to find alternative shelter. But that isn’t good enough for Lakewood. In addition, they want to sue for court costs and attorney’s fees (as if they could collect).

Property damage is never irreparable. Trees grow back and lawns can be resurfaced. And if the homeless aren’t allowed on private property, where else can they go but public property? For Lakewood to say that they want the homeless to find shelter but that they’ll be suing them in the meantime reminds me of the passage in James: “If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” (2:16 NIV)

But lately the pretense of civility seems to mask hostility. Lakewood is no longer saying to the homeless, “we’re sorry but we wish you luck,” they’re saying, “you’re destructive and we don’t want you.”

It’s tempting to say these two anecdotes are hardly indicative of an overall mean-spiritedness, except that I’m not the only one commenting. Incivility seems to be a constant theme on the news, with good reason. Nor am I speaking of ordinary Americans who risked their own lives to save a motorcyclist from a burning car, but of our leaders—many of whom profess to be Christians.

After promising to be more conciliatory and bi-partisan in the wake of the debt ceiling fiasco, Republican leaders have drawn the same lines in the sand, “No new taxes, keep the military, cut the programs your voters like.” Only now the President for the first time has removed his own olive branch and decided he won’t compromise on Medicare and Social Security.

Things could get a whole lot worse before they fall completely apart.

Although I wouldn’t be the first to predict such gloom. Both Yeats and Sontag feared that “the center wouldn’t hold” and predicted that the great beast was slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. Even though both are writers I love, the center still holds (shaky, yes, but it holds). So I’m not ready for the apocalypse yet.

But when Christians embrace this meanness of spirit, I find it deeply disconcerting. The most recent example of meanness of spirit is Pat Robertson, who claimed that Alzheimers patients are spiritually dead and therefore it would be not only Christian, but Biblical to divorce them. (Jesus only allowed marriages to end due to death or adultery.)

What disturbs me the most is not that he feels this way. His comrade in arms Newt Gingrich famously abandoned one wife as she was dying of cancer (which would be acceptably Christian since she was on her way out anyway). What disturbs me is that once again Christians who claim they accept only a literal reading of the Bible are perfectly content to create metaphors that contradict the literal meaning of scripture.

Jesus did not use “death” in the case of marriage as a metaphor for “mentally dead.” He used a good many metaphors and parables, but in this case dead meant dead. If anything, he would consider abandoning a sick spouse to be the worst kind of betrayal. As would the early church, who felt it their duty to take care of the needs of widows who couldn’t support themselves.

We do not abandon the living when they need us the most. To do so by claiming that you speak for Jesus is the worst kind of hypocrisy. It is also mean-spirited in the first order, the exact opposite of what Jesus would do by any reading of the Gospels.

The good news is that many of my friends who lived at the radical fringe in the sixties (including me) became swept up in the outpouring of love called the Jesus movement in the seventies.

The bad news is that the Jesus movement gave way to the Moral Majority who (in the gilded and nostalgic light of memory at least) look kind in comparison to today’s religious right.

I can only pray and have faith that we will experience another revival like the Jesus movement to correct the scales again, if only for a decade or two, to inspire a generation of hope and not another generation of spite.


1In fact, this statement is little more than a literary device. In the spirit of honesty, the more I think about it the more I can recall how mean spirited people—including Christians—have been all my life. They made fun of people they didn’t like or understand, and condemned them to hell from the pulpit. Christians loved calling boys with beards and a long hair “girls,” and even refused service to “dirty hippies” (not to mention Blacks and Hispanics). I even remember a particularly vitriolic sermon condemning rock and roll and the youth who listened (i.e., me) as communists and corrupt to the core.
The only redeeming comment in the sermon was the remark that we need more Christian and patriotic songs like Oklahoma Hills, which was written by socialist and labor organizer Woodie Guthrie. The song, by the way, has since become a personal favorite.
Literary devices aside, however, even though I feel the world is less hostile to me now, it certainly feels as though this country is experiencing an overt and sanctioned mean-spiritedness. Hate radio is no longer hate radio, it seems to be mainstream programming. The hate speech once relegated to fringe publications is now available to anyone on the internet. Nor does it matter, really, whether or not incivility is more common now than earlier so much as the fact that Christians are supposed to turn the other cheek and welcome their enemies with love regardless of the culture around us.back


Literal love

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve droned on about literalists, but I want to stress that I’m a literalist myself. At least when it’s clear the literal interpretation makes more sense than twisting the meaning and redefining words with meanings that can’t be found in standard dictionaries.

I first got in trouble for this in my high school freshman English class when I told my teacher that the rose in a poem could simply be a rose. (And this was before I read Gertrude Stein). Even in college poetry workshops, I felt that a poem that couldn’t be read literally first probably couldn’t support a meaningful symbolic structure.

So when I question the belief that every word in the Bible is to be taken literally, it’s not because I don’t feel literal interpretations aren’t important. In fact, I think it could be dangerous to ignore the literal meaning of passages. I simply believe that snipping verses and passing them off as “God’s literal word” can lead to as many problems as refusing to accept any basis of truth in the scripture.

Take the phrase “it’s easier for a camel to get through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” There is a metaphor involved but the metaphor isn’t the point. It doesn’t really matter what the eye of the needle is or how hard it is for the camel to get through it. The point is the literal meaning, which is that rich people will have a hard time getting into heaven.

Even if we don’t understand the metaphor of “eye of the needle” at all, the context of the saying makes it clear. It follows a literal declaration making the exact same point with no metaphor whatever. “…I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” It doesn’t get more literal than that.

The syntax of the sentence (It is easier for A than B) makes the meaning clear as well. Take other examples: “It would be easier to split a rock with your head than separate something glued with epoxy,” or “It would be easier to survive water torture and electrocution than to sit through another Republican primary debate with Rick Perry involved.” When anyone encounters that structure in ordinary language, we don’t stop to reinterpret it to mean “this will be easy” (or in the case of Christian Republican theology, essential).

And yet I have sat through any number of sermons explaining why Jesus didn’t really mean it was hard for rich people to get into heaven. I’m not just pointing my finger at Baptists here (although most of the sermons I heard came during Baptist revival when giving was at its highest), but Episcopalians and Presbyterians as well.

I write this because I remember a long night spent arguing with a family member about Matthew 22. This family member, whom I won’t name, argued that homosexuals couldn’t be Christians because they didn’t obey God. In fact, she argued, no one could really be Christian if they weren’t in complete obedience. People who weren’t in complete obedience didn’t deserve God’s love or forgiveness.

So I quoted (or paraphrased) Matthew 22: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” (This is the NIV version, but it isn’t too much different than the others).

She claimed that verse wasn’t talking about agape love, so we looked it up on the Internet and it was. Then she said, “but love means ‘obey.’ So the commandment is really saying that if we love god we will obey every commandment.”

Sadly, this kind of tunnel vision drives too much of Christian thinking. When the time comes to read a verse literally, we can’t accept it.

I’ve looked up every definition of love and agape on the web (and that includes a number of cranky sites) and couldn’t find one that defined agape as obedience. I’m sure, however, that this meaning has popped up in more than one discussion. It’s easier to redefine words when the dictionary isn’t in front of us.

Here’s my thinking. If the definition of love is to obey, then Jesus was really saying the the most important way in which we can obey God is to obey God. I don’t think Jesus was given to that kind of circularity. If anything, he was too much of an out of the box thinker for most Christians.

But if this is what he really meant, then we are left interpreting the second commandment to mean, “Obey your neighbor as you obey yourself.” I don’t want to discuss the linguistic twists that follow from this thinking.

More accurately, this is a case where we need to think literally. If we really want to obey God we will love him and love each other. Love, in essence, is a commandment, and that doesn’t mean tough love or doing what’s best for someone in spite of their desires, or denying them the love of God because we think they’re disobeying God themselves.

It’s tempting to walk away from such clear injunctions because they seem so trite and obvious. The Beatles said, “All you need is love,” so it must be more difficult than that. Who wants their most important imperative to be reduced to a jingle?

But in the case of Jesus’ followers, it’s an order. If you want to obey God, you will love him and everyone else. Homosexual or not. Unwed parent or not. Had an abortion and still believing it was the right thing to do or not. Planning on having an abortion or not. Or, in my case (and that’s what makes it so hard to love them) whether or not they believe in creationism (as opposed to creation), support the Tea Party, and think Obama is the antiChrist.