Here in the Bible Belt, it’s not uncommon for people to think that saying “Merry Christmas” — as opposed to “Happy Holidays” — somehow recovers the true meaning of the season. But this is hardly the case.
I don’t say this as a nihilistic cultured despiser of religion. I say it as a Christian pastor who very much loves the Christmas season and wants to recover all that it means.
The phrase “Merry Christmas,” on its own, expresses a beautiful sentiment of well wishes for others. It can be understood as a shorthand way of saying, “I hope the birth of Christ brings you hope, peace, joy, and love,” which are the Advent promises.
But here’s the thing. Nowadays, the phrase “Merry Christmas” gets used in very different ways, with very different connotations. Instead of saying that one hopes the birth of Christ brings hope, peace, joy and love to others (including those outside the Christian faith), it’s frequently weaponized. It’s fallen victim to the incessant culture wars that mark the increasingly surreal landscape of existence in modern day America. “Merry Christmas” has morphed into a positioning statement that has more to do with establishing one’s identity in the culture (usually as a conservative Christian) than in expressing what one hopes for others living in the culture (whether they identify as conservative Christians or not).
What’s more, “Merry Christmas” is often delivered as an opening salvo to anyone who dares challenge the power and dominance of the Religious Right in the history and culture of the United States. Instead of being connected to what the biblical stories about the birth of Christ actually say, this phrase is unplugged from the biblical tradition; it’s become a shorthand way of thumbing one’s nose at those who don’t celebrate Christmas (even though most non-Christians in the U.S., who comprise less than thirty percent of the population, are not in the least bit offended by those who do celebrate Christmas).
It’s cheap rhetoric. After all, it’s much easier to say “Merry Christmas” than to actually care about what the birth stories teach. It’s much easier to wage culture wars in the name of religion than to actually live by the principles at the heart of the Christmas narratives. It’s much easier to put up nativity scenes, even with big letters that spell “Jesus,” than to follow the way of Christ.
Much of the rhetoric surrounding “Merry Christmas” serves as a mask for avoiding the deeper implications of Jesus’ birth and what it means for us today.
Let’s not forget that Jesus and his family were refugees fleeing violence (recall Herod’s massacre of the infants and the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt, as recorded in the gospel of Matthew). Yet in our culture today — in a cruel stroke of irony — it’s the Religious Right that is most hostile to refugees fleeing violence. In fact, conservative Christians in the U.S. represent the largest demographic that supports policies that tear gas refugees and place them in cages. Until we repent from sanctioning such inhumane policies, we can’t begin to say that we take the Christmas stories seriously. You can choose to support such inhumane policies all you want — that offense is on you — but you can’t claim to honor the meaning of Christmas when doing so.
If we wish to conserve the true meaning of Christmas — if we wish to be conservative in our reading of the biblical stories — we must remember that the birth of Christ was never about dominant groups using their religion to discriminate against others. Quite the opposite. Jesus and the Holy Family were marginalized from the beginning by the most dominant groups in society. Contrary to what Stephen Miller and the Trump administration may think, Jesus didn’t do the oppressing. It was the other way around. As O Holy Night recalls, in Christ’s name “all oppression shall cease” — not be amplified.
When reflecting on the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary, as well as the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt and the Magi’s visit to them, theologian Carlos Rodriguez summarizes the Christmas stories in a way that would come as an unwelcome surprise to the Religious Right:
“Christmas is about believing what a woman said about her sex life. Christmas is about finding safety as asylum seekers. Christmas is about a child receiving support from the wealthy. Christmas is about God identifying with the marginalized, not the powerful.”
If we wish to offer a Merry Christmas to others, then we at least need to have the courage to honor what the stories actually say. Otherwise it is we, the Christians, who are the true cultured despisers of religion – because we know what the stories say but we refuse to acknowledge them in order to serve our own self-interested goals. Which is the ultimate form of nihilism.
A few reflections on the inhumane treatment of migrants at our southern border, in no particular order:
(1) It’s not illegal to seek asylum in the U.S. It’s perfectly lawful. The migrants are not breaking the law in their attempts to do so.
(2) Tear gassing children is inhumane, unconscionable and cruel, full stop. This represents a total failure of leadership on multiple levels. If you wish to defend this practice by appealing to whataboutism, then you haven’t provided an ethical justification for it; you’ve simply heightened the ubiquity of the practice and the urgency of meaningfully responding to it.
(3) Anyone who wishes to say “we are a nation of laws” must first ask why our own leaders are violating our very own laws set in place for asylum seekers. The border was closed preemptively in order to keep the migrants from applying for asylum. You can call this shifting the goalposts or violating the laws of the land; both are unlawful.
(4) Those who say progressives are arguing for open borders fail to listen to what we’ve been saying all along (perhaps to a fault): all we want is for our leaders to follow the laws currently in place for migrants seeking asylum, and to provide proper resourcing to carry out these laws. We are asking for law and order. Protecting the border begins by protecting the laws at the border and making sure our country has the resources necessary to implement the laws in place. When we have to resort to other measures, we have failed. We are a nation of laws. When these laws aren’t fair, when these laws fall short of the call for justice, then we need to follow proper protocol in order for such laws to reform and reconfigure so they better align with justice, fairness, and dignity.
(5) The horrific systemic violence these migrants are fleeing is worse than what Saddam Hussein did to his people (just read the Amnesty International reports). Which makes me wonder: Why did so many Americans back then think it was noble and courageous for us to spend billions (trillions?) on a war to “liberate” the Iraqi people from the evils of Hussein’s regime (you’ll recall this was one of the most popular justifications made by those championing the war effort), but now, when it comes to tangibly helping people at our border who are fleeing traumatic violence that is far more severe, we are now hostile to the idea of investing paltry sums of money and resources (by comparison to the war effort) to help those who are most desperate right now? While this may sound like the height of hypocrisy, it’s perfectly consistent with a narrative of American aggression against people of color. This is a very ugly truth that is in the DNA of our country. Dominant power structures in the U.S. idolize violent aggression, especially against people of color.
Note that this also answers the question of why those most hostile to immigrants are usually and ironically the descendants of European immigrants who “founded” this country by (a) stealing land from indigenous peoples, (b) committing genocide against indigenous peoples, and (c) enslaving Africans: Again, the common denominator is aggression against people of color. The same is true today.
(6) Relatedly, I’m disturbed by the fact that no small number of people get a perverse pleasure in watching the suffering of others.
(7) Using pejorative language like “illegals” (or “illegal aliens”) is intentionally designed to dehumanize those seeking asylum in order to make the inhumane treatment of other human beings more palatable. It’s a classic form of “othering” that is historically connected to racism, discrimination, and genocide.
(8) As I think about the exchange between Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Lindsey Graham, and the Auschwitz Memorial (which quickly shut down Graham’s mansplaining on Twitter), I keep wondering where we are in this narrative. Are we more like 1930s Germany, when Jews were being dehumanized and “othered”? Or are we more like those countries who refused to grant asylum to Jewish migrants fleeing certain death?
(9) Even though Facebook will be Facebook, I’m still taken aback at just how cold-hearted and calloused some people are. I understand if to a certain extent we disagree on best policies, but how can a person not have any sympathy for those desperate to survive? How does one take this so lightly, replete with lots of haha emojis that make fun of the suffering and sadness of real human beings??? This is truly awful. I suppose this is related to item 6 above.
(10) We can’t forget that our foreign policy (including the sale of arms) has contributed to massive amounts of suffering in Central and South America. We’ve supported numerous despotic regimes and propped up oppressive power structures for decades. Complaining that people are fleeing violence that we have no small hand in creating is akin to setting a family’s house on fire and locking the doors and blaming them for trying desperately to escape. Or tear gassing their house and when they try to find refuge in our house we tear gas them again to keep them out.
(11) I don’t know what your views are. You may or may not be in favor of helping desperate people flee from violence and find safety. Whatever. Just don’t use Christianity to justify your views. Especially at Christmas. Recall Herod’s massacre of the infants. Recall the Holy Family (Mary, Joseph, and Jesus) fleeing to Egypt to escape violence. If Egypt had the same policies currently in place at our southern border, it’s likely that the Holy Family wouldn’t have survived. And recall Jesus’ words to welcome the stranger. Hell, he even has a parable where those who don’t welcome the stranger go to hell. So just stop. Don’t. And if that’s not enough, recall Jesus’ tradition. He was Jewish. And the Torah (what Christians call the Old Testament) repeatedly talks about treating the foreigner and the immigrant as one of you. So please. Enough with the empty appeals to religion. All it does is cloak your discrimination in the name of God, which is a prime example of taking the Lord’s name in vain. Which goes against the 10 Commandments. So stop. If you want to be inhumane, own it your damn self. It’s your prerogative. But don’t go around saying Jesus supports your views when all the evidence shows he doesn’t.
(12) I close with the poem “Home,” by Warsan Shire, which has been widely shared as of late (TW: language and imagery):
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.
no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
and even then you carried the anthem under
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough
go home blacks
sucking our country dry
[N-word] with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off
or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
or the insults are easier
than your child body
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
your survival is more important
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here
In the wake of Donald Trump’s visit to Springfield, there’s a huge mistake constantly recurring in the rhetoric on the right. People keep saying that the left is hypocritical because they preach tolerance yet don’t tolerate opposing viewpoints, otherwise they wouldn’t have protested Trump’s visit to Springfield. So let me clear this up:
First, the left‘s goal is not “tolerance.” The left’s goal is justice, equity, and dignity. The left protests policies — not necessarily persons — that are intolerant toward others: policies that take life, rather than give life (i.e., policies that perpetuate patriarchy, racism, cishet normativity, economic injustice, etc.). If our society is tolerant of policies that destroy life, then we serve gods of death. The left’s commitment is to the flourishing of life and sometimes that means protesting policies that take life rather than give life.
This isn’t hard to see — just think about protests down through the years that were unequivocally intolerant of slavery, or women being denied the right to vote, or Jim Crow laws. The ethical integrity of each of these movements was directly linked to the level of intolerance for slavery, patriarchy, and racism. In these situations, being tolerant of slavery, patriarchy, and Jim Crow were the worst ethical positions possible, not the best. Again, this really isn’t hard to see.
Tolerance is the lowest common denominator and basically means that you can speak your mind without fear of arrest or danger to your life. But it doesn’t mean for one second that the value of your beliefs must be accepted, or that the import of your policies should go unchecked. Especially when support for such policies is precisely what leads other lives (black lives, women’s lives, LGBTQ lives, migrant lives, non-white lives, etc.) to be in danger.
It’s a mistake to equate God with absolute power. This sets up an authoritarian view of God, based on hierarchy and control. Which in turn teaches humanity that authoritarianism, hierarchy, and control are virtues instead of vices. When this is the case, God doesn’t just condone authoritarianism, hierarchy, and control, but models such things. **This is wrong. This is bad theology.** It leads to horrific abuse in religious circles and the valorization of authoritarian hierarchies in family and society. When authoritarianism and hierarchy are prized, powerful people take advantage of their position and harm others, especially the most vulnerable. A God (or institution) that sanctions such things is not worthy of worship but of condemnation. It’s little wonder that throughout history powerful people have appealed to an authoritarian God to justify all kinds of problematic hierarchies, saying they are just part of the natural order, whether it be slavery, patriarchy, segregation, homophobia, etc. This has to stop.
When we imagine God, let’s not begin by associating God with absolute power, for that is to chase a demon that destroys. If we need to speak of God, let us instead imagine God as one who comes in solidarity, mutuality, compassion, and love — which is a threat to authoritarian power and hierarchy (as Jesus was a threat to authoritarian power and hierarchy). From this perspective, God can be understood as a weak force with an affective appeal, coming from on low not on high. Here God is not imagined in terms of some sort of supreme omnipotent supernatural being residing somewhere above the universe controlling all things (enough with that image of God), but rather as the cry for justice that rises up from the ground, from below, leading us to question and challenge all things that harm rather than heal.
Simply put, any God that does not conform to the image of love cannot save. Such gods harm rather than heal. If we wish to practice theology that gives life rather than takes life, let’s begin with the premise that God’s love qualifies God’s power, not the other way around. It’s past time for the church to get this right, lest the church fail yet another generation.
There’s something deeply flawed in the way the church talks about the affirmation of LGBTQ persons — and it’s time for it to change.
For as long as I’ve been preaching (and of course long before), LGBTQ brothers and sisters and siblings have always had to be on the defensive, trying to provide all of the reasons why it’s not sinful for them to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Book after book, Bible study after Bible study, sermon after sermon, frequently trying to convince Nice Straight Cis Church People that it’s okay for LGBTQ people to be part of the church (how kind of Nice Straight Cis Church People to consider letting LGBTQ people be part of the club too, right?). I honestly can’t imagine how exhausting all of this must be for my LGBTQ friends and neighbors.
With this in mind, it’s past time for the church — especially Nice Straight Cis Church People — to repent.
Because here’s the thing. If the church wants to talk about sin as related to LGBTQ brothers and sisters and siblings, then let’s talk about the real sin at work here: the repeated and systemic oppression of LGBTQ people by the church.
Why should the LGBTQ community always have to defend themselves as being “okay in the sight of God,” when in fact the harmful (i.e., sinful) position — that which robs life rather than gives life — is found in *not* affirming LGBTQ persons as being beautifully made in the image of God? After all, it’s cis-hetero-normativity that is oppressive (which is to say, sinful). Instead of thinking about whether or not LGBTQ persons should be allowed to be fully included in the life of the church, the church should be celebrating who they are, made in the image of God, and celebrating the gifts they offer to the church.
As debates over the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church have played out over these many years, Nice Straight Cis Church People have perfected the art of oppression by constantly “discerning” (read: “delaying”) how the “spirit” (read: “personal opinion”) is leading them. But it’s an absolute travesty for LGBTQ people to have to constantly prove their basic humanity and worth — not to mention their gifts for the church — to Nice Straight Cis Church People who somehow think they’re the gatekeepers and spokespersons for God, because — newsflash! — they aren’t anymore than anyone else is, regardless of however much they might try to convince you they are (usually through their finely crafted mastery of what my theologian friend, Sarah Morice Brubaker, has technically and accurately classified as “theological blowhardism”).
There are a multitude of Christian books and resources that provide all kinds of reasons why faithful Christians should fully affirm LGBTQ persons — not in spite of one’s faith, but precisely because of it. As such, the burden of proof should not be on LGBTQ persons to defend their basic humanity; the true sin is found in Nice Straight Cis Church People who constantly require them to do so.
A few years ago, a pastor of a megachurch in a nearby town was fighting a local non-discrimination ordinance that protected the rights of LGBTQ persons (in other words, he wanted to discriminate against them). Yet he was quick to note that LGBTQ people are still welcome in his church. He said that their sin was like any other sin, and went on to list
“homosexual orientation and practice” with “anger, chemical addiction, gambling, slander, stealing, pride, lying, etc.” In so doing, he demonstrated a fatal (yet far too pervasive) flaw in Nice Straight Cis Church People’s understanding of sin. After all, sin is that which is harmful — that which takes life, instead of that which gives life. While the behaviors he named hurt individuals and communities, what actually hurts LGBTQ persons is the repression of their sexual orientation or gender identity. For example, if someone cheats on their beloved by committing adultery, that is harmful. If someone is struggling with opioid abuse, that is harmful. But if in a relationship neither partner cheats on the other, well, obviously, that’s much healthier for the relationship. If one is struggling with addiction, and gets sober, one’s life improves, it gets better. And if an LGBTQ person is able to fully live in to who they are — as beloved in the sight of God — their life improves, it gets better. It doesn’t bring harm but, conversely, healing. Which is the precise opposite of what sin does.
Affirming LGBTQ persons doesn’t harm, it heals. It saves. It’s not sinful to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. But it is sinful to oppress those who are. And it’s past time for the church to change its ways.
As I put together Preaching as Resistance, I kept running up against several recurring, unfortunate myths related to preaching and resistance. I put a list of ten together, and I’d be curious if any of you have encountered these before? And which others you’d add that I left out?
Myth 1: Preaching as resistance means you have to choose to be either prophetic or pastoral.
This is a pervasive yet false dichotomy designed to maintain the status quo; it’s especially popular in privileged circles. Preaching prophetically is among the most important ways to extend pastoral care, especially by equipping listeners to seek justice with and for those crushed by the ruling powers. If one doesn’t preach prophetically, at least from time to time as situations demand, one also neglects to preach pastorally.
Myth 2: Preaching as resistance is mostly relegated to high profile leaders like William Barber and Jim Wallis.
While preachers of the resistance find great inspiration from well-known voices (and often take their cue from them), they also know history is frequently shaped by those whose names history will never recall. The movement is galvanized and sustained by everyday pastors and people who refuse to stand idly by in the face of injustice, whether famous or not.
Myth 3: Preaching as resistance should be avoided because churches are supposed to preach the gospel instead of politics.
This is another popular yet false dichotomy designed to maintain the status quo. Jesus’ teachings had overt political implications from the start. Plus, not to be political is to be political; not to speak is to speak. As Elie Wiesel said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
Myth 4: Preaching as resistance recognizes that progressives have it all together; it’s only the conservatives that need to be called out.
Preaching in progressive circles sometimes runs the risk of becoming a form of virtue signaling. For example, it’s possible for some progressives to call out the sin of white-cis-hetero-patriarchal power structures, yet at the same time be quite complicit in benefitting from such structures. But resisting oppressive structures includes recognizing how one is complicit in them, and then working toward transformation.
Myth 5: Preaching as resistance is new.
Truth be told, preaching as resistance has a pedigree at least as ancient as St. Paul, and has long been a primary mode of sermonic discourse among the oppressed in the U.S. The rise of Trump may amplify the racism and misogyny that runs deep in our country, but it’s been in the DNA of the U.S. since its inception, and preachers have long been responding to it.
Myth 6: Preaching as resistance only takes place in liberal churches in liberal areas among members who all think alike.
Contrary to popular assumptions, preaching as resistance isn’t relegated to big steeple churches in big cities in blue states. Rather, it’s taking place everywhere, including small towns across the heartland, where it’s not uncommon for parishioners to pass Confederate flags waving high in the air on their way to worship. Our world needs to be saved, and pastors are called to witness to God’s saving work in Christ. Not just in blue states, but in red and purple ones too. That’s where you’ll find some of the most courageous pastors around.
Myth 7: Preaching as resistance is accomplished in single, stand-alone sermons.
Transformative preaching takes place in community, and it’s forged over the course of many sermons over many weeks, months, and years. As Rev. Elizabeth Grasham recently observed, the whole idea of crisis preaching is a misnomer. In times like these, we just reel from one crisis to the next, which makes it impossible to fire off one sermon after another on topic after topic. Deeper foundations must be built in order to withstand the deluge of information and announcements that flood us on a weekly, if not daily, basis. Preaching as resistance is committed to the work of community formation every bit as much as it’s committed to the work of theological formation.
Myth 8: Preaching as resistance should be left to heads of staff.
While it’s not uncommon for senior ministers to occupy pride of place in the pulpit, this collection of sermons shows that some of the most important preaching taking place today is by those who aren’t serving in the role of senior minister, lead pastor, or head of staff. This isn’t a knock on heads of staff, many of whom are also great preachers! It’s just a way of pointing out that there are all kinds of wonderful preachers out there who don’t serve in such a capacity, for whatever reason. And we are better off for listening to them.
Myth 9: Preaching as resistance is not a means to an end but an end in itself.
Good preaching helps listeners experience God’s call for justice, which in turn leads them to hunger for it all the more, well beyond the liturgical setting. The purpose of preaching is edification and transformation, so that listeners are equipped to partner with Christ to do the work of justice. Otherwise, it’s all just empty lip service.
Myth 10: Preaching as resistance is a constant downer, focusing only on the negative and never the positive.
This is far from the truth! Preaching as resistance compares and contrasts the world as it is in comparison to how God wants it to be; this includes celebrating the hope, possibility, and transformation evoked in the gospel, which leads listeners to experience the saving beauty and wonder of God’s transformative love that no principality or power — not even a ruling despot in the White House — can take from them. If this isn’t good news I don’t know what is.