Think twice before saying “Merry Christmas”

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.

On the inhumane treatment of migrants on the southern border

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

your neck

and even then you carried the anthem under

your breath

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

under trains

beneath carriages

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

pitied

no one chooses refugee camps

or strip searches where your

body is left aching

or prison,

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

the

go home blacks

refugees

dirty immigrants

asylum seekers

sucking our country dry

[N-word] with their hands out

they smell strange

savage

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

your legs

or the insults are easier

to swallow

than rubble

than bone

than your child body

in pieces.

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

drown

save

be hunger

beg

forget pride

your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear

saying-

leave,

run away from me now

i dont know what i’ve become

but i know that anywhere

is safer than here