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War On Christmas?: This Christian Disagrees
I'm tired of seeing the "War On Christmas" debate raging again this year. As a Christian minister in a mainline protestant denomination (PCUSA), I do not fall on either side of this debate, even though it's often assumed that I do. One side is screaming that our nation is experiencing the wrath of God because we've removed Christianity from the public sphere. The other is screaming that Christians should not be allowed to force their beliefs on others. Both have different interpretations of the laws regarding church and state. Neither is engaging in a conversation. They have built trenches and are lobbing verbal grenades at each other from a distance. Unfortunately, there are a lot of us standing in the middle, supposedly the wishy-washiest place to be, but we are the ones in the crossfire, trying to dodge destructive missiles whizzing by our heads as we continue on our "merry" way. We are the moderate and progressive Christians, our views are not extreme, but that doesn't mean we don't know what we believe, and why.
As such a Christian, I would like to speak to the differences in belief and interpretation between those who are so clearly distraught over our culture's supposed descent into heathenism and those of us who are not concerned.
The Bible Tells Me So
When it comes right down to it, I think interpretation is the one of the centerpieces of the debate that rages around us. Both interpretation of the church/state laws of our country and of the authoritative text of the Christian faith, the Bible. I will leave the first to my lawyer friends, but I feel qualified to comment on the second. I graduated at the top of my class from a three year Master of Divinity program at a respected school and fulfilled all the requirements, some of the most stringent, to become ordained as a presbyterian minister. Since ordination I have worked as a small church pastor for eight years. My initial calling was "to preach." I'm no stranger to biblical interpretation. I am also no expert.
Let me share first a few things I believe about the Christian Bible. My approach to reading and interpreting it is humility, much the same as my beloved Hebrew and Old Testament professor, Dr. Werner Lemke, who told me that he set out to be a systematic theologian, knowing he had to understand the Bible fully to be able to set down a system of biblical belief. When I met Dr. Lemke he was in his seventies and as he said, "Still learning." He died, never having written his "system", but having lived a life of service, an authentic Christian life. I have had a parishioner say to me, "I wish I had more time to study the Bible, so I could argue it more intelligently." I responded, "The more I read, study, and meditate on it, the less qualified I feel to do so." As a student of the Bible, I am awed by its breadth; of history, of genre, of theology and ideology.
I am struck again and again by how foundational the Bible is to our culture, even in a non-religious sense. I have a sneaking suspicion that the problem we have understanding much of it is no accident, that we are perhaps not meant to have certainty, but instead depend on God's Holy Spirit to help us. I believe the Bible is more descriptive than prescriptive, meaning that it seems to be the great story of a people's attempt to understand God, learn what God requires from them, and document their relationship with God, rather than a book of rules to live by. I believe the Bible is God's word, inasmuch as we approach it faithfully, with the help of the Holy Spirit and Christian community.
All that said, I think there is a fundamental difference between the way interpretation happens between the moderate or progressive Christian and the conservative Christian.
I was dismayed once, as a chaplaincy intern at a major trauma hospital, to have a visiting theologian, whose name I no longer remember, ask us through what lens we interpreted the Bible. We all said that we tried to interpret it just for itself, not with any prior bias. He quickly proved to us that this was not possible. Anyone being truly honest knows that many biblical texts can be argued to mean different things. We may not believe those different meanings, but we know that someone does. We have to have ways of determining which meaning is correct at a given time. We use the whole canon of the Bible to test out the possibilities, but sometimes that leaves us more confused than ever. Many of us rely on our pastor to be the definitive word, but as a pastor I have never been comfortable with that expectation in a tradition that speaks of the priesthood of all believers. Our theologian went on to suggest that we all base our interpretation of every biblical text on who we believe God is. Who we already believe God is. As soon as this statement passed his lips, I knew it to be true, but it had never occurred to me before.
As adults, we come to the Bible with beliefs already in place about who God is. These may have come from being taught as children in Sunday School, or at home. They come from our experience of God in our lives to date. They can come from the way we have been treated by the church or other people, especially our parents. They can come from our experience of nature. I'm going to say, for the sake of simplification here, that we essentially end up with an image of God who is good, compassionate, loving, and gracious or we see God as more of a disciplinarian, judge, and dealer of vengeance. Most of us will see that statement and say that we know God is all of those, but with prayer and reflection we can see that we probably tend to lean one way or the other.
Goodness is stronger than evil.
Love is stronger than hate.
Light is stronger than darkness.
Life is stronger than death.
Victory is ours! Victory is ours!
Through (God) who loves us.
My God Bias
The words above were written by Desmond Tutu and set to music by John Bell and the Wild Goose Worship Group of Iona Community, Scotland. My congregation often sings this together after the Prayer of Confession and Assurance of Pardon in our Sunday worship service. I would say that these words express what I believe, with God being the source of all that is good, in Christ redeeming all that is evil, and with the Holy Spirit transforming us as we work toward the final reality. So my tendency is to interpret the Bible with this as my prior bias. That means that I tend to focus on the biblical texts that tend to confirm this. I am aware of my prior bias, so I also seek to interpret in community, knowing that others come with different images of God, and believing that the Holy Spirit is using all of us to work toward understanding.
Reason for Hope
So, what does any of this have to do with the debate over Christmas that swirls around our heads every year during this season of Advent? Let me state a few things based on my prior bias of God as good and gracious that may help illustrate:
Because of my personal experience and prior bias, I do not believe that forcing other people to be Christian, or to adopt Christian practices, is useful or necessary. I believe that God loves all people equally. I believe that there is evidence of God's kingdom all around us at this time of year, and every other time of year. I celebrate instances of understanding between people as evidence of the Holy Spirit working. I do not believe that God gives up on anyone, ever. I believe how we treat one another matters and is the basis of a Christian life. I believe we are forgiven for our sins and failures and we should not dwell on them to the point of ignoring our calling. I believe every person is called to serve others in ways that further God's kingdom and their own healing and transformation. I believe the best form of evangelism is living an authentic Christian life.
I believe that Christ's incarnation, ministry, death, and resurrection are the essence of God's self-sacrificing and eternal love for us. I also believe that God is sovereign and cannot be limited by us in any way. I believe judgment comes in the direct consequences of sin that happen to us as finite human beings and and in not knowing of God's loving nature. God does not cause or "allow" tragedy to befall us, but is present with us as we grieve and pick up the pieces. I believe God intends good for us and weeps at our suffering. I do not believe evil is increasing in the world. I believe all things work together for good. I believe that God takes our prayers for vengeance and vindication, for armageddon, apocalypse, and rapture, and transforms them into even more radical realities of peace and reconciliation.
Goodness Is Stronger
So, I am not concerned about Christmas being pushed out of the public sphere. I am saddened by the fears that cause some Christians to speak judgment against others. Dismayed by the attention to the very few biblical texts that imply the sin of certain sexual behaviors at the expense of the thousands of texts that are very clear about serving one another and paying special attention to the weakest, the poor, the widow, the orphan. I am outraged that the slaughter of children or any other tragedy could ever be used as an ideological platform to further a few Christians' political desires.
This Christmas, as we have every other Christmas since Christ was born two thousand years ago, we attempt to balance the suffering we see and experience with the hope of a new world where there are no more tears, war, hunger, suffering, or sin. Even standing in the midst of the battle around us, I am not afraid. I know who wins.
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