So This is Christmas?: What the War on Christmas has to do with Discipleship

This time of year, there are a lot of things we can count on: Christmas trees in windows, twinkle lights on front porches, entire radio stations dedicated to holiday music, adorably under-rehearsed children’s Christmas pageants overpopulated with toddlers dressed as sheep. My boyfriend was particularly excited about the reappearance of Christmas tree shaped Reese’s. Personally, I’m looking forward to some hot chocolate and a big blanket by the fire pit on my parent’s back porch. But there’s one tradition I wish would just die already: this whole “War on Christmas” thing. Seriously, it’s right up there with egg nog on the “Wait, seriously? We’re still doing this?” list. Not only is it an unfounded and totally out of proportion fear (we have a National  Christmas tree for Christ’s sake–literally! Nobody is sending me Twitter alerts about the President and First Lady lighting the National Menorah, ok?)– but it ends up seeming ironically mean-spirited at the very same time it is trying so desperately to spread love and Christmas cheer.

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As you may have guessed from that little rant, I hit my limit with all this nonsense pretty early this year. Last week I made it through about five minutes of a new episode of the Daily Show about how Sarah Palin is going to remind us all about the reason for the season before I just couldn’t take it. Even Jon Stewart’s hilarious and spot-on sarcasm couldn’t balance out how grating this misguided annual Christian outrage has become.

I don’t mean to be such a Debbie Downer over here, but after years of having (and hearing and reading and seeing) this conversation over and over again, I just can’t help the reflexive eye-roll when people talk about the “persecution” of Christians in the United States. And the thing is, most other Christians I talk to about this seem to feel the same way. The internet is flooded right now with any number of responses to all the hoopla trying to put things into perspective, and they’re ranging from gentle and thoughtful to witty and sarcastic to downright angry. One of my favorites this year comes from the always wonderful Rachel Held Evans.

So if a lot of us Christians are just as fed up with the “War on Christmas” as everybody else, why does it keep raging on? Well, I’ve got a theory about that. I think people get all bent out of shape about “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” because it is a concrete thing they can point to and say “Look. See there? I’m a Christian, and I take my faith seriously.” It is a low-cost, low-impact way to take a public stand for Jesus, and I believe that it really does come from a genuine desire to take discipleship seriously. I think for many people, the sentiment is sincere, but the focus is off. We want our faith to matter. We want to be people whose lives are centered around the God we love, and we want that to be evident in how we live. The problem is, we also want our lives to be comfortable.

We can’t have it both ways. Christ and comfortable don’t mix well. We lose sight of that in the U.S. where our lives are pretty cushy and Christianity is more or less the law of the land, but it’s clear from the Gospels that the Jesus who spent his time couch-surfing around Israel healing people from their highly stigmatized mental and physical illnesses, feeding people who were hungry without asking why they deserved food, and refusing to tell Mary to get back in the kitchen when she wanted to talk theology with him and his male students isn’t going to be satisfied with lip service to the parts of his story we like. It’s not enough to draw a line in the sand on a very surface-level issue and ignore the deeper questions about who we are in our lives throughout the year. A Christian life is more about how we spend our money, who we spend our time with, and why we do all the other things we do than which phrase we use to wish each other well for a couple months in the winter. Actual discipleship requires some serious self-reflection. It demands asking hard questions about what we think and why, and the answers tend to cause some major disruptions and awkward conversations when we inevitably realize that we haven’t been honoring Christ the way we thought we were.

Hear me, though, when I say that I am right there with you. This is a confession as much as it is a call to action. We can all do better. And I’m not saying we need to do this alone–this is exactly the sort of thing the Church is for. As a community we worship God in part by sharing the burden of discipleship together and making space to have these hard conversations in love.

Christian community is a gift and a necessity, but I don’t want us to fall into the trap of walling ourselves off from the rest of the world. Spending quality time with people from a variety of perspectives is not only a good idea because, in my experience, most people tend to be delightful if you let them, but also because it helps us see our blind spots. Honestly, it’s our neighbors who are bombarded with the onslaught of “Christmas cheer” and silenced in their profession of their own beliefs and traditions (including the desire not to celebrate any particular religious tradition) by cries of “persecution” who have more in common with the Jesus we’re trying to force on them than those of us whining about not displaying Nativity sets on government property. Jesus, too, spoke up about beliefs that challenged both the governing political system and the social sentiments of the dominant religious tradition where he grew up and caught a lot of flack for it.

If we  want to learn what it means to sacrifice something for our beliefs, we should start by asking them. In this case, I think taking a stand for Christ isn’t a matter of shouting loud enough in defense of Christmas but a matter of sitting down and shutting up to listen to what someone else has to say. You can even do it over a peppermint mocha to take the edge off.

Peppermint Mochas

So at the end of this long post, let me do just that.

What do you think about this whole “War on Christmas”? Do you have another theory on what it’s all about? Do you have ideas for other ways Christians can honor the spirit of Christmas apart from the movements to “defend Christmas”?

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