The “War on Christmas” and Jewish-Christian Dialogue
My wife and I visited our local Costco this weekend to get a good deal on a vacuum, only to be greeted by rows of fake LED-lighted Christmas trees, a life-size nutcracker, and a giant wire reindeer. Apparently the Christmas season began October 1st this year! Which makes Anthony Le Donne’s new book especially timely.
In Near Christianity, Le Donne offers us an important primer on Jewish-Christian dialogue. He takes us to the borders of the faith to help us understand and sympathize with those who remain “near Christianity.” Perhaps there’s no better time to consider this nearness than the season from Black Friday to Christmas Day.
In a chapter highlighting the dynamics at work between Christians and religious minorities during Advent, Le Donne asks us to consider the season’s relationship with cultural appropriation, the culture wars, and social power dynamics. What we discover is that we often unwittingly transform this Most Wonderful Time of the Year into an opportunity to jockey for cultural entitlement.
Christmas and Cultural Appropriation
Le Donne highlights something seemingly forgotten about Christmas: “If I want to teach and preach about Christmas, I must borrow from another culture.” (62) Racial theorists call this “cultural appropriation.” As he explains, “It is ‘when members of one culture…represent members of other cultures…or aspects of insiders’ culture.” (62) Almost nothing about our celebration of Christmas makes sense without borrowing from Israel’s own story.
Le Donne insists that while Christmas carols such as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” implicitly acknowledge this, Christians should be more explicit:
What is clear to me is that, unlike the first followers of Jesus, I am not Jewish. It seems right then to acknowledge the debt I owe to Judaism during Advent. It also seems appropriate to wonder whether modern Christmas festivity gives our religious neighbor any cause to rejoice. (62)
Advent, then, is the least appropriate time to use the story of Christ’s birth as a wedge between our neighbors, especially Jewish ones. “I can think of nothing less appropriate than using the Christmas calendar as a battleground for a so-called war on Christmas whereby Christians jockey for Christian entitlement.” (63)
Christmas and the “Culture War”
Every year just prior to Thanksgiving the so-called “war on Christmas” seems to find renewed vigor, mostly thanks to cable news networks. What is problematic about this in Le Donne’s view is “when Christians celebrate Christmas without any gesture of respect for their neighbors” (66), and then claim religious persecution. He quotes at length the moderator of a Jewish-Christian dialogue blog to highlight why such language is problematic:
I will say simply that talk like this strikes most Jews as paranoid nonsense. We don’t get it. From our perspective, it is close to inconceivable that any group could be safer, more secure from attack and more privileged than American Christians… For Jews, a “war” on religion looks like Kristallnacht, and “hatred” of a religious culture looks like Auschwitz. If you think that Christmas is under attack and you want me to understand your point of view, try to remember that there’s persecution and there’s PERSECUTION. (67–68)
Instead of asserting our religious right in the face of a perceived social ostracizing, Le Donne challenges Christians “to care about the shadows we cast, whether they fall on a majority or a minority of our neighbors,” by caring about how our celebrating impacts those who don’t.
Christmas and Social Power
“Many Christians in America act like we own the months of November and December,” Le Donne writes. “A time of year that is meant to commemorate the most unexpected gift can easily become a season of insufferable entitlement. Because of the social power American Christians have, we begin to defend that to which we feel entitled.” (74)
What’s ironic, and what Le Donne wants us to see embedded within Christ’s infancy narrative, is that while Christmas is often transformed into a social power play, “we learn that the first Christmas was about power dynamics… What Luke and Matthew have in common…is an interest in power reversals.” (72)
He points toward Matthew’s narrative in particular, highlighting the nature of Herod’s character. Interestingly, “As a point of historical fact (not mentioned in the New Testament) Herod claimed to be a descendant of David by fabricating a genealogy.” (71) Herod is a foil of sorts, and we learn that “Jesus has a kind of power that Herod does not demonstrate in this story. Or, put another way, Herod does not exhibit the kind of power that really matters in God’s economy.” (72)
Are American Christians exhibiting this same power? Le Donne believes so: “An ancient story meant to challenge entrenched social powers is ironically defended by entrenched social powers in America.” (74) In this power grab we’ve lost something sacred along the way.
Join Le Donne in understanding how we practice our faith has great bearing on those who are “near Christianity”–even and especially during the Christmas season.