Monday, December 13, 2010

Peace on Earth: Justice and the meaning of Christmas

Each December I bring out my DVD of "A Charlie Brown Christmas." The climatic scene occurs when an exasperated Charlie Brown yells out "isn't there anybody who can tell me what Christmas is all about?!!" Linus' famous soliloquy answers that question:

Whether Linus is right that Christmas is all about "Peace on Earth and good will to men" depends very much on how we understand those phrases.

All too often these are just empty words. "Peace on earth" and "good will toward men" are simply part of the seasonal decor, like Rudolph, and Frosty, and multi-colored light bulbs. Those who rail at Christmas as sheer commercialism frosted with empty sentimentalism and manufactured good will, are clearly correct about how much of Christmas is celebrated. But the Hallmark version of Christmas need not be the way we celebrate this holiday.

The Christmas stories in the gospels are about justice. Jesus is born a poor peasant child in both Matthew and Luke. In Matthew this poor child is attacked by an oppressive ruler; King Herod. In Luke the message of Jesus' birth if first delivered to a group of highly despised and marginalized social outcasts; Shepards. To see how clearly the gospel message of Christmas it he message of justice, one need simply read the central lines of the Magnificant:

He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts
of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and
lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
sent the rich away empty.

The Christmas stories make it quite clear: Herod and Caesar (remember that story about the census) are cruel tyrants who oppress the people; but Jesus is a people's champion who fights against oppression and for inclusion, equality, and non-violent justice.

The most famous secular Christmas story is probably Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. This book also is concerned with social justice and the plight of the poor. The story is too well known to repeat here, but seldom noticed is the fact that the tale is not so much about the reform of a man gone wrong, as it is about the need for a deep transformation away from selfish isolation and toward the good of the community, particularly its least well off members.

Dickens nicely sums up the message of peace on earth with his strange figure of the Ghost of Christmas present:

It was clothed in a a simple green robe, or mantle, bordered with white fur. This garment hung so loosely on the figure, that its capacious breast was bare, as if disdaining to be warded or concealed by any artifice. Its feet, observable beneath the ample folds of the garment, were also bare; and on its head it wore no other covering than a holly wreath, set here and there with shining icicles. Its dark brown curls were long and free; free as its genial face, its sparkling eye, its open hand, its cheery voice, its unconstrained demeanour, and its joyful air. Girded round its middle was an antique scabbard; but no sword was in it, and the ancient sheath was eaten up with rust.

The rusted and empty scabbard is particularly telling. Remember that the Ghost of Christmas present sits in a well lit room overflowing with good food, warmed by a blazing fire, and filled with joy. When all are fed, warm, and cared for, there will be peace on earth. The scabbard is rusted and empty because violence will never bring about peace, only good will and plenty can do that.

Dickens understood the social message of the gospels' Christmas stories.

Finally, even jolly Old Saint Nicholas (who has been sadly commercialized and turned into the coca cola Santa) is originally a figure of social justice. A protector of the poor, of sailors, of children, and other marginal figures, Saint Nicholas was originally a non-violent warrior for those who were left out.

In short, let us forget about the over-commercialization of Christmas. We should ignore that. Let us divorce the holiday from its sappy and falsely sentimental trappings. Christmas is - or least should be - about justice, about food for the hungry, clothing for the naked, shelter for the homeless, and inclusion and acceptance of the excluded and marginalized.

Let us have a just Christmas. Perhaps then we can, like the reformed Scrooge, know how to keep Christmas well.

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1 comment:

  1. A Holiday Thought...

    Aren't humans amazing? They kill wildlife - birds, deer, all kinds of cats, coyotes, beavers, groundhogs, mice and foxes by the million in order to protect their domestic animals and their feed.

    Then they kill domestic animals by the billion and eat them. This in turn kills people by the million, because eating all those animals leads to degenerative - and fatal - health conditions like heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, and cancer.

    So then humans spend billions of dollars torturing and killing millions more animals to look for cures for these diseases.

    Elsewhere, millions of other human beings are being killed by hunger and malnutrition because food they could eat is being used to fatten domestic animals.

    Meanwhile, few people recognize the absurdity of humans, who kill so easily and violently, and once a year send out cards praying for "Peace on Earth."

    ~Revised Preface to Old MacDonald's Factory Farm by C. David Coates~


    Anyone can break this cycle of violence! Everyone has the power to choose compassion! Please visit these websites to align your core values with life affirming choices: &

    "And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat." ~ Genesis 1:29


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