A wonderful Christmas to all of you around the world, to Christians and Muslims, especially! Last year I emphasized how much Christians and Muslims have in common as they celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, or Isa bnu Maryam, the great prophet the Qur’an honors as “Jesus, son of Mary.”
Haroon Moghul has left us this Christmas with a wonderful summary of Muslim and Christian convergences and divergences about Jesus (eschatology and all!) in the Boston Review.
For my part this year I’ll emphasize difference, though both communities can still come out at the other end of their respective paths with “human dignity and solidarity.” Let me explain.
Let me take the Christmas story from a less known text – by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians:
“And that’s the way it was with us before Christ came. We were like children; we were slaves to the basic spiritual powers (or ‘principles’) of this world.
But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law. God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children. And because we are his children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, prompting us to call out, ‘Abba, Father.’
Now you are no longer a slave but God’s own child. And since you are a child, God has made you his heir” (Gal. 4:3-7 NLT).
So much could be said about this passage, but let me simply comment on four thoughts:
Slavery: Paul teaches elsewhere that the Law of Moses was holy – after all, God himself revealed it to Moses on the Mount Sinai. But law can become and end in itself and “legalism” can lure us away from God. Yet there is more, taking our cue from the phrase “slaves to the basic spiritual powers of the world.” As I see it, the best teaching on this difficult phrase goes something like this. There are forces inside of us that drag us downward, far from God, like the evil desires of our lower nature and the strong emotions like anger, jealousy and fear that impel us to hurt others – in one word, “sin.” But there are forces outside of us too. Both Bible and Qur’an teach about the reality of Satan or Iblis, who is a sworn enemy of humankind and of God. But even beyond the reality of demonic beings bent on enticing us to “the dark side” (and sometimes commandeering whole nations to commit unspeakable atrocities – think of Hitler, Stalin, and the massacres in Rwanda or Bosnia, Congo or Syria), Paul is also pointing to evil systems of thought that invade human social and political structures. Today we call these “ideologies,” whether nationalism, racism, sexism, materialism, communism, capitalism, or whatever. These can easily ensnare us into trampling on the rights of others.
This morning on National Public Radio, as I was driving home from dropping my wife off at work (as a hospital nurse she works every other Christmas), I heard Linda Gradstein report from Bethlehem, “This year there was no room at the inn!” Indeed, buoyed by their new national status at the UN, some 15,000 Palestinians and internationals had crowded Bethlehem hotels to celebrate a joyous, even raucous Christmas feast. President Mahmoud Abbas joined in the Midnight Mass at Manger Square’s Church of the Nativity, as Yasser Arafat had faithfully done before him every year since the 1993 Oslo Accords.
Still, there is plenty of irony in these celebrations, at the picture overhead reminds us. My family spent three Christmases there in the mid 1990s, while I was teaching at the Bethlehem Bible College – a great time for us to learn about that little town and enjoy its people, both Christian and Muslim, natives and refugees. Already in those days Israeli military checkpoints made it nearly impossible for Palestinians to go shopping or worshiping in Jerusalem, only six miles away. But with today’s “separation wall,” Israeli apartheid-like policies bear down on Palestinians in every aspect of their lives, smothering them under a humiliating and dehumanizing pall. And now with the recent Israeli decision to build several new settlements on the Palestinian side of Jerusalem, the hope of a two-state solution to the conflict is all but extinguished.
Rev. William Flippin, an African American pastor from Columbus, Georgia, meditates on Christmas while reliving his recent visits to Bethlehem:
“Under Augustus, Rome erected a virtual wall of separation between those who were in and out, those who were rich and poor, and those who lived and died. Peace was the luxury of the powerful.
Interpretation for those of African Descent Communities of Faith: God’s glory is revealed to those on the other side of the Wall.
What we miss when we boil down the Christmas story to a once-a-year celebration of mangers and mall-shopping is the stark truth that Jesus was born on the wrong side of the wall. The emperor Augustus never heard about his birth, nor did the rich and powerful just up the road in Jerusalem.”
I know from experience: the parallels between the Roman occupation in Jesus’ days and the Israeli occupation in our day is striking for Palestinian Christians. Jesus’ command to love our enemy takes on a whole new dimension for them. Whatever you do, says Jesus, don’t dehumanize the “other.” Speak out against injustice, yes, but find ways to demonstrate care and respect for people on both sides, because they are caught in a vicious cycle of oppression and violence. Truly, evil enslaves us all on many levels.
Incarnation: the good news of Christmas is that God loved and valued his human creatures so much that he became one of them. “God sent his Son, born of a woman.” Naturally, our finite minds run into a logical brick wall at this point. Though the modalities of the miraculous virgin birth of Jesus are presented in similar language in both Qur’an and gospels (God’s Spirit “overshadows Mary” or “breathes into Mary’s womb”), those who lived three years with Jesus day in and day out concluded after his crucifixion and resurrection that indeed God had come to them through in the person of Jesus. So John began his gospel some forty years later with his own Christmas story:
“In the beginning was God and the Word was with God and the Word was God …
So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son” (John 1:1, 14 NLT).
No doubt the Qur’an confers great dignity to the human race: “We have honoured the sons of Adam; provided them with transport on land and sea; given them for sustenance things good and pure; and conferred on them special favours, above a great part of our creation” (Q. 17:70 Yusuf Ali).
But the story of Christmas takes the honor to a much higher level. God joins the human race so as to redeem it. Better yet: he does so to adopt those who receive the gift of his Son into his own family.
Freedom: the great defining event of the Hebrew Bible, solemnly celebrated by Jews every year as the Passover, is the Exodus -- how God delivered his people from their brutal life of slavery in Egypt. Paul writes to a mixed congregation of Jews and Gentiles, "God sent [Jesus] to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law ..." Jesus gave his life on the cross to break the curse of sin on our race. Then the Father vindicated his Son's sacrifice by raising him from the dead. We are free from the sentence of death hanging over us, and free to live lives of righteousness by the power of his Holy Spirit he has sent to live in us.
This January first 2013 is the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation President Lincoln signed. For Christians, the cross and resurrection of Jesus is the Good News, the Emancipation Proclamation of human release from the bondage of sin, death and hell.
Adoption: “… so that he could adopt us as his very own children. And because we are his children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, prompting us to call out, ‘Abba, Father.’” “Abba” was the Aramaic expression most akin to the English word pronounced by children, “daddy.” Here you have the Father sending his Son to redeem and adopt, and the Holy Spirit of God stirring within the believer and “prompting” her to say to God in the most intimate way, “daddy.” And here you have the mysterious, yet powerfully dynamic and life-changing work of God as both one and three in the human soul.
Protestants have tended to limit this redemption to the individual. But take the Bible as a whole and you will read the gospels in a new light. Pope Benedict’s Christmas meditation from St. Peter’s Square this morning focused on David’s psalm 85:11-14.
Notice how justice and peace spring up from the earth – even from the womb of a virgin, if we read it through Christmas eyes:
“Kindness and truth shall meet; justice and peace shall kiss.
Truth shall spring out of the earth, and justice shall look down from heaven.
The Lord himself will give his benefits; our land shall yield its increase.
Justice shall walk before him, and salvation, along the way of his steps”
So the Pope prayed for peace and human dignity to spring up in Syria, Israel-Palestine, Mali, Congo and Nigeria. He spoke of China, Latin America, and even Egypt: “…especially the beloved land of Egypt, blessed by the childhood of Jesus – may citizens work together to build societies founded on justice and respect for the freedom and dignity of every person.”
Let me wrap up this Christmas meditation with the stark contrast between God’s lavish love for humanity as seen in Mary’s baby and the pernicious and destructive idols of human making. I’m not thinking of consumerism – though perhaps the most pervasive of the “powers” enslaving humans this time of year. Rather, I want to highlight one whose power comes from his excellent camouflage. Though there are plenty of idols that have wreaked havoc and destruction through the political left, this one is a darling of American conservatives, which, ironically, came to us from Russia in the 1930s. Yes, some of you will have guessed it – the writer Ayn Rand and her novel Atlas Shrugged, which in the 1990s stood only behind the Bible in numbers of books sold.
No doubt the most influential conservative US politician in 2012 was the Catholic representative, Paul Ryan. In a speech to the Randian admiration society (the “Atlas Society”), he declared,
“The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.” So much did he esteem her values and teaching that he gave out Atlas Shrugged every year to friends as Christmas presents.
Harriet Rubin wrote an informative piece in the New York Times about Rand. Her philosophy of “objectivism” was all about tying together human excellence with ethical egoism (everyone should seek to maximize their own happiness even at the expense of others) and the capitalist system. Naturally, government interference could only get in the way of those whose gifts could lead them to the top of society. This was a persuasive, if forceful, promotion of laissez-faire capitalism. You can watch a chilling portrayal of her influence in a film online by Adam Curtis, "All Watched over by Machines of Loving Grace" (including excerpts in the beginning from a 1959 interview with Ayn Rand).
No, the good news that God revealed in a lowly stable in Bethlehem was that God was for human beings, and that his love led him to even share our human condition, so that by entering our family he would open the way for us to join his family. This is the basis for human dignity, but also human solidarity. We say 'no' to Randian hymns of praise to human egoism and cold-blooded admiration for the survival of the fittest -- or all other ideologies that disparage the least of these. Peace and justice are not abstract ideas. Rather, they flow out of God’s working in human history through the children of Abraham, then the prophets, then God’s Son sending out a redeemed people to proclaim this Good News by word and by deed, by sacrificial love.
Today I end with a prayer for God’s gracious intervention in Syria: may he bring an end to the bloodshed and raise up men and women of peace who draw near to God's love – Christians and Muslims, Sunnis, Shias, Alawites, and Kurds.
A happy Christmas to all!