Is it just me, or has the usual seasonal avalanche of "they're trying to ban Christmas!" stories abated somewhat, at least in Britain?
For a number of years now, the same rituals have been played out across the media. Tabloid papers dig out stories (almost all of of them misrepresented or fabricated) that allege local authorities are trying to "ban Christmas", or at least its Christian manifestations. Christians of a certain variety respond by claiming that they are being marginalised and persecuted, and that the "reason for the season" is being obscured in an onslaught of commercialism and secularism. Critics then respond by pointing out that established Christianity nicked a pagan festival in the first place. Everyone is grumpy. Nothing useful is conceded or achieved. Repeat ad nauseam…
This year, there was something of a repetition of these themes, but (it seems to me) with less enthusiasm. To my immense surprise, I received only one media call about the 'war on Christmas' in December. It was from the TV station Russia Today. They had heard outrage from some quarters that councils were sending out cards with "Season's Greetings" on them, rather than "Happy Christmas". As a Christian, was I not appalled? I responded as follows:
"Every year there are complaints from section of the media and some fearful religious groups that Christmas as a Christian festival is being scrapped. Many of these stories have subsequently proved false or misleading. The complaining also assumes that it is the role of public authorities to promote Christianity. It isn't. It's the job of the churches! We now live in a mixed belief society, and seasons like Christmas and Easter are marked in different ways by different people, religious and non-religious. I'm not surprised that council greeting cards, which go to people of all faiths and none, reflect that, and I wouldn't get at all worked up about it. If we want to put Christ back into Christmas, the best way to do that would be to do what he suggested - feed the hungry, release those in captivity, house the homeless and work for a world more capable of taking the equalising love of God seriously."
Of course we would be foolish to think that this kind of things will disappear. The story of a heartless vicar who told the kids that Santa doesn't exist made an appearance for the fifth year in a row, according to my calculations – eliciting the expected response from sceptics that Christian claims about Jesus are a load of old baloney, too. But frankly, none of this made the earth move.
This year, indeed, Reuters had to search much further afield to find the real enemies of Christmas: "A university in northwestern China has banned Christmas, calling it a 'kitsch' foreign celebration unbefitting of the country's own traditions and making its students watch propaganda films instead, media said on Thursday [18 December 2014]," it reported. This, of course, is bound up with a rather more serious story about the control and suppression of certain kinds of unregulated religious and civic groups in the PRC.
Meanwhile, in the US, the 'culture wars' symbolised in part by the fight over Christmas against a backdrop of the separation of church and state continue unabated, stoked in particular by Fox TV.
"The network has made a firm promise to its viewers that it will wage this war regardless of substance and devoid of all perspective. Whether it’s attacks on nativity scenes in public spaces, Santa smoking a blunt, or a part-time minimum wage-earning Walmart cashier saying 'Happy Holidays' instead of 'Merry Christmas,' Fox is ready to scream and shout", observes website Addicting Info (http://www.addictinginfo.org/2014/12/18/christian-politician-makes-ass-o...), highlighting an overlooked story of a conservative Christian politicians who seemed unable to grasp that there are other seasonal celebrations – the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, for example - that have nothing to do with his own faith. Fox chose to ignore that one, because it doesn't fit its narrative.
What are we to make of this? Two things, I suggest. First, we are all simply going to have to get used to the idea that there is not one Christmas. There are many Chritmasses in mixed-belief societies, and it is no good any one group thinking that they can do away with the others or impose their meaning as the universally dominant one.
Second, and related, Christians need to learn that moaning about lack of interest or privilege for their story does not commend the Gospel, it undermines it. The peaceful, non-coersive, self-giving of God in Jesus becomes, by contrast, an issue of self-interest and propriety as the volume of such whining increases.
The underlying issue here is the emergence of post-Christendom (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/emergentvillage/2012/10/the-shift-into-post...). This is the cultural context in which the Christian story and churches are being moved from the centre to the margins. In may cases, active Christians are now a minority. They therefore feel less at home in the dominant culture and enjoy fewer automatic privileges, Instead, they are part of one community (or communities) among many in a plural society. The church therefore no longer exercises control over society in the way that it once did. That includes its meanings and ceremonies.
For the 'church of power', or for Christians who believe that the Chrsitian message should put them in charge and in control of others, this is bad news. But for Christians who see the Gospel as being centred precisely on Jesus' subversion of "religion and politics as usual" it is good news, a great opportunity. As tame 'civic religion' erodes or mutates, the opportunity arises to commend an understanding of the Christian story based on witness (costly examples of goodness - peacemaking, sharing, forgiveness) and not one of control.
The emphasis in post-Christendom is now no longer on maintaining the status quo but on an ekkesia movement for real change in a contested environment. This means that churches can no longer operate primarily in institutional mode, but must learn to operate once again as part of a movement, with allies in low rather than high places.
Come to think of it, is that not exactly what Christ's birth at the edge of empire is all about (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21206)? That has been the theme of our reflections in Advent and Christmas (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21192). the message must and will go on living in people and communities. But we shouldn't expect commercial interests, public authorities and those whose wealth and power sets the agenda in much of the world to welcome it with open arms.
* Democracy, 'ekklesia' and the church: a movement for change: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21171
* More on Christmas from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/christmas
* Christmas truce? Help make it permanent: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21032
* The AlterNATIVITY Advent Calendar (with Bloomsbury Baptist Church): http://christmas.org.uk/docs/calendar/index.html
* Advent: God's alternative agenda: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21096
* More on Advent from Ekklesia here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/advent
* The full Advent and Christmas resources can be read and downloaded (*.PDF Adobe Acrobat document) here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/sites/ekklesia.co.uk/files/advent_calendar_ref...
© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.