If I ever designed my own Christmas card, the front would feature a pastoral Currier and Ives-type snowscape, with gold foil cursive script unfurling across the top that says, “Expectations are resentments under construction.” When you opened the card, the inside would say, “Just try to keep it together until January, hon.”
Even in the best of times, holiday season is hard, fraught with family politics, parties and hyped camaraderie that backfire into reminders of loss and shortcoming, and the incessant drumbeat of big red bow consumerism. Now we have the additional complication of some of our Christian brethren agitating in the least Christian of ways: Republican candidate Donald Trump has doubled down on his desire to shut Muslims out of the United States and is seeing a surge in popularity. Last month, senator Ted Cruz, along with senator Mike Huckabee and Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, spoke at a conference in Des Moines headed up by pastor Kevin Swanson, who advocates the execution of gay people — per his interpretation of the Bible — and who once again made his call for mass extermination onstage at the event. Two weeks ago, Jerry Fallwell, Jr., the president of Liberty University, a prominent evangelical Christian college in Virginia, urged students to apply for concealed-weapons permits and said that if more people followed his suggestion, then “we could end those Muslims.” As Jesuit priest Father Tom Weston said, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do.”
If this is a culture war, we are in real danger of losing to the forces of xenophobia, paranoia, homophobia, and race-baiting. As Christians, can we allow this declivitous slide toward the mainstreaming of extremism to continue?
I daresay that centrist and progressive Christians have become too polite in recent years. Did we not take the extremist views seriously? Did we encounter bigotry and choose to laugh it off, doubting its staying power and growth potential? Or did we just not want to look like the bad guys by challenging free expression? I don’t know. What I do know is that the silence is becoming dangerous. “Judge not lest be judged” is about to be steamrolled by “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
I’m guilty of this. Shamefully, so guilty. When faced with an alarming opinion by a fellow Christian, particularly on social media, I get mealy-mouthed and clammy-palmed. Conflict-averse by nature, I would, more often than not, rather punt than engage. If ISIS poses a threat to American safety, so, too, in their own way, do radicalized Christians spouting bigotry, and we must speak up from a place where our commitment to the teachings of Jesus meets the courage of our convictions. If we’re to keep Christ in Christmas, this is where it begins — where “If You See Something, Say Something” hits its knees.
Due to the dumb luck of timing, amid this tumult and divisiveness, we are exhorted to be festive, clever in our expression of holiday cheer, possibly even crafty. Let me tell you, I have never been less in the mood to roll out the traditional family pfefferneuse and pepparkakor dough or string cranberries on floss to wrap round a tree. Forget the carefully curated wish lists and cookie recipes. If this keeps up, everyone’s getting a gift card and Pepperidge Farm out of a bag.
Lest we allow ourselves to be completely robbed of the season’s wonder, we must try to hold on to whatever small holiday pleasure we can, something that sloughs through the calcification of the spirit. For me, as a New Yorker, it’s the ridiculous optimism of Christmas trees being sold on city streets. The spare strands of white lights demarking the pop-up lots, the surrounding air frosted with the scent of evergreen, trees lined up in wait like hopeful suitors, and the baling machine that bundles them for carrying (What do they call that thing — The SpruceShooter 2000? The Pine Twine-o-Matic?) Never is the human will to persevere more apparent to me than when I see someone kneeing a full-sized tree up a stoop, and you just know that dude’s gonna drag the sucker to his fifth-story walkup, God bless. It may seem impossible to find your holiday smile when you want to flip everyone the bird (or plan a move to Canada), but I have a New Yorker’s disposition — resilient and resourceful, adaptable above anything else. Not too long ago, the city’s citizenry made a folk hero of a rat wrestling a slice of pizza down some subway stairs. We can do this, people.
We are now in the midst of the season of Advent, which begins the fourth Sunday before Christmas. A time of spiritual suspense in anticipation of the birth of Jesus, Advent is also a period that offers the opportunity for great stillness and contemplation of the meaning of our faith and how we live it. I am using these days to remind myself that graceful resistance in the face of hostility is a sacred act. Faith is not a passive activity, its benefits not abstract. Advent is a prompt to hold onto hope in the dark.
In her poem “The Birth of Wonder” Madeline L’Engle wrote, “When I am able to pray with the mind in the heart, I am joyfully able to affirm the irrationality of Christmas.” When we feel powerless and despairing, we can actively engage the mind in the heart and embrace this holiday and its message of miraculous promise. We can love our neighbor and welcome the stranger. We can affirm the political power of compassion. And we can exalt the subversion of irrational joy.
Lily Burana is the author of three books, most recently the critically acclaimed I Love a Man in Uniform: A Memoir of Love, War, and Other Battles. Follow her on Twitter @lilyburana