Now that Christmas is upon us, we have seen many more disputes about Christmas symbols on public property. Many Christians see this as a “War on Christmas”. They rightly object to the legal and social suppression of religious symbols and speech, and object to a radical secularist view that denies the origins of our nation’s history and institutions in a Christian culture. Secular-minded people, for their part, see instead a threat of the establishment of religion. It’s a mess.
There is no doubt that our courts have contributed to this. The Supreme Court has made a complete hash out of the First Amendment. Justice Thomas, earlier this year, spoke of the Court’s “erratic, selective analysis of the constitutionality of religous imagery on government property”, and said the the Court’s “precedents remain impenetrable, and the lower courts’ decisions… remain incapable of coherent explanation”.
The Court has left us with a situation where a manger scene may be put up on public property, but only if it is accompanied by secular symbols — like Santa and Frosty — and is displayed for a secular purpose, such as a recognition of history, or an expression of some amorphouse “civic religion”. This kind of nonsense leads to such things as speaking of the “real meaning of Christmas” in terms of greeting card nostrums, or the absurd “U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree” that has no symbols of Christianity at all, but instead celebrates — believe it or not — the wonders of California.
But a Christmas that is secular enough — tame enough — for the approval of the government for display on the courthouse steps has no place in a Christianity worth professing.
Our faith is far too radical to be approved by any earthly government.
We start from the premise that, as Pope John Paul wrote, “The redeemer of man, Jesus Christ, is the centre of the universe and of history.” The small baby in His Mother’s arms makes an extraordinary claim on us — to believe that God has become truly human, and that we are called to surrender our hearts, minds and will to Him and to Him alone.
Our faith in Christ the King compels us to seek to transform the world — including our laws and governments — in light of His gospel. While we are bound to obey earthly authorities, we must always remember that God is above them all, and our duty to Him and His Kingdom transcends all nations and laws, which are mere historical contingencies that will pass away in time.
In many ways, the forces of secularism perceive Christianity more clearly than we do. We easily take our faith for granted, as part of the backdrop of our lives, as a safe and comfortable thing.
The secularists are not so complacent. They rightly see our faith as a threat to their world view. They see that Jesus is not just a nice fellow and a cute baby — they understand that He is powerful, and a bit frightening, and very demanding.
Of course, nobody needs to fear violence from Christians over manger scenes. But make no mistake. Our faith is authentically threatening. Recognizing the true Kingship of Christ will supplant the pretenses and pomps of our human laws, will strike down the sinful structures that divide and degrade humanity, and will establish real justice in the world. Every mountain will be made low, and every valley raised high. The rich will be sent away empty, and the hungry filled with good things. There are many forces prowling about the world that would not be happy with that outcome, and will show their teeth to us in response.
Good. When we see a manger scene, we shouldn’t see a hodgepodge of religious and commercial images that will pass court approval. We shouldn’t see a historical artifact. We shouldn’t even see a heartwarming reminder of our innocent childhood.
We should see Christmas as a threat to our comfortable way of life, a challenge to make Christ the King of our hearts and our society. Nothing less.