“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?"
Let’s try that again with a modern translation that takes a few liberties:
“The people were arguing about how to please God, which for them was an important question. One person said that we could please God by decorating just the right way. ‘That’s not the way,’ said another person, ‘God wants us to say his name in public and for God’s name to appear all over the place.’ A third person suggested that God would be impressed by displays of wealth in the honor of God. And a fourth person said that God would be most pleased if we sent our sons and daughters to die in wars fought in the name of God.
“But, then the prophet spoke and said that God doesn’t want us to do any of that. God just wants us not to hurt one another, and to love each other and care for the vulnerable. God wants for us to live in peace. God also wants us not to worry about right way to worship, because if we treat each other with kindness, God doesn’t care how we worship.”
So, the other week I was fixated on and pre-occupied with thinking about that Homeowners Association in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, the one that threatened to fine a resident for displaying a Christmas wreath shaped as a peace sign. News stories like this always come up (don’t they?) day after day, and week and after week. When I hear about news stories like this I attempt to live by a rule that I have for myself, which is that if you allow stories like these to jerk you around by your emotional chain, you’ve agreed to surrender some part of your sanity and your liberty.
And just when you think you’ve found the craziest “sign of the apocalypse” story, along comes one that is even crazier. For example, you read that the hottest selling Christian video game (did you know that they make Christian video games?) is a video game version of Left Behind in which you and your Christian militia roam through the streets of a post-apocalyptic New York City killing United Nations forces who are the bad guys. I’m not making this up. And after you complete a kill, your video game character prays in order to clean its soul. How insane is that?
So, every part of my sanity, every part of my best self, every inclination not to get taken in was telling me that I should not stoop down and add my name to the list of people who let things like this raise their blood-pressure. I was telling myself, “Whatever you do, Thom, do not get suckered into feeling like you have to talk about the so-called ‘War on Christmas.’ You don’t even watch cable-news, Thom. And your parishioners mostly do not care that a couple of ‘truthy’ talking heads have deemed that it is a big deal whether crèches or menorahs get displayed on town hall lawns, and whether people wish each other a ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Holidays.’
So, even though I should know better than to go down this road, I will say that being fixated on decorations is called, in religion, “formalist” thinking. It is a kind of formalism to worry about decorations or whether incantations are properly spoken. Formalism is the elevating of the forms of religious expression over the content of religious action. With formalism, what’s written on the sides of buildings, what’s spoken from the mouths of officials or ordinary people, and what’s displayed in public are given more weight than how we treat each other. The Bible, time and time again, strongly speaks against formalism. The prophet Micah says that God doesn’t want us to sacrifice rams in a ritually pure fashion, or make a big show. God wants us to be just and merciful. The prophet Amos says that God is not impressed with celebratory feasts; God does not delight in solemn assemblies, but God wants us to “let justice roll down like waters and peace like an ever-flowing stream.”
In Unitarian Universalism, these same sentiments have been expressed through the years. The 19th Century minister Theodore Parker distinguished between the permanence of truth and the transient nature of all forms. Over the years, Unitarian Universalism has made anti-formalism into a high art, albeit in the form of ritual minimalism. Forms are powerful though, have no doubt about that. If you have ever craved ritual, you know that much. But we should never confuse the seductiveness of forms with the idea that God actually cares one way or another about them.
Accordingly, I want to change the preposition. Instead of the War ON Christmas, I want to talk about the War AND Christmas. If you just stop to think about it, combining a peace sign and a Christmas wreath is not exactly mixing oil with water. Peace has always been thematically intertwined with Christmas:
Christmas marks the birth of Jesus, who is called by many the Prince of Peace. “Peace on earth” is a frequent salutation on Christmas cards. And just think about some of the lyrics in the hymns we sing:
“And peace shall over all the world its ancient splendors fling.”
“O come, and turn all hearts to peace, that greed and war at last shall cease.”
“Peace on the earth, goodwill to men, from heaven the news we bring.”
“Sleep in heavenly peace.”
And if that is not enough, I should mention that “It came upon the Midnight Clear” was written by a Unitarian minister in opposition to the war with Mexico, which Unitarians widely criticized as a war of imperialism and greed. (I grew up in the church where that hymn was written and first sung, by the way.)
And then there is the story from World War I of British and German soldiers coming out of the trenches on Christmas Day and singing “Silent Night” together. I presume that this is why we have a German version of “Silent Night” in our hymnal. I must admit that the cynic in me has never been able to enjoy this World War I story. I am interested in the expression of religion that leads us to choose to refrain from killing each other for more than one night. I am also aware that the wars we fight nowadays will not feature the sides coming together to sing “Silent Night.” The Taliban and al Qaeda are not going to sing “Silent Night.”
To better understand peace and Christmas, we might look back to the first Christmas. Jesus was born in Roman controlled territory in Judea, at a time, it’s been said, that was neither spectacularly violent, nor spectacularly distinguished by warfare. The Israelites were a conquered, dominated people living under the imperial rule of the pax romana, “the peace of Rome.” The insurgency was led by dagger-men, known as sicaroi, who carried out assassinations against both Roman soldiers and Jews who were deemed to be too cooperative with Rome. Some of these insurgents were inspired by the apocalyptic religious vision of messianic Jews from Qumran, who gave us the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were a type of resistance literature.
But, the point is that if we want to equate Christmas with peace, we can’t think of peace in specific terms, as opposition just to the Romans, specifically. Peace has always had a broader and more universal meaning. It has meant justice, freedom, liberation, and kindness.
An episode from our denominational history will help to illustrate how we think tend to grapple with peace. As the United States prepared to enter World War I, this subject came up on the floor of the American Unitarian Association general assembly. The moderator of the AUA at the time was William Howard Taft, a position he served after his presidency and before being named Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. It was on the floor of the general assembly, the story goes, that Rev. John Haynes Holmes, a pacifist, and Taft, who favored intervention, engaged in an extended and bitter argument about the morality of the United States entering into the First World War.
I like to tell this story as an example of how our movement and our churches are big enough to contain both pacifists and those who believe that there are times when war is necessary or morally defensible. May it always be so that we have this diversity of opinion. And, may we always be willing to engage with one another in spirited discussion over such an important issue, although we may aspire to a less acrimonious debate than the one in which Holmes and Taft engaged.
When the Iraq War began I was the student minister at First Parish in Needham, serving under the mentorship of John Buehrens, a past-president of our movement. Four months before the war commenced, I filled in for John during the week or so he traveled to Iraq along with a delegation from the National Council of Churches that included former-Senator Bob Edgar. In the Spring of that year, shortly before accepting the invitation to become your minister, I led a prayer service on the evening the Iraq War commenced. (Whether we call that the beginning of the war, or say that the decade of sanctions, enforced no-fly zones, and intermittent bombings and missile attacks were also acts of warfare is a question I’ll let you answer.)
But, in my nearly three and a half years here at SMUUCh I don’t think I’ve ever addressed the war directly. I’ve mentioned it in passing, prayed for our soldiers and for all those who have been harmed by this war or are at risk of being harmed. I’ve used this war as an illustration. I’ve also been criticized by those who wish I would have spoken about this war more frequently and passionately. I’ve also been criticized by those who say I speak about too much, or speak of it wrongly. My philosophy is that you preach forty times a year and you say what you feel called to say. You listen, but you’ve got to come from a place of authenticity and conviction, or else what’s the point?
And Christmas comes around again, and you think about what you want to say, and mostly you don’t want to feed the community something sentimentalized or syrupy. Because you know, you know, that you do a disservice to Christmas when you sentimentalize it. And peace, it occurs to you, is often just as sentimentalized. “Get real. Peace just isn’t realistic. It isn’t practical.”
Which isn’t true, by the way. Peace, and not just peace but pacifism, was completely, utterly, and totally practical and powerful and effective for Gandhi. Non-violence was absolutely, entirely, and completely practical and powerful for Martin Luther King.
And this war:
This war with approximately three thousand American service-men and -women dead…
This war with its tens of thousands of American service-men and –women injured, without counting the “psychological casualties”…
This war with uncountable Iraqi citizens dead. How many? 100,000?…
This war with its five hundred billion dollar price tag…
This war of which to say that it has devolved into a civil war would be considered an optimistic assessment…
…I do not see what makes us think that war is practical.
The recent report from the bi-partisan Iraq Study Group details the situation in Iraq. They describe a volatile and deteriorating situation, rising levels of violence, and an increasingly suffering Iraqi population. They also describe the American armed forces – the most powerful army in the world – as worn down, improperly supported, and stretched near the breaking point. If you read the report, it is surprisingly candid and heartbreakingly dire.
Bill Sinkford quotes the Quaker social worker Mary Parker Follett as saying, “We have thought of peace as passive and war as an active way of living. The opposite is true. War is not the most strenuous life. It is a kind of rest cure compared to the difficulty of reconciling our difficulties. From war to peace is not from the strenuous to the easy existence. It is from the futile to the effective, from the stagnant to the active, from the destructive to the creative way of life.”
How is it that we so easily sentimentalize peace? How is it that we so easily domesticate it? How is it that we so easily sentimentalize Christmas? How is it that we are content to reduce it to forms without substance?
I want to end today by sharing a radical and powerful Christmas image, one that is not sentimentalized or domesticated. Here I am paraphrasing John Buehrens as he paraphrases James Luther Adams and George Hunston Williams:
“When Orthodox Christianity speaks of the three offices of Christ – as prophet, as priest, and as king – the real meaning is more radical than even we want to admit. It means that just as Word becomes flesh, just the divine comes to dwell in human form, that each of us is called to take up these offices, what Adams called the priesthood and prophethood of all believers, the latter for the ministry of healing and the former for the prophetic concern for justice. And spiritually, the spiritual significance of incarnation is that it is the spark of divinity in each of us that is given to rule and command our lives. Caesar is not in charge, and neither are any of the other powers and principalities.”
With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the Lord on high? What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. Let justice roll down like waters and peace like an ever-flowing stream. Happy Holidays. Merry Christmas. Peace on earth, to all goodwill.