House pet Jesus: A Christmas story

nativity

I write this as a vile demagogue who campaigned on the emesis of hate has become president-elect of the USA.

Of all the stories to follow in the train of this disgrace, such as the rise of white nationalism, the daily reports of hate crimes, and the self-serving incompetence of the so-called ‘political elites’, one of the more striking observances is the exit polling of the religious voice.

The Pew Research Centre recorded that an overwhelming 81 per cent of white evangelicals supported said demagogue, but so did 60 per cent of white Catholics and 58 per cent of white protestants. By contrast, those of Jewish, ‘other faith’ and ‘religiously unaffiliated’ polled at 24, 29 and 26 per cent respectively. The conclusion: the white Christian vote voted in support of the basest of human instincts.

If this was not sufficiently troubling, the post-election rhetoric from the religious sector has focused on the need for ‘reconciliation’ and ‘hospitality’, to ‘turn our eyes to Jesus’. This is troubling because it is post-facto.

However pious the language, this is not a prophetic utterance in search of unity and witness; it issues from a position of control and uses religious sentiment to compel the disaffected. It reads as smug, self-righteous, and in defence of a particular Christian ‘brand’. The sincerity of belief should not be in question: as Walter M. Miller Jr, in his 1959 classic A Canticle for Leibowitz, suggests ‘Perhaps Satan was the sincerest of the lot’. In other words, the force with which you hold a belief does not speak to the truth of that belief.

While targeting evangelicals as a genus might encourage schadenfreude within one religious group, note again that a significant majority – 58 per cent – of white protestants voted in a similar vein. It is more a case of the one who is without sin cast the first stone. The point relates much more to the cultural accommodation or ‘domestication’ of the Christian gospel.

With domestication, a problem seen through Christian history, faith marries to a particular cultural norm. This norm becomes the whole of the message and is expressed through particular practices, values and modes of spirituality. To deny this norm is to deny the faith, as such. Should this singular cultural narrative be challenged, a fear response develops, and fear turns into hate, self-defence and the need for control, and the re-imposition of the framing narrative.

Piety mirrors local values. Care for widows, orphans and strangers, the golden rule of love, of self-emptying, of giving not out of plenty but out of need equates to guns, a certain image of religious freedom, late-term abortion, and Supreme Court judges.

What has this to do with Christmas, you may well ask?

The demonstrable event of religious domestication evident within the American election does not develop overnight. It takes time, and occurs as a religious community withdraws into set patterns and narratives and the creation of a habitus. As a consequence, though it might be easy for an outside community to observe problematic cultural liaisons, it is difficult to identify the same forces of domestication within ourselves. Enter Christmas.

One may illustrate the point in a number of ways. Consumerism and marketing is an evident problem, but not quite the focus here. We could talk of pine trees and carols remembering a lovely English pastoral scene, a nostalgic reflection for foreign cultural rhythms and artefacts unrelated to the Christian message.

This too is an issue, but more symptom than problem. Nor does the concern lie in celebration. Christmas is an occasion of joy: Emmanuel, God with us.

The problem lies with the Jesus we present. This Jesus gives us no trouble, no pause. This Jesus does not call us beyond ourselves, outside of the familiar rhythms. Quite the opposite. With this Jesus, Christmas is for the children and this leads us back to fond memories of our own childhood. We feel at home, secure. This Jesus is the house pet at our feet, present and familiar, domesticated.

Yet the biblical story of the God who comes is one of vulnerability: of a political context of empire, of economic order, of a displaced couple, of a pregnant woman forced onto the road, of being poor and without shelter, of inhospitality, of living with the animals, of persecution, of murder, of migration to a land not one’s own.

Christmas is not a narrative of family and security. Christmas is a story of God being born in the shit. It draws our focus to the widow, orphan and stranger and reveals God to be the God of the least. This God is perpetually strange to us, a constant surprise that interrupts our closed narratives.

In an era of Herod, let Emmanuel speak.

John FlettRev Dr John Flett
Pilgrim Theological College

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