Monday, June 5, 2017

Dear Friends:
I realize it has been a while since I posted. Copied below is a transcript of the speech I gave at the closing ceremonies of the second annual Interfaith Solidarity March LA, on Sunday, April 2nd, 2017.


We are at war.  Not with Iraq.  Not with Afghanistan, or Iran, or any other nation.  Not with humans.  We are at war with racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, ethnocentrism, religiocentrism, duplicity, corruption, greed, apathy, fear, hatred, willful ignorance, violence, and many other spiritual faults.  We are at war with all of these, and up until recently, we have been losing miserably!

But we are not going to win this war with guns or bombs or swords, not physical ones. 

And we are not going to win by treating other humans as enemies—either our own or those of God.  We often think that we are at war even with our own countrymen, liberals against conservatives, Democrats versus Republicans.  Rather, it is the forces of darkness that will us to be at odds with one another.  But the only way we will win the war is to realize that we are all on the same side.  It is a diabolical spirit, whether you take that literally or figuratively, which puts us at opposite ends of the spectrum, fighting over nomenclature and ideology, rather than seeking common ground.  We will only win this war if we seek compromise with our opponents.  Some of the people who most need to hear our words are those who are not here.  And it’s neither their fault, nor ours.  It’s a process.  We have to invite them.  We have to include them more and more. And if they resist, we need to try harder. 

If we reach out, first to the most willing, those of churches and synagogues, people of faith who may not agree with us, but who are indeed people of faith, we will begin the peacemaking process.  And we must honor their opinions, listen to their concerns, treat them as valid, try to understand their unique perspectives, and then—and  only then—can we possibly seek to find common ground, and to work together to solve the problems that haunt us all!  It won’t be easy, but this is the only way the human race will progress beyond the primitive, tribalistic spirit of constant aggression and xenophobia. 

The Apostle Paul talked about this 2,000 years ago. In his First Letter to the Thessalonians, early on in his career as a Xn missionary, he hints at the concept of the “whole armor of God”, a beautiful metaphor for godly righteousness not of this world.  Later, in Ephesians, he speaks more extensively, fleshing out this concept.  And from across time, he warns us not to treat our human opponents as deadly enemies.  Many people miss the point of this, getting caught up in the metaphor of arms and armor—particularly men, I have found—like little boys who have found something of interest in the scriptures, something to captivate their imaginations, full of soldiers and swords.  And they imagine that Paul is actually talking about physical arms and armor.  But Paul is not speaking of earthly battle.  He is speaking of a spiritual one, which we are still waging today. 

It might be helpful to recite, at length, his words about this from Ephesians 6.

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

But I think his earliest mention of this concept, in 1 Thessalonians, is not only the most succinct, but the most salient, because it speaks to all of us, from any faith.  He states, “But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.” (1 Thess 5:8).  My friends, those are the three keys, which he mentions elsewhere as what will abide: faith, love, and hope.  And he reminds us that the greatest of these is LOVE.  Paul’s wisdom has not been surpassed by the realpolitik of modern times, which tells us that the wisdom of the ancients is no longer valid, or that the compassion of Jesus Christ is antiquated.  I assert that it is the time for those of faith—and even those of no faith, the people of secular conscience and humanistic reason—to stand up and proclaim our message of peace, to remind the jaded rest of the world that we are to be listened to.  Regardless of who is elected to public office, the rightful leaders of this country are the leaders of faith and conscience, and it is their time to be heard.  The great faith leaders of this generation are here in this room, the Gandhis and Martin Luther Kings of their time; and it is their time to lead and to be heard. 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

An Easter Message of Peace, With a Tinge of Foreboding

In Nazi Germany, and prior to the rise of the Third Reich, there was a widely propagated sentiment that no matter how vehemently a person might protest that they knew one decent Jew, there was really no such thing.  That inside each and every Jew was a war profiteer, a leech upon the jugular vein of German society just waiting to cash in.  Waiting to take over and destroy the fabric of precious Aryan culture and to spread their filth everywhere.[i]  And that as hard as one might try to find one decent Jew, the existence of such an animal was a mere myth.  Today, the parallel to this is that in 21st century America, we have a growing and more vociferous group of people who claim that there is no such thing as a decent Muslim.  That at the heart of their religion is a core of evil that hates Christian society, that hates Jews, that hates America, that hates democracy, and that each and every Muslim is just here in the US to profit from our hard work, and that they—the Muslim, as a category—are just waiting to be mobilized as terrorists, to destroy and kill all of us. 

As a scholar of religion, I have studied many world religions, and have a good grasp on the core values of almost every world religion, some more deeply than others.  And I am a specialist in Early Christianity and Second Temple Judaism, so I am not without knowledge of the core values and the varied, and often highly embarrassing history of each of the two root traditions of the Judeo-Christian faiths.  To speak of Islam as if it were inherently a religion bent on the destruction of Judaism and Christianity, that it is rooted in violence and destruction and subjugation of all non-Muslims, is patently untrue, and is not supported by history.  It is a vicious and nefarious lie, rooted in a willful ignorance—arrogance—the same malignant credulity of mankind that led to the Holocaust.  And frankly, I am fearful that we, as a nation, are on the same exact road as Nazi Germany was on in the 1920s and 1930s—far closer than anyone might expect. 

NO ONE is saying that extremists do not exist within the Islamic faith, just as they do in every faith. But to label an entire religion of 1.6 billion people based upon the actions of perhaps less than a fraction of 1% worldwide, is not only madness, it is bigotry, and it is unacceptable.  As a scholar, and as an activist in the field of interfaith dialogue, I work with, and personally know more Muslims than most non-Muslim Americans will ever know.  I have worked with thousands of them, and personally know hundreds of them.  These are good people, whose religion is a lot closer to Judaism and Christianity than you would ever imagine, unless you were educated in this field. 

Over the last several years, I have brought thousands of my students to mosques, among the many field trips to different houses of worship that they attend, and not a single student, after the fact, has ever felt that Islam was inherently a nefarious religion.[ii]  In fact, I have placed on the IRTPJ blog, which you can read if you like, the academic paper of one such student who was so shocked to see how wrongly the media portrays Islam, that she wants to share this insight with others.[iii] 

There are some friends and acquaintances of mine, who happen to be of a more politically conservative mindset, but are more distinguishable by their bigotry than their conservatism per se—some of these friends happen to feel that all Muslims are essentially evil, that Islam is a nefarious religion, bent on the destruction of Democracy, Christianity, and America, and that deep down underneath, they are all terrorists, just waiting to be activated or awakened from their sleeper cells.  Sound familiar?  Just a few weeks ago, I helped lead a major interfaith march in downtown LA which was attended by throngs of peaceful Muslims whose only hopes were to share with America their love for being in this land, to share that they are peaceful people, and to ask that their neighbors stand up with them against bullies and bigots, and help to reject violent extremism in the name of religion.  And what do you know, not a single major US news source was there to cover it—go figure.  Not the first time that has happened when Muslims are involved.  But who was there?  We had LA Sheriff’s Department there to support, including several LASD deputies who happen to be Muslims themselves. Are they terrorists?  LASD didn’t think so, or they wouldn’t have hired them.  We also had LAPD out in force to support us.  The Captain of the Olympic Division marched right alongside of me in support of Muslims.  Is he cowed by the wiles of terrorists?  What about the LAPD Reserve Officer who is on the board of the Islamic Center of Southern California, which took part in our march and was the final destination?  Or the LAPD officer who is part of Community Affairs interfaith outreach, also a Muslim—is he a terrorist?  And what about my students who are Muslim, some having come from other countries to study here, others born here—are they terrorists?  What about the man who often heads the tours for my students at his mosque, who is by day a cancer researcher whose work has contributed extensively to cancer research and whose findings might one day save your life or that of a loved one?  Is he a terrorist?  Some people claim that he looks like one, since his traditional beard and garb make him reminiscent of Osama Bin Laden.  But he has contributed more to the well-being of our society than many of you ever will in your entire lives.  What about my doctors?  The Iranian Shi’ite Muslim doctor who helped save my life when I nearly died of bacterial meningitis in 2001.  Is he a terrorist?  How about your doctors?  You are likely to have at least one Muslim doctor in the course of your life, just as many of your doctors have likely been Jewish in the past.  Are they all terrorists?  Why don’t you say that to their faces while they are stitching you up after bypass surgery, or administering your chemotherapy. 

I want to address a couple of points here.  Many people throw around terms that they seem to think define Muslims the world over, yet they do not even know what these terms mean.  They have made up meanings for those terms that serve their willfully ignorant views of Muslims, that paint them as the bad guy of some 1980s action film.  Terms like Jihad and Shariah and Infidel are tossed around as if everyone knows what these mean.  I will not launch into a lesson about these here, preferring to handle that another day.  But the concept of being an infidel has surfaced, with many people putting an Arabic character ostensibly meaning “infidel” on their social media profiles, as if to say that they are proudly “owning” their identity as “infidels” as part of their resistance to the onslaught of radical Islam, which is trying to convert or slaughter everyone.  Allow me to remind you that the term “infidel” was always a term used primarily by Christians and in a Christian context, well before the advent of Islam.  And it is not the most accurate way of translating the Arabic word kaafir or kufr—which simply means non-believer and depending upon how one uses the term, can be just as innocuous as the term is in English—“someone not of our faith,” or goyim in Hebrew.  It’s all in the tone of how you use the term.  By putting this Arabic character on your social media profiles, you are not resisting anything except your own education!  You are not insulting anyone except the angels of your better nature.[iv] 

What about these so-called “No-go zones” that have ostensibly appeared all over Europe and America?  As commonly defined by conservative news sources, they do NOT exist in America, and likely not in Europe either.  There is no hard evidence for these existing in America at all.[v]  They are a myth.  Even in Britain, the reports of a no go zone were sparked by the campaign of a radical cleric named Anjem Choudary, now on trial[vi], and his neckbearded leprechaun of a henchman posting decals on lamp-posts around Britain[vii], which have no more authority and enforceability than your teenager posting a sign on his or her door that says “kids only, adults keep out!”  This does not qualify as a juvenile no-go zone.  Most Muslims don’t care what you do with your private time and are happy to be protected by the U.S. Constitution, which is the closest form of government to that which is fostered by the real concept of Shariah, which just means maintaining a Godly and compassionate lifestyle—much like how we understand Biblical values—and not what it is often misinterpreted by bigots the world over. 

And although this kind of bigotry is most commonly practiced by those from Conservative camps, it ultimately has nothing to do with conservatism.  It’s bigotry plain and simple.  I am glad that I have plenty of conservative friends that repudiate this kind of bigotry and realize that it has no place in real Christianity either.  Frankly this kind of rhetoric has a limited lifespan.  My job, both as an educator and as an activist in religious tolerance, is to make sure that it ends with these bigots and doesn’t get passed on to their children’s or grandchildren’s generations.  Even if they’re not willing to see reason, blinded by their own willful ignorance, at least their descendants will see that this is the same kind of outdated thinking that led to the Holocaust and nearly wiped Judaism off the face of this earth. 

All of you listening to this have a choice to make.  You have to decide what side of history you want to be on.  Do you want to be remembered along with the Nazis, as those whose fear of the other, of the unknown, allowed them to preach hatred and violence, all under the guise of protecting your cultural values from the purported violence of another?  Do you want to be reviled by your children and their children as bigots, much like we now ridicule the ideologues of the ante-bellum South who thought that slavery brought immense good to society and provided a civilizing influence to their slaves?  Or how we now shake our heads and cluck our tongues at the outdated sentiments of the post-bellum South, believing that the Black Man, as a category, would bring ruin upon their Lily White society of Jim Crowe and lynchings?  Or how much of the world, even America, was happy to rid themselves of the perfidious Jew, another unwanted category, and how large portions of Christian Europe were happy to glibly stand by and watch as the Nazis rounded up their Jewish neighbors, as if somehow, the Jew had earned this fate by being a “murderer of Christ.”  Is that how you want to be remembered, as one whose place in history is beside these ne’er do wells?  Bullies and bigots alike?  We stand at a crossroads here in America.  If we cultivate these sentiments, we run the risk of having our children shake their heads at our memories, saying, “never again.”  Or we can reject hatred, and do as the Lord asked us, and treat the sojourner with respect.  I know what I choose, and I am not going to allow my friends, my colleagues, my neighbors, Muslims or Jews or Christians or otherwise, to be bullied by bigots.  I will not stand quietly by.  Not on my watch. 

Happy Easter, folks.  Ask yourselves what Jesus would do right now. 

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Conversation with the CIA

In recent times—in the wake of Furguson, Missouri, and the many other places in which police brutality has reared its ugly head—it has become almost axiomatic, industry standard, among liberal audiences to presume the worst about all members of law enforcement, as well as most government agencies.  In my interfaith work, I have had the opportunity to work with a good number of people in law enforcement and a variety of government agencies who are truly good people.  And I cherish these burgeoning friendships and working relationships; they present a good face to law enforcement and government, particularly those who are working with the interfaith community and are helping to dispel fears about Muslims.  As a scholar, I am taught to see that there are always two sides to any story and that there are good and bad people in every group or organization.  And while it is no secret that I have been a lifelong critic of the CIA and other clandestine government agencies which regularly engage in covert actions that push the envelope (and sometimes tear it up completely) of legality, I am not so na├»ve or prejudiced as to think that the CIA is composed entirely of psychopaths and sociopaths whose utter amorality allows them to act with impunity against whomever stands in the way of the current regime’s policies.  And I am willing to learn something from educated people, expert in their fields, who have freely shared of their knowledge to help educate students and private citizens. 

On Saturday, November 21st, the Special Operations Division, Community Outreach, of the LA Sheriff’s Department, coordinated with me to present to my students and my campus a conversation with representatives of the CIA.  They brought Randy B., a CIA case worker, to campus to talk about the CIA’s role in international affairs, how it operates, and the good it does to protect the international community.  I have seen Randy B. before at other such forums put on by the LASD Spc Ops, Community Outreach, in coordination with one of their interfaith youth organizations.  Randy is always very informative, his lectures are truly riveting, and his presentations are enjoyable to listen to.  Obviously, he only addresses the positive things that the CIA does and has done, opting to avoid the more controversial topics, but the benefits are quite numerous and quite significant.  Central to his lecture, as a case study, was the role the CIA had in collecting verifiable intelligence about the impending nuclear war between Pakistan and India in the 1990s, and assisting then President Clinton in setting up lines of communication between these two adversaries and helping to avoid what could have ended tens of millions of lives. 

During the second half of Randy’s presentation, by popular request, he then began to address the issue of ISIS and Islamic fundamentalist extremism and violence around the globe, drawing upon the authority of years of expertise and study in this matter, as well as having been directly involved in the Middle East throughout his career.  He had some very interesting things to say, that I wish everyone in America could hear.  Let me repeat, this man is from the CIA and he has more information than your average politician or pundit. 

Here is what I learned:

·       ISIS is more of a revolutionary insurgent organization than a terrorist organization, on account of their attempts to gain land and form a state. 

·       ISIS has nothing to do, materially with Al Qaeda.  Al Qaeda has become, essentially, a franchise; and Al Qaeda in Iraq, the erstwhile roots of ISIS, took its endorsement by Al Qaeda central merely as an attempt to gain legitimacy and to attract funding. 

·       The frequent power grabs and the nature of the internecine struggle identify ISIS as having hardly anything to do with religion, at its core, but they merely use religious and apocalyptic trappings and rhetoric to unify their human drones, as do many other nationalist movements. 

·       While boots on the ground in Iraq and Syria are certainly needed to oppose and limit ISIS’ military advances, the best thing we can do is to discredit them and demonstrate to the world and to potential joiners, that ISIS is a failed state and cannot provide anything good to those who support it, thereby undermining their mission and limiting their growth. 

·       ISIS will not likely use refugee streams to infiltrate a country with sleeper cells or terrorist operatives.  It’s too expensive and risky trying to get such a person past the screening.  It’s much easier to use “home-grown” terrorists, as all the suspects and alleged assailants in the Paris terrorist cases appear to be. 

·       And the best thing that we citizens, stateside, can do to help is to not let their attempts to frighten and divide us succeed; to pull together in the interfaith organizations that we represented at that event, and to avoid fear-mongering and divisive rhetoric. 

Of course, Randy was only able to give his own educated opinions as an academic and a professional, and is unable to speak directly on behalf of the CIA.  But I wish that every Fox News viewer, and every Fox News newscaster/commentator could have heard his lecture. 

Thank you, Randy, for sharing your wisdom.  Thank you, CIA, for collecting this intelligence and allowing Randy to share it with us. 

So, for all those who persist in thinking that ISIS represents Islam, and that there is some kind of Axis of Evil that is run by ISIS and Al Qaeda in concert with one another, think again.  Your Muslim neighbor, oncologist, gas station owner, Cal Tech engineer, Business Administration grad student, and whatnot, are much more representative of Islam than the masked insurgents from thousands of miles away who seek to gain power and glory for themselves, and use religion (as have their counterparts in every other religion) as their excuse—their rationale, their justification.


Saturday, January 24, 2015

Vanderbilt Gang Rape. Society’s Fault???

In the early morning hours of June 23, 2013, a group of excessively inebriated college football players attending Vanderbilt University had non-consensual sex with an unconscious, inebriated young woman.  Our legal system defines this as rape.  And that’s what it is.  But the defendants, several of whom are now standing trial, are attempting to blame the culture at Vanderbilt for forcing them to drink excessively and commit non-consensual sexual acts upon an unconscious young woman.  They are blaming a culture which forced bystanders to ignore what was happening to an innocent victim of a group of sexually opportunistic predators.  This passing the buck of culpability is as old as the phrase, “The Devil made me do it.”

There seems to be plenty of blame to go around, but few are actually ready to accept that blame.  Yes, there is a culture of drunken debauchery that permeates many universities, and has for some time, in which inebriated sex is considered the norm.  However, to claim that the influence of excessive amounts of alcohol—such as the amount defendant Corey Batey claims to have been under, perhaps 14 to 22 drinks in one night—necessarily exonerates or exculpates such an individual of any personal accountability for wrongdoing while inebriated is nonsense.  In our current legal system, a drunk driver is still held accountable for the deaths he or she causes while driving under the influence of alcohol.  One cannot place blame upon the alcohol, exculpating the driver because he would not have done such a heinous thing if he were in his right mind.  Until we live in a world, or benefit from a legal system, that can determine the exact level of malice one might have had prior to the consumption of alcohol, or one in which we can entirely place the blame of one’s actions upon a bottle of booze and send it to jail instead of the one consuming it, we must still hold the individual accountable for his or her crimes.  In this case, it is the individual rapist who must be held accountable, regardless of whether he was excessively inebriated and had no control over his crimes.  Several of them in this case had enough control over their faculties to operate their cell phones and record evidence of the act for posterity—or perhaps bragging rights. 

The same goes for any situation in which some seek to blame a drug or a device or a thing for one’s actions.  Many have attempted to hold firearms manufacturers responsible for the crimes of the few mentally unstable or criminally inclined individuals who seize hold of them and use them to kill innocent people, even children—such as at Sandyhook—claiming that the manufacturers have made these weapons far too easily available to a market that should not have access to these, thereby endangering the rest of society.  This is part of a larger trend in which our helplessness against the unfairness or vicissitudes of life causes us to seek to blame larger structures instead of holding individuals accountable or recognizing that some tragedies are unavoidable and we are helpless in reversing or undoing them.  Or when the perpetrator is no longer available for punishment, as in the case of Adam Lanza, we seek the next nearest target for our blame and anger. 

Yes, there is a culture of omerta in many situations and organizations, in which no one wishes to get involved and stop a crime that they see happening.  Yes, there is a culture in which college students are encouraged to drink to excess and to have sexual relations with ever increasing numbers of people, as if one’s sexual organs were nothing more than toys.  And yes, there is a culture in which people no longer bother to speak up when they see something wrong, preferring to walk away or let someone else handle it, or worse yet, that it’s not their place to speak up and impose their will on someone else—even that of a rapist.  But a culture that exonerates mob mentality, and which seeks to shift blame away from the individual and onto society, does not invest sufficient value in the capabilities of human beings.  Without our individual consciences, we are nothing more than animals—and animals cannot be brought to trial.  Animals cannot be trusted to go to college, nor can they be trusted to operate a government, or safeguard the planet. 

Corey Batey or Brandon Vandenburg (the present defendants), or any in their position, might claim that they simply were too drunk to know what they were doing, and that they have no recollection of what they were doing, nor did they have any control over what they were doing.  Well, unfortunately for them, they were the entities living inside the bodies of drunken young men who failed to stop themselves from acting upon their basest, most animalistic urges to copulate with the nearest available female (willing or not).  And there must be accountability. On one hand, allowing herself to become so drunk that she was unable to ensure her own safety in a strange environment was not the wisest of choices for a young woman—much like exiting one’s vehicle in a wild animal park—but on the other hand, she most certainly did not bargain for this kind of treatment merely on account of becoming so inebriated that she passed out in a room that was not her own.  She did not ask to be raped.  If Batey or Vandenburg were not merely rapists, but murderers as well, who subsequently slit her throat after defiling her unconscious body, would critics still claim that the fault were her own for putting herself in that situation?  I think not.  And defilement is what this is; not a sex act, but an act of violence.  There is a difference.  The choice to be sexually assaulted was not her own.  Her lapse of judgment in engaging in excessive drinking is an entirely separate matter, hardly relevant to the matter of criminal culpability in a case of rape. 

I am reminded of an old college song called “Let Her Sleep Under the Bar, Boys,” in which the narrator playfully disparages the sexual recklessness of college men, and reminds the listener that for the sake and honor of all of their mothers and sisters, and women everywhere, not to molest or be unkind to the inebriated woman in their midst, urging the hearer to protect her and let her sleep it off in a safe place where no one will accost her.  We often consider the old days of all-male colleges as being less sensitive to women, and more rife with a culture of rape.  But I believe this song expresses a particular respect for women that has been lost to us today, even amidst our culture of professed liberation and enlightenment about gender roles.  Vanderbilt and other schools like it could take a lesson from this song from the days of yore.  Leave her alone and show her the respect that is owed to your mother or sister. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Creed

Every few years, I repost a piece I wrote in 2007, just for people's amusement.  Occasionally, people get the theological humor of it.  Here it is again.  Enjoy!  And have a very Merry Christmas!

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to watch Disneyland’s Christmas parade (held nightly inside the park during the Christmas season), and was intrigued to hear Santa Claus inquire of the audience several times, shouting from the back of his sleigh like a tent-revival preacher, “Do you believe in the magic of Christmas?”  While this is surely just a folksy expression of seasonal merriment mixed with shameless self-promotion by Disney, I cannot help but think that the ubiquitous appeal to “the magic of Christmas” is a popular expression of faith that has somehow missed the mark.  Children everywhere are taught from an early age to believe in folk myths which are not at all supported by the doctrine of their religion, and are fully expected to discover their untruth, almost on schedule, much like a rite of passage.  And adults are even enjoined to maintain some semblance of belief —in the “spirit of Christmas”—not so much to promote the charitable and pious spirit behind Christmas, so much as to buoy their purchasing proclivities through the holidays. 

In the end, it is almost as if the insistence of belief in the “sacraments” of Christmas has become somewhat like a Christian creed, more important than the piety that the historical Saint Nicholas tried to spread.  And so in succumbing to this [speaking tongue in cheek of course], I urge you all to accept, memorize, and recite yearly this creed, much like the “Apostles’ Creed” that many of you remember from your Sunday school days.  If you do not accept this creed, you will all be condemned to an eternity of stockings filled with lumps of coal.  And if you do not believe in the magic of Christmas, you will all be damned to a life without Rankin-Bass animated television Christmas specials. 

Christmas Creed

We believe in one Santa Claus, All-knowing,

Maker and bringer of toys,

And in Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer,

Who was born to Donner and Mrs. Donner,

Rejected by the other reindeer,

Traveled with his friends to the Island of Misfit Toys,

And suffered under the Abominable Snowman;

But returning to Christmas Town one foggy night,

Was redeemed by Santa,

And now guides the sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer, delivering gifts in only one night,

To those deemed worthy by Santa, who judges the naughty and the nice.    


We believe in the magic of Christmas,

The residence at the North Pole,

Entry through the chimney,

The role of the elves,

Flying reindeer,

Frosty the Snowman,


And in the twice-checked list, infallible.



Saturday, December 20, 2014

The War on Christmas?

Over the last couple of years, I’ve heard the phrase “The War on Christmas” invoked more and more frequently.  Often, it comes from the mouths of conservative media commentators, but more often it comes from the keyboards of acquaintances on social media who parrot their favorite Neo-Con commentators.  (

Frequently, this phrase is used to deride such innocuous abbreviations as “Xmas”, suggesting that this siglum was only coined in recent years as a way to avoid offending anyone who wasn’t Christian, part of a larger movement to secularize Christmas and to remove the religious elements from it.  This claim blatantly ignores the fact that this cipher has been used ever since the sixteenth century, drawing from the common Biblical Greek abbreviation for Christ—XT—a siglum which was used by the very scribes that copied the manuscripts of the Bible itself.  The term “War on Christmas” is also often used to declaim the phrase “Happy Holidays”, as if that greeting was only coined by post-Clintonian, Politically Correct, hyper-liberals who felt that saying “Merry Christmas” would be offensive to non-Christians, ignoring the fact that this was a very old greeting used by Christians themselves all throughout the 20th century to refer to Christmas and New Year’s, as well as Boxing Day and Advent and the whole of the European centered Christian Winter holiday season.  Said phrase was even enshrined in the immortal Bing Crosby song, “Happy Holidays”, a celebration of Christian values and culture. 

But even more often, I find the claim of there being a War on Christmas attached to arguments over whether traditional displays and symbols of the Christian holidays should be allowed on public lands or in public schools, and so forth.  Often, it is claimed that non-Christian, or better yet, anti-Christian forces have gathered as part of a larger and more insidious war on Christianity and Christendom, and that this War on Christmas is more than just a petty expression of entitlement by those who are protected by democracy and free speech in our God-given Christian country.  [Irony alert] Rather, it is—to those claiming this—an all-out war on everything that we as Americans hold dear, the defamation and the attempted dismantling of Christian (read: White, European) values by the more swarthy and less Christian immigrants that have entered our pure land during a moment of compassion and noblesse oblige when we turned away and let “them” into “our” country.  In my observations, it seems that more often than not, the complaints about rogue Christmas decorations and the offensiveness of the ubiquitous displays of religious celebration often come from middle-class white liberals (often formerly of Christian extraction), and not the Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, or Hindu citizens or immigrants whom these complainants are supposedly sticking up for.  I have found that, on the contrary, more and more secular Jews are celebrating Christmas themselves (i.e. the “Hannukah bush”, etc.) as part of a larger embracing of, and assimilation into, general American culture.  And many of the recent immigrants from non-Judeo-Christian cultures are grateful to be here and are perfectly happy to view and support someone else’s celebratory fervor.  Many of these recent immigrants would not want to rock the boat with incendiary comments even if they were offended by the Christmas decorations.  

But truly, I tell you that there is, indeed, a war being waged against Christmas, but the War on Christmas cannot be encapsulated or recapitulated by a campaign against a phrase or some plastic mistltoe.  And it is more insidious and deleterious than anything that could be waged by a group of disunified, disgruntled liberals.  And it has been going on for quite some time, perhaps as far back as the earlier 20th century.  This war is waged every year, beginning the day after Thanksgiving.  And now, it appears that it has come even earlier this year—on Thanksgiving night itself.  The war is being waged by large, moneyed interests, that seek to convert every American (Christian or not) to their religion, that of Mammon, that of worshipping and willingly allowing themselves to be enslaved by the Almighty Dollar.  The retailers, the conglomerates, all those who stand to make a buck at the expense of Christmas—they are the aggressors in this war that targets not the celebration of the holiday (for they benefit from that!), but the essence of the holiday itself.  Christmas—formerly a holiday that celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ, the founder of the Christian faith, and celebrated universal values such as charity and compassion and peace—has become largely devoid of all that in its popular expressions.  It has traded this in for rampant capitalistic ideals such as greed and excess.  One is expected to spend as much as possible to satisfy the whims and lusts of little children, who hardly understand the meaning of the holiday, so that they will be sated with electronics to make them seem as cool as, or cooler than, their friends.  And without fulfilling this obligation, one is seen as an irresponsible and unloving parent.  One is expected to spend the remaining family funds on gifts for a spouse who would be insulted and enraged if no such gifts were forthcoming.  But an occasional nod to charity is given in the myriad holiday TV specials, after the main character awakens from a dream in which they have become the Scrooge character for 22 minutes, and finally learns the true meaning of Christmas.  But those who are “less fortunate than us” are safely out of sight, only given a few spare coins through the Salvation Army Santa in front of various retail stores, merely to quell our consciences as we continue to consume, in order to satiate the beast that has stolen our souls.  And we are forced to work harder and longer to pay for this addiction to the approval of the beast.  

So where and when is this War on Christmas being waged?  For a number of years, Black Friday has referred to a tradition in which the day after Thanksgiving is commonly considered the first official shopping day of the Christmas season.  But who instituted this?  Is this a religious obligation?  Is this commanded by the Lord in the Decalogue, or is it hidden in some little-known, apocryphal, pseudo-Biblical text?  No, it was sold to us by the moneyed interests and it was bought—hook, line and sinker—by a public hungry for conspicuous consumption.  And so, Christmas became less of a holiday celebration of family and peacemaking and charity, and wholly one of exchanging gifts with those who need them the least.  The shopping itself has become our sacrament, our religious obligation, the beginning of our season of Advent.  But this year marked the first time that many national retail stores ramped up their efforts against the competition, keeping their stores open on Thanksgiving night, so as to elongate the traditional Black Friday.  For a number of years, many have been seen to camp out in front of stores for days on end, even prior to Thanksgiving, just for the chance at a “really amazing deal”.  But this year, retail workers were called back to work right after the dinner hour and were expected to work on Thanksgiving night, to satiate the hunger of the dragon.  But why even stop for dinner?!  Perhaps next year, the stores will even be open during dinner time.  

And then we—shoppers and abstainers alike—see images of people we call crazy, fighting with other customers, in the checkout line, at the shelves, quarreling over the last item, taking umbrage at their rudeness.  We jeer and criticize when we see it on TV, but then we are complicit on minor levels when we let the “holiday rush” infect our mood and we mistreat those around us in traffic, and in parking lots.  We are all susceptible to the poison, the “kool-aid”, as it were.  The stores and the consumers are all complicit in this.  If there were no customers, the stores would have no need to remain open, or to open a day early.  But the consumers have had it drilled into their heads—on TV, on the radio, on the internet—at every turn, that they MUST consume.  Every Christmas song has been re-written myriad times to fit the sales pitch of each advertisement.  None of these is sacred.  The original lyrics are all but forgotten, replaced with the lyrics from the commercial jingles.  We have come to associate these songs less with the holiday itself, and more with the activity of enforced consumption.  It is unavoidable.  Jingle Bells always sells.  

The War on Christmas is being waged by the least likely suspects, not by the non-Christians or the liberals, but the self-proclaimed defenders of Western and Christian values themselves—and Christmas is losing.  Many of you reading this will feel defensive, as if I were attacking you personally.  “I’m just trying to be a good parent,” one might say in their defense.  “I’m just trying to give my family a nice holiday.” “I’m not doing anything differently than anyone else.”  That is correct.  You have fallen under the spell of the Grinch, the Scrooge, the Winter Warlock.  But not by saying “humbug” or rejecting the “holiday spirit”.  You have succumbed to the Prince of Purchase, the enemy of the holiday who stands enrobed in its very garb, chanting its praises.  Before you point fingers at me and go about your business, secretly hating the holiday and its rush and its responsibilities, but publicly extolling its virtues, I ask you to think.  Do you not frequently feel tremendous stress during the holidays, as if the gift-giving were an onerous chore? When was the last time you performed a real act of charity?  When was the last time you truly enjoyed yourself during the Christmas season?  When was the last time you reached out to someone who really needed help and made their Christmas better?  

When I was a child, my mother and father would do a tremendous amount of charity leading up to the holidays.  It was how they celebrated the holidays.  And now that they are gone, I want to share this story with you.  We never exchanged gifts among ourselves for Christmas (or Hannukah, for that matter, since my father was raised Jewish). My father, a school teacher, would receive from the school nurse a number of names and addresses of needy families in the school district.  My mother would spend a significant amount of time shopping for clothing and food (at discounts of course) to deliver anonymously to these families prior to, and sometimes even on, Christmas Eve.  She would never reveal that it was from us; she would always say that Mrs. Flood, the school nurse, had asked us to deliver the gifts on her behalf—thereby protecting their dignity.  This would protect the families from embarrassment at having to face their benefactors.  And at times, we would stay and talk with the families.  The adults would have coffee and conversation.  The children and I would play.  And I was often struck that these families—known to my parents and me as poor—hardly looked poor.  They were not covered in dirt and coal dust.  They were not living in ramshackle tin huts, smeared with dung, accompanied by mangy dogs.  They looked like me and talked like me.  And I came to know that poverty often hides in plain sight.  These were families that the school nurse had verified were impoverished, but they hid it well—for their own pride.  And my mother, truly the driving force behind our efforts, as my father was a bit shy, would derive great pleasure from delivering these gifts to the families.  Being effectively anonymous, she would be granted the knowledge that good had been done and that the world was a little bit happier, but never at the expense of someone else’s dignity.  I am sure some of the families suspected that we were the donors, but most of them played it off as if they did not.  That preserved everyone’s modesty.  

As an adult, in my non-profit work, I try to continue this tradition, even if not in the same manner.  My wife and I do not exchange gifts for holidays or birthdays.  We are satisfied with each other’s presence in our lives.  But we have devoted our lives to charity.  Everything we do is somehow associated with charity, even our professions.  So I encourage each of you reading this, to challenge yourselves.  Without insulting or hurting your loved ones, instead of buying as many gifts, take a larger portion of your holiday gift budget each successive year and donate it to charities.  Pick local ones that will have a directly visible effect.  Pick ones that serve local schools and needy children.  Get involved in such a way that you will be able to see the faces of those you are supporting, but anonymously, so as not to make them feel uncomfortable about the source.  And maybe give your donations in the name of a loved one and let them know that you gave something in their name.  And get your children involved, too.  Have them help you shop for a toy to be given to a needy child.  Have them pick one out that they think the little child would like.  Make it an object lesson in selflessness for them.  Maybe take Christmas Eve with your family and volunteer at a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter.  Or maybe volunteer to deliver for Meals on Wheels, when many such programs close down for the actual holiday itself.  Such programs are often in need of willing volunteers for Christmas Day.  This, I assure you, will produce a holiday experience you will never forget.  

I challenge you to incorporate some of this into your life.  This is the only way we will win against those who wage the REAL “War on Christmas”.