Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean. (Matthew 23.25-26)
In what’s become a “Daily Show” holiday tradition, Jon Stewart—the mock newscast’s corrosively irreverent, acutely perceptive anchor—has delighted in lampooning this year’s dispatches from the so-called “War on Christmas.” Stewart’s gripe, echoed by millions from every creed and persuasion, takes aim at far-right extremists who blindly equate Americanism with Christianity. Year after year, they scour the landscape for examples of jurists, officials, and merchandisers deleting “Christ” from “Christmas.” This just in: the Littleburg city council has banned the Nativity crèche from the firehouse lawn. This just in: a judge has enjoined Gopher Gulch Elementary from dramatizing Luke 2 at its year-end assembly. This just in: a new Big Store policy prohibits employees from wishing their customers a merry Christmas. This just in: Godless hoodlums who hate Jesus are trying to destroy everything He and America stand for!
This media-spun, 50s-style Red-and-Green Scare reached a new low several days ago, when Bill O’Reilly—FOX News’s über-“American” and self-professed “Christian” pundit—fired back in a commentary capped with this statement: “Jon Stewart is going to Hell.” O’Reilly’s freedom to disagree with, even to disparage, Stewart is a sacrosanct American right. Yet, as a Christian, surely he’s aware no Scripture authorizes him to sentence Stewart or anyone else to eternal damnation. Has he forgot—or does he not care—that the Babe he’s so consumed with enshrining will become the Rabbi Who preaches, “With the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get”? (Matthew 7.2) Is he more concerned with winning arguments than compromising his witness and endangering his soul? Is not deigning to speak for God the height of what he decries—godlessness? There lies the hypocrisy of Red-and-Green Scare tactics. Leveraging condemnation to force Christ down non-believers’ throats is patently unchristian. It’s the antithesis of perfect love that, according to 1 John 4.18, “casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” In threatening Stewart with Hell, it is O’Reilly who should be afraid.
All Show, No Substance
Need it be said that Red-and-Green Scare perpetrators run afoul of cherished American principles like inclusiveness, religious diversity, and separation of Church and State? Americanism cannot—and must never—be equated with Christianity for reasons any seventh grader can understand. Saying we’re a “Christian” nation implies non-Christian citizens are un-American. That’s just ridiculous—especially since they’re not exempt from taxes, military service, regulatory compliance, and other civic duties. (Were that so, no doubt many advancing the far right’s “Christian” agenda would flock to alternative beliefs.) The Founders’ resistance to mixing faith and politics was born of a uniquely American desire to safeguard religious liberty. The Pilgrims settled our nation on conviction that freedom to live by one’s beliefs is immune to government mandate and interference. They were so committed to protecting privacy of faith that they outlawed any public religious expression whatsoever—to the point that decorating the exterior of one’s home for Christmas or saying “Merry Christmas” on the street resulted in stiff fines. If the Red-and-Green Scare muckrakers actually lived in the colonial days they mythologize as our nation’s halcyon Christian era, they’d be tossed in jail, never to be seen or heard again.
As an informed citizen, the “War on Christmas” charade strikes me as preposterously anti-American. As an informed believer, it appalls me. It exploits the Prince of Peace’s birth to excuse bloodthirsty partisan attacks. It perverts the season centered on Christianity’s holiest day into a run of hollow days that defile the Christ Child by refuting His message. It astounds me that Christmas’s uncalled-for defenders can say, “Peace on Earth, goodwill to all people” and “Go to Hell” in one breath. I tremble to think how many confuse their phony tantrums with Christ’s true ways. And before my anger rises up, my heart sinks in dismay that otherwise intelligent people have no clue their self-righteous façade exposes their corruption and bigotry. Their devout rhetoric can’t quell one’s sense they’re to our time what many Pharisees were to Jesus’s: all show and no substance.
In Matthew 23, Jesus gears up to describe the times preceding the Second Coming by pronouncing seven woes on leaders who poison the faith climate of His day. His list of complaints reads like a modern op-ed diatribe that pulls down the “Christian” extremist platform plank-by-plank. He charges them with: religious exclusion; breeding hatred; placing trust in riches; neglecting justice, mercy and faith; whitewashing rotten ideas; and revising history to enhance their image. Dead-center of His furious rampage against their recklessness, Jesus unleashes His fourth outrage: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.” (v25-26)
In one fell swoop Jesus crushes the presentation-is-everything myth that media mavens, spin doctors, politicians, and religious pretenders swear by. Just as pinning a flag to our lapels doesn’t make us patriots, defending public Nativity scenes and saying “Merry Christmas” don’t make us Christians. If our motives are impure, our faith is a figment of imagination. Our words ring as hollow as our souls. This isn’t one man’s opinion, a bone of left-right contention, or open for debate. It’s a matter of record, spoken 2000 years ago by the One we claim to serve. If we disagree, we might consider stepping away from the pulpit and off the air long enough to get on our knees and discuss the issue with Him.
Keeping “Christ” in “Christmas” means nothing if we don’t keep Christmas holy. Declaring, “Jesus is the reason for the season,” is futile if our reasons for saying so contradict the purpose of His birth. It’s silly of us to sing, “Peace on Earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled,” while creating disharmony, bullying people, and preaching favoritism. O’Reilly’s impudence was foolish—and disheartening—twice over. First, as a Jew, Stewart subscribes to a faith that doesn’t believe in Hell; it was a hollow threat. But second, O’Reilly took a hammer to his own piety and revealed the hollowness it masks. The “War on Christmas” is a humbug. It proves, once again, there’s nothing to the myth that presentation is everything.
We adore You, O Christ—Prince of Peace, Joy of our desiring, and Mediator between God and humanity. May we not pass this holiest of seasons without searching our hearts. Give us grace to purify ourselves through and through. Make us holy vessels for Your glory and honor. Amen.
The Red-and-Green Scare’s “War on Christmas” is a humbug that contradicts the purpose of Jesus’s birth and everything He represents.
The “War on Christmas” malarkey hastens us to renew the vow St. Francis of Assisi immortalized in his prayer. As Sarah McLachlan’s haunting rendition reminds us, we are instruments of God’s peace, love, pardon, faith, hope, light, and joy. We are called to bear Christmas’s vitally needed gifts to the world, not to stomp them to bits in a phony war to defend its public expression.