Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A state sponsored Christmas? What do you think?

You might be interested in knowing that HR 847 passed last week with flying colors. It would be worth your time to read through the text of this bill, and ponder the implications. Should the state 'officially endorse' Christmas? If so, why does the state also go to great lengths to ban any public displays of Christmas? Fort Collins, CO, has created a "Holiday Display Task Force", a sort of Ebeneezer squad whose job it is to make certain no public properties are tainted with religious displays, not even colored lights. One school in Wisconsin has changed the words of Silent Night to read: "Cold in the Night - Cold in the Night - I wish I were happy and warm - safe with my family, out of the storm - blah blah blah."

How many questions can I ask? Though there are dozens, a few come off the top of my head, and I welcome your response:

1. Is it actually possible to be a purely secularist state, with no public acknowledgment of the cultural role that faith plays in the lives of so many? If so, is it desirable?

2. Is it appropriate to pass this kind of bill as a way of honoring and supporting Christians, while not offering similar kudos to Judaism? How about Buddhism? Islam?

3. Are those who live in a pluralist society doomed to some sort of bland, faith free zone, in all public sectors? This is a real fear in Austria, where church bells and Advent markets still play an enormous cultural role in the December lives of Austrians, whether such cultural rooting has led to genuine faith on behalf of individuals or not.

4. A quick journey further to the east, in Romania and Russia, reveals that the decades of official atheism has left a cultural that is ethically bankrupt, as bribery, graft, embezzlement, and corruption occur at the highest levels in business. Yes, I know about Enron, and the present loan crises. But the difference is that here in our culture there is outrage, while too often our friends further east have not yet grasped a vision for how things could be different. I'd argue that the vision for ethical behavior which has permeated our own culture has been faith based. Like the bells in Austria, public accounting practices, the rule of law, due process, and the balance of powers have their deepest roots in the faith, tainted and myopic as it was (and still is in some ways) of our fathers. Don't tell me you can't legislate morality. Every law is a legislation of morality. The bigger question is, where do these laws come from? Judeo/Christian heritage? Natural law? Common Sense?

Our political season has been filled with candidates trying to be careful when parsing the role their faith will play in politics. Too much and you're a theocracy; too little and you're a rootless secularist.

Thoughts? - and however you respond: "Peace on Earth - And Happy Holidays!"


At 19/12/07 09:25, Anonymous J. Steinbock said...

BRING IT ON!!! Pastor Richard, I used to have all sorts of defensive views on the freedom to display Christmas scenes in public spaces. I have slowly changed my position to one where we should allow other forms of religious scenes as well... Well now I am taking a passive approach whereas if the whole thing is eliminated from public view, then so be it. It goes beyond Christmas scenes and now permeates any sort of public scrutiny/persecution of the Christian ethic. My reasoning is the greatest growth of Christians are when they are persecuted. The Early Church, China today, the Church that flourished and emerged from the Soviet Union's banishment of it...If that is what it takes for people to consider hope, Christ, and faith, then BRING IT ON!!! Maybe it'll do better then the status quo.

At 19/12/07 13:09, Blogger Chad said...

Hi Pastor Dahlstrom, you don't know me but I've been to your church a few times and I enjoy your sermons from the podcast. What I wanted to say is kinda long and convoluted so i'll do my best to be succinct:
as to your question of whether or not a state can be entirely secular and still be a part of a legitimately healthy society, I am undecided.
When I was youner, as a teenager, I adamantly believed in the ability of man to do whatever he set his heart and mind to. It was my firm belief that if a country wanted a secular government that was fair to all, then such a thing would be possible. In many ways I was an atheist (although atheism wasn't my goal).
In the last few years my perspective has changed. Drastically. I have a somewhat more nuanced view of the world and part of that altered perspective is realizing that humans are not the all-powerful, self-determining beings I once thought we were. I have realized that being human means we have certain quirky little needs - like a need for physical interaction with other people, or a need to feel useful, etc. Funny, if I had just listened to my pastors, growing up, and taken them at their word, I would have come to the same conclusion with a lot less grief. I guess you could say that I know first-hand that being human means some things that don't make a lot of sense right away.
Anyway, what I'm getting at here is it is entirely possible that humans need a little faith/religion in their government. I'm not sure whether that is the case as we haven't yet been able to build a completely secular government, but it is a very real possibility.

At 19/12/07 13:28, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a great topic for discussion, Richard. I wrote a post on HR 847 at "Congress on Christmas" on my blog if you're interested. Merry Christmas!

At 21/12/07 09:13, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The powers that be can try to kill the right to religious practice all they want, but they can't kill God. They tried that already, and He rose again. This is not a question of personal freedom, but of being slaves to Christ, not our circumstances. With the complacency in the American church today, maybe a bit of persecution is the very thing we need to truly seek God, not empty religion.

At 21/12/07 09:35, Anonymous thomas said...

Pastor Richard, I'm a relatively recent attendee at your church and I thought I'd offer a few of my own thoughts on your questions:

1. I think that it is possible to have a secular state where faith is actively pushed out of the public square, but I don't think it is desirable. An example that springs immediately to mind is France's current brand of secularism (ex. no religious symbols of any kind can be displayed while attending school, including crosses/hijabs etc.) that has alienated a good portion of the large immigrant muslim population contributing to the problems of violence and segregation in French society (thinking especially of the riots of recent years in the suburbs of Paris).

2. In answer to number 2 I would say no, it is not appropriate to pass a bill honoring Christians over others and providing an approval of Christmas. While it seems counterintuitive, this move signals to me a move to a more aggressively secular state - a state that suggests that a religious holiday can only be celebrated with the approval of the government. If we celebrate a move like this as a church (as I'm sure some have), perhaps we reveal our lack of faith in the life and vitality of the church, and the public life of the church, separate from the spheres of state power. I think there is potential for good legislation concerning public displays of religion, but I don't think this is it.

Neither would I argue for a passive stance concerning faith in the public square - we must do what we can to follow Christ in the public square whether we find ourselves in agreement or opposition to the state. In Matthew 22:21 Christ seems to undermine the power of Caeser by putting limits on his position and I've read somewhere that the rhetorical devices he uses really is more subversive than that and what he really is saying in the statement is that everything is God's (I don't know Hebrew or ancient near eastern idioms though, so I won't say that with any authority). Regardless of how you interpret it the question I ask myself is why would we give to caeser something that is clearly God's, why would we seek approval from caeser what God has already blessed - caeser's approval and praise of a celebration of God's incarnation does not bring glory to that celebration, it takes it away, because it places the state in a position of judgment over that which it has no right to judge from a Christian perspective. What do you think?

At 21/12/07 16:17, Anonymous katie kilgore said...

Richard - I am going to start with my thots on question #2: Is it appropriate to pass this kind of bill as a way of honoring and supporting Christians, while not offering similar kudos to Judaism?
I believe we do honor and support Judiasm. I noticed years ago at a local elementary school "Holiday Concert" that all the 'carols' were about santa, reindeer, snow, snowmen, etc. with no kudos to any of the Christmas/Christian aspect of Christman. And yet, the Jewish kids got up and sang Jewish songs as part of the concert. I was somewhat appalled as Hannakuh is a religious celebration. If we can sing Hannakuh songs at these concerts, why can't we sing true Christmas carols? I think it should be opened up to all to honor their God at the appropriate times in their liturgical calendars.

At 7/1/08 14:35, Blogger C Harwick said...

I don't think you can blame Russia's ethical bankruptcy solely on Communism; it's more of a "take what you can while you can" mentality that's been fostered by millennia without the rule of law, Communism just being a happy (or at least different) face on the same thing.

As for the bill, I think you've asked the right questions, and I think it cheapens Christmas more than it honors Christians. I often wonder why so many Christians feel the need to get the government to validate their faith with stuff like this, as if it wouldn't be just as true under Pagan Rome or Communist China.


Post a Comment

<< Home