By now, most readers will have seen or heard about this year's manger scene on the lawn of the Claremont United Methodist Church in Claremont, Calif. The display has been covered in the Huffington Post, the Los Angeles Times and a dozen other media outlets. John Zachary, a Hollywood set designer, each year produces a striking Christmas image, which is graphically displayed on old Route 66 in front of the church.
In prior years he depicted a homeless couple under a bridge, two gay men, a woman in prison and other stirring representations of the forgotten. Yet his characters are always people to whom the coming of the manger child may become an avenue of hope, as those who see the displays are once more confronted with a social reality about which they are called to act.
It is to be expected that these graphic depictions will generate controversy. But isn’t that what the coming of the manger child has done for all these centuries since his birth? God’s breakthrough into our world is not just through a sweet cooing baby but with a revolutionary announcement about the coming reign of peace and justice. Sentimentality always gives way to reality on this church lawn.
This year the central character in the depiction was an image of Trayvon Martin, hoodie and all, bleeding to death from a gunshot wound. While the image was powerful itself, too few read the inscription on a plaque accompanying the scene. It was also written by Zachary. Let me give you the gist of it in his words:
"There is no better time to reflect on gun violence … than when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. Jesus was born into a state of total vulnerability as an innocent unarmed child during a time of great violence, much like Trayvon Martin. The Bible tells us of a brutal massacre as Jesus was born. King Herod slaughtered children under 2 around Bethlehem, trying in vain to kill Jesus. Mary and Joseph celebrated their newborn baby … but there were plenty of other parents in agony because their children had just been killed.
"The rulers in Jesus' world, just as in ours, suggest that we must use violence to protect the innocent from violence. The myth of redemptive violence is the very thing that Jesus came to help us un-learn through his commitment to non-violence and his death on the cross. Jesus' life, from birth as a homeless refugee, to his violent execution, was one of opposing violence — not with more violence but with forgiveness, grace and love. There is a reason that we speak of 'peace on earth' so much at Christmas, and call him 'The prince of peace.'
"The ideal that Christians identify with a victim of hate … is one of the transforming and world-changing assumptions of the Christian faith. The lesson that Jesus taught his disciples is as relevant today as it was on the first Christmas. Hate will not rid the world of hate. He consistently taught that that we could disarm violence without becoming violent, and that we can rid the world of evil without becoming evil. … More guns or teachers with guns will never stop gun violence. So let us commit ourselves this Christmas in honor of Jesus, and in honor of the innocents killed by King Herod — and in honor of the innocents killed with guns today."
In Zachary's tableau, Jesus' mother is shaded in the background. The central character is the young black man killed by a society which takes life like his to be cheap and expendable, just as Herod so considered the lives of Bethlehem's children.
So in this country, which purports to be the most creative and progressive nation in history, children will die by the thousands as we worship at the throne of the National Rifle Association, and continue to believe that the only way to stop a bad man with a gun is a good man with a gun.
Or the living reality may rather lie with Gandhi's lament, "An eye for an eye ends up making the whole world blind." Perhaps God looks at what purports to be the world's finest Christian nation and weeps.