There was time when religion, principally the Christian version, dominated America’s Christmas landscape. But that scenario is fading. What was formerly the story about Jesus’ birth is now the story of how holiday sales are going. While many of us feel the loss, the change is not totally troublesome. Religious devotion has not always blessed society. Many of history’s most savage episodes have taken place when religion exercised a stranglehold on culture. One thinks of the crusades, the inquisition, the Salem witch trials, the holocaust, slavery, segregation and apartheid — all with the cross of Jesus going on before. Christians do not have a corner on that treacherous model. Even today Muslim fundamentalism has spawned much of the terrorism that currently grips the world. This sad commentary is not the major story of religion, but it is certainly part of it.
Religion has most often been a blessing when it has spread its arms around the most vulnerable, established hospitals and schools, sought justice for the oppressed, called for a fair sharing of the earth’s resources, given itself to the peaceful solution to war and violence and sought to save the planet from environmental destruction.
What is it that causes people of faith, and their institutions, to take one path or the other? Obviously this is a very complicated question, and there are no pure answers, but I want to offer a clue as to what sort of religious fervor takes the faithful one way or the other.
When it is basically a set of doctrines to be believed, religion often unleashes the worst about life — particularly when it is held that those not adhering to those doctrines are outside the will of God, and constitute a danger to the true believers. This becomes obvious when religious leaders and their followers are ready to condemn to eternal punishment all those who do not hold to some version of doctrinal orthodoxy. The God of these religious bodies is often an angry judgmental authority who only honors people who believe the right things, are members of the right race or group, and who therefore hold all others as deserving condemnation. Such seems to be the focus of many religious fundamentalists, be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or any other variety of faith.
I come at this issue as a Christian who finds believing doctrines about Jesus basically unhelpful, but who sees that following Jesus, and trying to emulate what he did with his life is worth my commitment. For me his life was the epitome of graciousness, the acceptance of the outsider, not only living peacefully but also offering a path to a peaceful society. For Jesus every person was of worth, every encounter an act of acceptance and love, every story full of a gracious welcome. The only outsiders were the religionists of the vicinity, “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.”
So the heart of religion may not be in holding to pure doctrinal orthodoxy, but living as if everyone you meet is of infinite worth. Believing things about Jesus was not the goal of the way of life he offered, but living lives of acceptance, graciousness and justice, and offering hope in every encounter — that, he taught, was God’s way.
Writing just two or three decades after Jesus’ death, the author of a letter to the young Galatian church sums up what it really means to experience the fruitful religious existence full of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
If you see either in Jesus or, in whatever is at the center of your religion, the kind of world God longs for creation to become, you may have a clue as what may be humanity’s best hope. If the secular celebration of the season offers that vision for you, religious or not, you are truly blessed and will probably be a blessing.