On December 6, 2016, the president-elect’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, made a momentous announcement. It came in the form of a tweet, of course. That’s how all the Really Big News is delivered in this era of broadband internet and narrowband attention spans: “You can say again, ‘Merry Christmas’, because Donald Trump is now the president.”
Maybe Mr. Lewandowski thought that Christians like me would be thrilled that we no longer need to say “Happy Holidays!” for fear of offending others. Now we can say “Merry Christmas!” to Muslims, Jews, atheists, or anyone we like, and if they don’t like it, it’s their problem, not ours. Perhaps he imagined Christians marching down the street chanting, “We’re free, we’re free, not to be PC!”, now that the good guys have beaten the bad guys in the totally fictional “War on Christmas.” Maybe he saw himself as a Biblical angel bringing “good tidings of great joy.”
I don’t want to blow out anyone’s candles, but I’m a Christian and I’m feeling no joy. Au contraire. As I read Mr. L’s Tweet, I heard two voices, and neither sounded like God. One was the Church Lady from Saturday Night Live, as played by Dana Carvey, uttering her iconic line, “Well, isn’t that special!” The other was Holden Caulfield, anti-hero of Catcher in the Rye, speaking to his starry-eyed pal Sally Hayes as they watched the Rockettes stage their annual Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall: “Old Jesus probably would’ve puked.”
For nearly seventy-eight years, I’ve loved Christmas — the real one, not the store-bought one. But I will continue to say “Happy Holidays!” to people whom I don’t know to be Christians, and the desire to be PC has nothing to do with it. My reason for not saying “Merry Christmas!” to folks who aren’t Christians is simple: saying dumb stuff makes me feel dumb.
That’s how I felt at the airport the other day. A pleasant Delta gate agent checked me in for a flight. She smiled and said, “Have a nice trip!”, so I smiled back and said, “You too!” Wishing a nice trip to a woman who’ll spend the rest of the day standing behind a counter on aching feet, dealing with frightened first-timers and mean-spirited road warriors, is dumb. So is saying “Merry Christmas!” to people who don’t celebrate Christmas.
Now, if a good therapist were listening to me, he or she would most likely say, “Parker, you seem upset — not to mention the fact that you’re hearing voices again. Let’s find out what’s really bothering you. Surely it isn’t all about the permission slip we’ve been given to say ‘Merry Christmas’ again. What’s up?”
What’s up is that I’m finding it hard to get into Christmas this year. I’m living in the wreckage wrought by a campaign I can’t imagine Jesus approving. Meanwhile, the perpetrators of said campaign tell me that, thanks to them, it’s safe for us Christians to do our thing in this country — as if that hadn’t been the case since 1620 or so. When Mr. L crows that I’m now free to celebrate Jesus’s birthday without fear, the cognitive dissonance is enough to make my head explode.
If the Christmas message of love incarnate is to have any meaning, it must be rooted in truth. So here’s the truth as I see it — the truth in whose light I need to approach Christmas, 2016. Given the terms on which Mr. L’s ex-boss won the U.S. presidency, there’s no way we would allow the infant Jesus to cross our borders or immigrate to our shores. We’re free to throw a party for him. But the birthday boy would not be able to attend his own party because he’s not welcome here.
Let’s start with the fact that no one in Jesus’s family could produce a valid birth certificate. How could they, given the Biblical story about the baby’s real father? The space for “Father’s Name” would have to be left blank or filled in with a cryptic “G-d”, which would never get by the INS or Homeland Security. Jesus would not even be eligible for a green card.
If Jesus somehow managed to get into the U.S., grow into young manhood and become a leader, a “birther movement” would rise up to bring him down. And Mr. L — who advanced the Obama birther conspiracy theory again as recently as August on CNN — might well lead the charge. Close behind him would be his ex-boss who has never taken responsibility for his role in the racist “birther” saga.
Translated into the Jesus story, this would be the first step toward a contemporary crucifixion. We don’t nail people to crosses. We nail them online or on-air with slurs and lies that are widely believed simply because they’re repeated.
The lack of a birth certificate would only be the start of Jesus’s problems in being embraced by the nation that just made it safe to say “Merry Christmas.” After all, the baby Jesus was brown, Jewish, Middle Eastern, and given what’s now a predominantly Mexican name. So he was born with four strikes against him under the administration of Mr. Lewandowski’s ex-boss, with its alt-right advisors and supporters.
The fifth, sixth, and seventh strikes would come as Jesus grew older:
• He never married and hung out with “questionable types,” which would surely make some people wonder about his sexual orientation.
• He said “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle [aka a narrow gate] than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” This would not endear him to the top one-tenth of 1 percent of Americans, who “own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.”
• Clearly, he would have thought poorly of unfettered capitalism, making him ideologically dangerous. Within a week of driving the money changers from the Temple, Jesus was dead.
I began to find a truthful approach to Christmas, 2016, when I heard a song called “Where Did Jesus Go?” by a singer-songwriter named Sara Thomsen whose work I deeply admire. Here’s a YouTube video of the song, and here are a few verses:
Tell me where, where did Jesus go? / That brown skinned man walkin’ the road to Jericho / Tell me where, where did Jesus go? / He’s up and been deported to Mexico, allelu
Tell me where, where is Jesus now? / That Middle Eastern man who could feed a hungry crowd / Tell me where, where is Jesus now? / He’s on a list of terrorists and they tossed him out of town, allelu
Tell me where, oh if you know, do tell / That wise guy wasting time with the woman at the well / Tell me where, oh if you know, do tell / They say he’s queer and outta here and going straight to hell, allelu
How can we Christians celebrate a Christmas at which the birthday boy himself would be welcome? The chorus of “Where Did Jesus Go?” points the way:
Allelu! What you gonna do? / Allelu! I’m gonna stand by you / Love is all you got. Love is all you do / It’s bigger than me, and it’s bigger than you, allelu!
I believe in the power of love, even against great odds. With Sara Thomsen, I also believe that love without truth — the chorus without the verses — is no love at all, just a pious, powerless self-deception.
Jesus said, “…whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” “The least” in the U.S.A. these days surely includes many people who share Jesus’s “person of interest” traits. I wish a lot of churches would sing “Where Did Jesus Go?” during their Christmas services this year, proclaiming that Jesus calls us to “stand by” all the people in this country who now feel at risk in the place they call home.*
But since most Christmas services are already planned, here’s another possibility. In many churches, “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” will be sung. How about singing the first verse, then pausing to reflect on its last two lines — and on what may be the most pressing questions of our day:
O little town of Bethlehem / How still we see thee lie / Above thy deep and dreamless sleep / The silent stars go by / Yet in thy dark streets shineth / The everlasting Light / The hopes and fears of all the years / Are met in thee tonight
That meeting is now taking place in the streets of every town in this nation — the meeting between hope and fear. Which one will prevail? Our collective fate depends on how we answer that question in the years ahead.
May this Christmas be a day when we Christians resolve to “be not afraid” as we stand by those who have been marginalized and even brutalized. That would be a Christmas worth celebrating and a birthday party worth attending — one where I hope Jesus himself would feel welcome and at home.
( * For me, that includes volunteering with a local organization whose mission is to welcome, encourage, and materially support Syrian refugees, accompanying them as they experience being strangers in a strange land.)
A different version of this column appeared at On Being on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016.