Most Christians—and all who celebrate the shop-til-you-drop version of Christmas—are in the final week of hubbub and to-do lists before the big day where Santa drops through the chimney with a bag full of plastic toys made of toxic petro-chemicals that were imported from China. Is that a tad too cynical? As the holiday season is upon us and folks celebrate (which I, too, enjoy) by generously giving to their favorite charities, baking homemade treats for neighbors, sipping eggnog with family, making foolish decisions at the work holiday party, my thoughts—as a Catholic Worker—inevitably turn to peace.
“What do you want for Christmas?” asks my mother. “World Peace.” I’ve made the joke so many times that it is no longer funny—was it ever? Nonetheless, I slug through the commercialized, state/religious-authority approved versions of Jesus that bear no reference to the poor, to social justice, or to the radical teachings of sharing, inclusivity, and nonviolence that the “Prince of Peace” spoke. “Nothing political,” my mother warns me before any family dinner. Each year, my immediate family gathers with our friends of over 20 years from across the street for games, drinks and a Christmas skit. The Olzen family script is in the works but I’ll give a little teaser for this year’s theme: “Occupy North Pole.” Again my mother forewarns as her eyes settle squarely on me, “but we don’t want to get too political.”
While Easter is, theologically speaking, the most important holy day for the Christian church, it probably enjoys more public specter around Christmas as it has deep roots in American consumer culture. Still, many people will head to church on Christmas who may not any other day of the year. Church leadership, choosing not to alienate its congregations, will steer clear of anything resembling close to a political statement. Christmas Mass—for Catholics—will predictably be a sing-song of beautiful carols and elaborately decorated altars and nativities. We will be urged to give thanks for what we have. Pray for what we don’t have and asked to be generous to our less fortunate neighbors. So long as decorum is kept, controversy kept at bay, and sides are not drawn, it will be a good Christmas… and totally misses the point about Jesus, Christianity, and the state of society.
Lines have been drawn and tipping points reached. The economy continues to falter, the cost of living goes up, social support networks disappear, and war spending, environmental costs, and corporate profits skyrocket. As Occupy Wall Street seeks sanctuary, somewhat controversially, at Trinity Wall Street—an episcopal church—I wonder at how long most churches can avoid the politics of economic, environmental, and social justice? Of course, this is not a new pondering as tomes, dissertations and Glenn Beck have tackled the issue in a myriad of ways. But this Christmas seems different. The politics are different. The possibilities are different. World peace is more than a Christmas wish. There are U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq. There are glimmers of hope—US negotiations with Taliban, a 2014 deadline to end the occupation—that the Afghan war has an end in sight. And where are the churches preaching that good news, even if it is not perfect?
During the civil rights movement, churches—particularly African American ones under the leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)—played a significant role not just in raising awareness but in organizing and training people in nonviolent activism. To be sure, there are plenty of churches involved in nonviolent struggle today. The Sanctuary movement of the 1980s was largely a Christian church movement and many of those churches are now leaders in immigrant rights work. St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. has long opened its door to activists descending on the nation’s capital for protest. Programs like JustFaith and Advent Conspiracy are trying to get Christian church people connected to social justice and get them involved in social action both globally and locally. It is a good thing and powerfully transforms people’s lives, but there is a little bit of Dickens’ Scrooge in me. I want more. I think we can do better.
So what do I want for Christmas… besides a new soil thermometer? All I want for Christmas is for churches to become the agents and leaders for social change that their creeds profess. All I want for Christmas is for Christians to choose to nonviolently struggle for the love, justice and peace that their faith in Jesus promises. All I want for Christmas is that the 1 percent leadership of political, economic, and religious institutions make the choices that work for all—and that the 99 percent will help them do it through creative and courageous nonviolent action. This Christmas, I want ordinary folks to realize that there is no Christmas without the elves; that Santa relies on their cooperation to make it happen. It is because of the elves—through their hard work, their obedience, and their adherence to the status quo—that Santa gets the milk and cookies. Where are our milk and cookies this Christmas? Well, I guess it’s time to get organized, to get trained. With the late Howard Zinn reminding us “that we can’t be neutral on a moving train,” it’s time for the churches to get moving.