Christmas 2015: Time for personal and societal introspection

Jesus said, "love your enemies," yet we seem barely able to tolerate those with whom we simply disagree on public policy.

Can our collective hearts grow three sizes? Jim Carey as The Grinch adapted by e r j k p r u n c z y k (Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON, Dec. 21, 2015 — Christmas this year comes at a time of increasing turmoil in the world. The hope that, with the end of the Cold War, we would embark upon an era of peace and tranquility has long since been crushed. We face new adversaries with no clear ideas about how to respond to the challenges we face.

This uncertainty, as well as the economic difficulties brought about by globalization and a changing competitive environment, together with a growing economic gap between rich and poor Americans, has led to growing hostility in our political life.

Those running for political office have abandoned entirely the bipartisan notion of a “loyal opposition.” Personal insult and invective are replacing serious discussions of policy alternatives.

Disagreeing without being disagreeable was once viewed as a virtue. That virtue has been lost. But as the late Rep. Shirley Chisholm used to say, “We came over on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”

The remarkable wartime Christmas Truces of 1914

We need the kind of introspection and consideration of what is really important in life that Christmas can provide. Christmas, of course, is many things. It is a season of celebration and family reunion, a season of merriment and good cheer. More than this, though, it is a time to contemplate the meaning of life—and of our own lives—and to ask what God expects of us.

Many who call themselves “Christians” seem not to understand that the view of man and the world set forth by Jesus is contradictory to the one that dominates in the modern world.

This point was made in 1969 by Malcolm Muggeridge in his book “Jesus Rediscovered.” Muggeridge, a respected British author and editor, had a religious conversion  while preparing a BBC documentary about the life of Christ. He concluded that the desire for power and riches, a desire to which so many are committed, is the opposite of what Jesus commanded.

Indeed, Jesus was tempted by the Devil with the very worldly powers many of us so eagerly seek:

Finally, the Devil showed Christ all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said: “All this power I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will give it.” All Christ had to do in return was to worship the donor instead of God—which, of course, he could not do. How interesting, though, that power should be at the Devil’s disposal, and only attainable through an understanding with him! Many have thought otherwise, and sought power in the belief that by its exercise they could lead men to brotherhood and happiness and peace—invariably with disastrous consequences. Always, in the end, the bargain with the Devil has to be fulfilled—as any Stalin or Napoleon or Cromwell must testify. “I am the light of the world,” Christ said, “power belongs to darkness.”

Speaking of our own time, Muggeridge wrote,

The parts of the world where the means of happiness in material and sensual terms are the most plentiful—like California and Scandinavia—are also the places where despair, mental sickness and other twentieth century ills are most in evidence. Sex, fanned by public erotica, underpinned by the birth-control pill and legalized abortion, is a primrose path leading to satiety or disgust; the rich are usually either wretched or mad, the successful plod relentlessly on to prove to the world and to themselves that their success is worth having;  violence, collective and individual,,bids fair to destroy us all and what remains of our human situation…as Pascal points out, it is part of the irony of our human situation that we ardently pursue ends which we know to be worthless.

The Western world was once motivated by religious values, although it often acted in violation of those values, and a view of a God-centered universe.

Now, it has turned its attention to other things. Muggeridge lamented,

I firmly believe that our civilization began with the Christian religion, and has been sustained and fortified by the values of the Christian religion, by which the greatest of them have tried to live. The Christian religion and these values no longer prevail, they no longer mean anything to ordinary people. Some suppose you can have a Christian civilization without Christian values. I disbelieve this. I think that the basis of order is a moral order; if there is no moral order there will be no political or social order, and we see this happening. This is how civilizations end.

Despite this, there is a spiritual yearning in our American society, a feeling that things are not what they should be, a desire to set ourselves and our country back on a better path.

Christmas 2015: Are we still a Christian nation?

Christmas speaks to that spiritual vacuum in our lives, but only if we will listen to its message.

G.K. Chesterton, discussing the message of Christmas, wrote:

… there is a quite peculiar and individual character about the hold of this story on human nature;  it is not, in its psychological substance, at all like a mere legend of the life of a great man. It does not in the ordinary sense turn our minds to greatness;  to those extensions and exaggerations of humanity which are turned into gods and heroes, even by the healthiest sort of hero-worship. It does not exactly work outwards, adventurously to the wonders to be found at the ends of the earth. It is rather something that surprises from behind, from the hidden and personal part of our being; like that which can sometimes take us off our guard in the pathos of small objects or the blind pieties of the poor. It is rather as if a man had found an inner room in the very heart of his own house, which he had never suspected; and seen a light from within. It is as if he found something at the  back of his own heart that betrayed him in to good.

A key question for Chesterton was, “How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?” His sense that the world was a moral battleground, wrote his biographer Aliza Stone Dale, “helped Chesterton fight to keep the attitude that has been labeled ‘facile optimism,’ so that he could never recover the wonder and surprise at ordinary life he had once felt as a child.”

This holiday season, all of us, whatever our religious beliefs, would do well to re-evaluate the real gods in our personal and national lives. Intolerance toward those of different faiths, races or ethnicities is the opposite of what Christmas embodies.

As the popular hymn proclaims, “In Christ there is no north or south, / In Christ no east or west.” And while Jesus told us to “love our enemies,” we seem barely able to tolerate those with whom we simply disagree on this or that public policy.

Muggeridge concluded,

It is very important to know the history of Socrates because Socrates is dead, but the history of Christ doesn’t matter because He is alive. If and when we know the final truth about human life, we shall find that the legends, or what pass for legends, are far nearer truth than what passes for fact or science of history.

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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.