Saturday, December 26, 2009

Schizophrenic Holiday Needs Separation

Christmas is a two-headed monster that doesn't think it is. The concerned observer can, however, witness at least two personalities at play that do not really acknowledge one another, yet occupy the same holiday. From one "personality" comes the high Christian commemoration of the Incarnation and birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. From the other comes the commercial "tsunami" of exchanging gifts with people in seemingly every social and relational direction. Each of these borrows terminology from each other, for such cross-pollination is inevitable given they occupy the same holiday space. However, I argue that they are very different "personalities" that are irreconcilable, thus making Christmas seem quite "schizophrenic" in practice, regardless of how much some may want them to be merely different aspects of one celebration.

On the one hand, there is the "Christmas" of commemoration. Arranging the calendar around the life and work of Christ, Christians start the year with the Advent and birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus of Nazareth. His Incarnation into a human fetus, conceived by the Holy Spirit and subsequent birth of the Virgin Mary in a stable at Bethlehem ("House of Bread") marks the beginning of both the Christian calendar and the execution of the Messiah's redemption. Indeed Matthew has summarized the meaning of Christmas with "Emmanuel, which means 'God with us'" (Matt 1:23). The great pinnacle of the story of redemption is in how God took on human flesh, stooped to the human condition, fully adopted humanity for himself, in order to rescue humanity from the curse of its own sin. Thus the carols, the hymns, the church services and biblical imagery of ubiquitous nativity scenes are ever appropriate to celebrate this chief of God's acts in history.

The timeless One entered time.
The ageless One became a newborn.
The all-sufficient One became dependent.
The all-powerful One became vulnerable.
The uncontainable One was constricted to a womb.
The One whom the universe cannot clothe...
...needed strips of cloth to stay warm.

Remembering this most radical of events in time is the stuff of the "Christmas" of commemoration. It is glorious. It is comforting. It is the catalyst and arena of worship.

On the other hand, there is also the "Christmas" of consumerism. Arranging the commercial calendar around this annual gift exchange, retailers have every expectation of "reaping a harvest" during this time. This has given rise to even the naming of the day following Thanksgiving "Black Friday," suggesting that businesses enjoy a sales boost that will put them "in the black" for the year. The attachment of gift giving among people to the biblical stories of wise men bringing gifts to the baby Jesus, or even alluding to Christ as our "gift" ("For unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given" - Isa 9:6) have long since been brushed aside. Now the occasion is summed up completely in the oft repeated question to children, "What do you want for Christmas?" So pervasive is this collective assumption regarding the buying of gifts for all who one knows, that it produces it's own sense of cultural shame.

Anyone with an inkling of social reciprocity will spend money on gifts for as many in the address book that can reasonably be contacted - goes the belief. This has given rise to the office gift exchange, the sending of gifts to distant relatives and any other friends that one desires NOT to insult. In an ironic reversal of the legacy of St. Nicholas, the poor are not so much cared for by anonymous benefactors, but are instead shamed for failing to participate more fully in the festival of "give more gifts." Limited resources are a curse showcased by limited engagement in the "buying/giving" festival, constituting a perceived affront to acquaintances and loved ones in every social/relational direction. Christmas Day is then transformed into an occasion of guilt for having bought so little for those that you otherwise care deeply about. Therefore, the great American exchange of materials seems rather disconnected from the Christian holiday that uses the same label and date on the calendar. A separate holiday should be invented for this annual ritual that can be clearly differentiated from the commemoration of the birth of Christ (i.e. Christmas).

For this reason, I would like to propose a second holiday be instituted for this specific purpose: the festival of Tribuo Magis Munia (Latin for "give more gifts"). Certainly some etymological progression can take place to help this roll off the tongue better (i.e. "Christ's Masse" developing to "Christmas"). Nevertheless, the other "personality" within the calendar date called "Christmas" must be excised from "Christ's Mass." In our consumer driven free-market economy, it is unlikely that the festival of "give more gifts" could be caused to dissipate, reversing 200 years of "religious capitalism." Therefore, it would seem more realistic to simply give it its own name (even if it cannot be assigned a different date). This could offer people the opportunity to celebrate Christmas fully without having to engage the consumerist festival if they choose not to. Tribuo Magis Munia could then be a matter of persona choice, and even enjoy the secularizing influence felt in the rest of western cultural as well.

Christianity has been called "the poor man's religion," for the grace of Christ is offered free of charge to the penitent. By contrast Tribuo Magis Munia offers a costly "indulgence" whereby the wealthy may purchase "absolution" for neglecting relational connections throughout the year. Scrooge ecstatically proclaims, "the spirits did it all in one night... [because WalMart is open 24 hours]." In a somewhat reversal of the Gospel, Santa Claus blesses the children whose parents can afford his visit. Instead of "the people walking in darkness have seen a great light" (Isa 9:2), the people walking in poverty hang their heads in guilt for giving so little. Tribuo Magis Munia stands in contrast to Christmas, and therefore must be given its own festival. The two resident "personalities" of this schizophrenic holiday need separation from one another. I welcome help in the name progression, but desire to differentiate these for future years in our home.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Mournful Anticipation

Who can deliver us?

When will he come?

What shall be the occasion of the Lord's rescue?

Such is the sentiment of those anticipating a Savior. This is, no doubt, what would have been on the mind of first century Jews of Palestine suffering under Roman occupation. To add insult to injury, Joseph had to, by imperial edict, take his young (very pregnant) wife several miles back to his hometown just to satisfy Rome's "head count." This is no small imposition to journey on foot. How could someone imagine bringing a child into such conditions?

The mournful dirge can be heard from the poor, the harried and the oppressed. The sad "countenance of the conquered" is evident in every face that won't quite make eye contact. The imposition of a ruler's will upon people that will never met him can be a strong depressant. For those that hope in the deliverance of the Lord, the cry goes ever upward, "How long, O Lord? How long?"

There is a sense in which the American patriot directs this mourning at the condition of his own country, for indeed the steady usurpation of liberty from D.C. housed tyrants is cause for such lamentations. However, there is a far greater sense in which this lament cry is common to all humankind. It is the nature of man to oppress one another, to seize power and maintain it with undiscernible labyrinths of law and statue. There is no corner of the Earth where rulers are not exercising (or seeking to exercise) constrictive power over their people, and claiming to do so "for their own good." The United States of America is my country, and therefore the land for whom I cry out; but my song of mourning harmoniously joins the global and historic tune of all people wishing that "Caesar hadn't imposed his census on us this way."

But it is not merely for liberation from political oppression for which people cry out. We intuitively know that this is part and parcel to the human condition. Governmental systems may facilitate this oppression to varying degrees (I argue passionately that the US Constitution constructs a system least friendly to oppression of any in history), but it ultimately is NOT the fault of these systems that oppression occurs. The finest system will not completely rescue us from oppression, for such oppression has existed in so many systems of history. Thus, this instinct to oppress one another is resident within the human condition.

The strong impose their will upon the weak.

Observe any playground and the "bully dynamic" will reveal itself soon enough. Day care settings are laboratories in which this trait of the human soul emerges as well. Very few of those who work with children must be persuaded of the depravity of man; they witness it in seed form everyday. Some assume that with time the micro evolution of people growing up carries them out of such base instincts. Indeed such is the role of the moral training of parents and the Church. But this aspect of human nature is too ingrained, too attached to the soul, infecting all human pursuits.

The cry for liberation is not merely the longing for freedom from political oppression, but for liberation from the "curses" inherent in the human condition. How long, O Lord? How long must the world be as it is? How long must we be as we are? This is the most appropriate sentiment of Christmas Eve - the eve of liberation.

Tonight we mourn, and quiver with anticipation; yet tomorrow we celebrate and rejoice in the surprising, radical, unpredictable, revolutionary, unexplainable salvation of the Lord. How is it that the God who created humans, that subsequently have ruined their own condition, would rescue those same humans by becoming one of them? (Parenthetically - Let me make this clear: I have a great affection for my dog; but if he misbehaves, I'm not about to stoop to the level of the dog to get him back on track. He'll learn of my authority in other ways, but I'm NOT about to try becoming "like" the dog.) The God who creates humankind, though not responsible for its brokenness, stoops to the level of humanity to rescue it. Deity takes on humanity. He who arranged the pattern of the stars must now be nursed in the arms of a young woman. The One that made all things, and by him all things are held together, must now be changed a couple of times a day. None, none, NONE would have expected that. It is too outlandish to anticipate. Therefore, the rescue cannot be fully seen until it occurs.

And so the mournful tune is sung. The lament is heard from oppressed people of all nations and at all times, "How long?" The oppression has been more severe for some than for others, but all who sing know its sting. Our hope is not is a political challenger to the present administration, nor in electing representatives that share our view much more. Instead our hope is in the One who can completely address, rescue and change the human condition. The birth of Jesus Christ is celebrated tomorrow, but in the meantime the longing for deliverance must be massaged through mournful anticipation.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Statist's Creed

We believe in one State,
almighty usurper of heaven and manager of the Earth;
and in one benevolent Leader - its head,
Who was conceived by the collective “spirit” of our age,
Born of a victimized minority,
Suffered under the hand of greedy Capitalists,
was enlightened through liberal education,
learned of our suffering through social activism,
was dismissed by right-wing conservatives
and considered unthreatening by political analysts.
He arose from obscurity bringing hope for our future.
He ascended into our highest office,
where he sits with our future in his mighty hands;
from thence he shall come to grant relief from our afflicters.

We believe in the “spirit of our time” and in ourselves;
We believe in the global community,
and the right of all people to be free from any suggestion of theistic
oppression from a contrived otherworldly construct of the mind.
We believe in forgiveness, but not in the concept of sin.
We believe in the sovereignty of our own body,
to indulge whatever pleasures suit us - for this life is all there is.
Amen.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Mixed Bag Around Holiday Time

Christmas is first and foremost a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Certainly over the centuries many ancillary trappings have been added to the occasion that vary considerably in how clearly they point to the main "reason for the season." Some culturally specific symbols can be even quite difficult to attach to the person of Jesus Christ, and his initial Incarnation among humankind. Nevertheless, for the most part we accept even the most tangential decorations and symbols because they add to festival that already has a good reason to exist. Christmas parties, friendly gatherings, store decorations and mall music add to the "spirit" of the season. Indeed to be so enveloped in a cultural blanket of Yule tide indicators is to feel warm and cocoa-filled no matter what menial task one must accomplish when out and about. It's very nice.

Unfortunately, no matter how much of a blessing such an ambient Christmas "temperature" may be, there remains a cold draft that accompanies the comfy wafts of hearth and home: This is the opposing reality of being ever aware, during the season of gifts and giving, of how little one has.

Everywhere one turns are the reminders of things just outside of the budgetary reach. The seemingly wealthy throngs all enjoy tastes and materials with great joy, and the lesser-resourced onlooker can do little more than rejoice for the one enjoying them. Visiting commercial centers such as a mall is very tempting, for indeed all the trappings possess a magical attraction to go out and walk among the celebrants. However, the mall is also a depressing place to visit because it's a veritable gauntlet of opportunities to repeat to excited children, "No, sorry. There's no money for that."

The dignified poor do not broadcast this though. Instead they simply excuse themselves from office parties and gift exchanges before it can be revealed that they lacked the means to participate. When asked, "What did you get for your children for Christmas?" They deflect with accounts of front yard football and traditional holiday movies rather than honestly confess, "Oh, something simple and basic like shelter, heat, light and groceries." They smile as more abundantly resourced celebrants talk of "family being the greatest gift of all." They agree that it is indeed more blessed to give than to receive, so they lavish generously upon their peers the "gifts" of encouragement, affection and loyalty. They seek to creatively teach their children the weightier matters of Christmas so that their young minds will be sufficiently distracted away from the empty space beneath the tree (what tree?). Regrettably, their tepid zeal for all things holiday related may be interpreted as a muttered "humbug," though the reality is far from it. The lesser-resourced often love the Lord Jesus Christ to such extent as to long to be ever more engaged in all things Christmas related.

The ambient conditions of the Christmas season ubiquitously present everywhere out in the community are a joy for those given over to the Christmas "spirit." However, they are a "mixed bag" for those who see all of these trappings and wish they could engage them more. Indeed such surroundings can serve as glaring reminders of what cannot be engaged. Just so you know, the friend who graciously bows out of that holiday festivity may not be ignoring an opportunity for celebration out of some sliver of "Scrooge" sentiment. They might instead want to avoid revealing their diminished means at a time when abundance is the celebrated norm.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Rememberance can be unpleasant...but it's important.

Today is December 7th, the 68th Anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese people, with their rich culture, fascinating history and beautiful home islands, are no longer an enemy of the U.S. On the contrary, Japan has become not only a healthy commercial neighbor, but also an ally in resisting the present-day threats from North Korea and China (not to mention the Soviet Union during the decades-long Cold War). Therefore, remembering the attacks on Pearl Harbor is not intended to resurrect indignation toward a historic enemy. Indeed, Japan is not the only former enemy to become a close ally against mutual threats. The United Kingdom is an excellent example of this, for July 4th celebrations do not strain the current U.S.-U.K. alliance. So the reason for remembrance must serve another purpose.

I posit that the reason why we MUST take time to remember and reflect on such days (i.e. Dec 7th, June 6th, Sept 11th, July 4th, etc.) is not because we love war, but because we love those who have fought and must fight them for us. Our moments of remembrance are the opportunity to soberly reflect on the nature of humankind, and the necessity for bravery and sacrificial duty in the face of unjust aggression. In essence, remembering historical moments of conflict is to reflect on the unpleasant reality of humankind's perpetual need for valor and courage in resisting evil aggression. Battlefield virtues may illuminate positive sides of humanity, but their necessity at all displays the negative sides of us as well. It's unpleasant business to reflect on man's need for defense and bravery, but it's important.

This principle is applicable to the Christmas season as well.

For example, our priest pointed out the other day that Advent is for "building up to Christmas," without celebrating it too soon. I found this curious. Does not the Christmas season begin the day after Thanksgiving ("Black Friday" insanity notwithstanding)? Should not the Christmas carols be sung jubilantly as soon as possible? Apparently not according to the "spirit" of Advent (mind you, I'm new to much of the historic Christian calendar, so my understanding of Advent must not be taken as authoritative). From what I'm learning, Advent is for reflecting on our need for a Savior in anticipation of His coming. It is to soberly reflect on why God would need to fully take humanity onto himself, enter our experience as a vulnerable newborn in a stinky, untidy stable. Indeed many carols are sung in a minor key because the tragedy/triumph of God entering humanity as a newborn is as much mourning over our need for salvation as it is a celebration of how he meets that need. Some aspects of remembering when Emmanuel ("God with us") was born can be unpleasant business, but it's so important.

For some, the unpleasant aspects of remembering deter them from taking the time to do so. "Why dwell on unpleasant things?" so goes their logic. The answer? Because it's important; because failing to remember can breed unhealthy ignorance regarding our needs, our flaws and our potential. All of the ways one should reflect on the reality-exploding nature of the Incarnation can be left for another time, for today is Dec 7th, deserving of it's own emphasis.

Memorializing the attack on Pearl Harbor is good because it reflects honestly on the nature of humankind, and remembers those moments when courage and valor were brought to the surface by the the scalding heat of combat dynamics. It's right because it celebrates a period in history when defensive might and national unity were (rightly so) held less suspect than can be assumed in the present culture (cynicism regarding present day military application must not retard appreciation for times when the cause was more clear and the goals more noble). I would encourage many to read FDR's "Infamy" speech, or watch a movie about the Pearl Harbor attack (accuracy is not the key objective with such films, but instead to remember and emote with the historic figures that lived through it precisely as it happened).

Take time to remember what occurred during that generation, and to those servicemen and women. Remember the virtues of sacrifice, duty, bravery and valor. Remember that such events are still possible today, for humankind has not evolved so much since then. Remembrance can be unpleasant... but it's necessary.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Seventy Percent Necessary

With the "War on Terror" being focused primary now in the landlocked country of Afghanistan (AFG), the question has arisen of "Does The Navy Have A Place In McChrystal’s War?" On one level this question is understandable on a popular level, for night after night people see images of war on their television and wonder: What role could the Navy possibly play in that desert or those mountains?

The writer of the linked blog article (Christopher Albon), goes on to suggest that the Navy can have a more significant role by shifting it's mission from that of a war-fighting arm to a humanitarian organization. The argument goes something like this:

The war is occurring on land...
The Navy is at sea...
The Navy has no place to fight in the land-war...
The Navy should learn to do something other than fight.

Before we start beating those swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, there are a few things to consider:

1. Logistics - Too numerous to list here are the ways in which maritime operations support the battlefield and supply logistics needed in-theater. Equipment and personnel needed for joint force power projection in AFG do not get there by themselves. Transportation and supply streams require unimpeded air and sea ways to reinforce assets subject to depletion. Regardless of how much air and fire support may be scaled back in AFG from USN carriers and cruisers in the Indian Ocean, the Army and USMC's ability to make war on Al Qaeda and Taliban forces will continually be in need of naval support to perform their tasks.

2. Operations - The USN contribution to in-theater combat ops (even on the ground) is also integrated and incalculable. Navy SEALs and intelligence work (at the very least) demonstrate just how "in the fight" the US Navy is, and will continue to be.

3. Preparation - It is grotesquely short sighted to recommend a shift in the USN mission from a war-fighting to humanitarian emphasis (i.e. "spreading good will," setting up clinics, and disaster relief ops) simply because news reports are filled more with sand than water. Earth's oceans account for seventy percent of the planet's surface area. THAT is the vast and wild frontier where power projection is, and will always be, the most necessary. The diverse and far-spread threats to civilization require a strong Navy now more than ever. Several smaller national threats are evident to the public eye (i.e. North Korea, Venezuela and Iran), to say nothing of the larger national powers that continue to warrant strategic deterrent from the West (i.e. China and Russia). Piracy remains a genuine threat to shipping lanes and free maritime trade. US Navy power projection will continue to remain necessary for seventy percent of the world's surface. Only the most reckless of "opinioneers" will fail to envision the perpetual role for the Navy in foreign policy and maritime freedom.

This is not to devalue or marginalize the laudable pursuits of humanitarian aid. Indeed charitable organizations should be far more outfitted and empowered to meet timely needs in countries where they are welcome. Natural disasters certainly will continue to create crises in the developing world. In addition, humanitarian efforts may also be a legitimate ancillary ability of armed forces. However, to suggest that such aid become the greater focus of war machines is the worst kind of folly.

Military forces have a single chief function: to break people and stuff.

What people and whose stuff must be broken is the purview of elected civilian leadership. Preferably those leaders will direct the military to break only that amount of people and stuff that is necessary to reach peaceful equilibrium. In other words, the "breaking" that the military performs must be swift and effective enough to persuade an enemy not to make continued "breaking" necessary. The military is made necessary by the depravity of humankind, and it's propensity to aggressively attack one another. Therefore, the "attacker" must be broken. This is the nature of the world. Aggressors must be militarily "broken" for peace to have its way.

The Navy is a military organization/organism. It can perform many functions, but its chief function is a military one. To forget this is to weaken military protection for seventy percent of the world's area.

(This is a great mystery, but to those with "eyes to see and ears to hear," I have also been talking about the Church. It can perform many functions, but it has a primary function. Losing site of this has weakened the Church (particularly in the West) more than any "attack" from outside could have ever accomplished. Not to start a new blog here; my main rant was regarding the Navy. But if analogies abound, indeed this one is glaring as well.)