'Tis the season when it's not unusual to receive a holiday card inscribed, "Peace on Earth." It's easy to sometimes assume that this sentiment is a universal one, or if it's not, that it's at least shared by one's neighbors, or among Christians.
But if there's one overarching, most important thing I've learned in recent years, it's that one's assumptions can't be trusted when assessing what's going on among American Christians today.
From time to time, you'll see a report from someone who visited a church and experienced something we would consider jarring and unexpected, or, as in my case, came across a blog entry from a member of a church, who's simply relating what they saw, and how much they thought it was just a wonderful thing.
Yesterday I read one such blog entry, which might serve as an indicator of where some portion of American Christianity is headed - and where it very well may end up.
It's a blog just like so many others I've encountered lately. Interspersed with cut-and-pasted Biblical quotations and images, and snippets of rhetoric commonly heard in churches, is this account of what the writer experienced in church:
Here is some words to song that my brother sang in church this morning. It might take a moment for you to read but believe me when I say, it will be worth your time.
The song his brother sang was written by one of the members of the Christian group, "Casting Crowns," which was originally part of the outreach program of a Georgia megachurch. The songwriter admits that what he did was to rewrite the Christmas song, "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem." Something got lost in the rewriting, since in this version it's no longer a song that suggests peace, only conflict.
"Oh little town of Bethlehem looks like another silent night. Above your deep and dreamless sleep a giant star lights up the sky. And while you're lying in the dark there shines an everlasting light. For the King has left his throne and is sleeping in a manger tonight. Oh Bethlehem what you have missed while you were sleeping for God became a man and stepped into your world today. Oh Bethlehem you will go down in history as a city with no room for its King, while you were sleeping.
Oh little town of Jerusalem looks like another silent night, the Father gave his only Son, the way, the truth, the life had come, but there was no room for Him in the world He came to save. Jerusalem what you have missed while you were sleeping the Savior of the world is dying on your cross today. Jerusalem, you will go down in history as a city with no room for its King, while you were sleeping.
United States of America, looks like another silent night, as we are sung to sleep by philosophies that save the trees and kill the children. And while we are lying in the dark there's a shout heard cross the eastern sky. For the Bride groom has returned and has carried His bride away in the night. America what will we miss while we are sleeping? Will Jesus come again and leave us slumbering where we lay? America we will go down in history as a nation with no room for His King. Will we be sleeping?"
There is, of course, nothing in this rewrite about "peace" in the usual meaning of the word. What it's mostly about, to my eye, is about visibility and status. The writer, in effect has turned the song into a complaint, that he believes the American public pays insufficient attention to, and provides insufficient status for, the message presented by Christians like himself, and thus the country must be "sleeping." The rest is code to address what they complain other people are doing, while using the bogus indirection, in the line that I've bolded, that somehow "philosophies" are to blame. No, ultimately it's people who they falsely allege are working to "save the trees and kill the children." This is what decades of evangelicals, unchallenged, repeating the "abortion is murder" rant get you: coded propaganda understood by many to mean the same thing in a new crop of Christmas carols.
Likewise, the line, "a nation with no room for His King," again hides the fact that what the writer is railing against is the decisions of other people not to accept the particular form of religious conversion that he's selling. These are decisions of individuals who are very unlikely to change their minds, no matter what he does; these references to an ignored "King" imply that they have a desire for an authority figure who will straightforwardly establish a new order by decree rather than any democratic tradition.
This is what passes for Christmas carols in some unknown number of American churches at this very moment, and one churchgoer thought it was so important he repeated these lyrics for the reader's assumed benefit.
It's time, I think, that this concept of the "War on Christmas" be thoroughly refuted. So much of what today's evangelicals are pushing centers on two false assertions: that "war" in service to their cause is good, and that they are being "warred" against by some mythical, and truly nonexistent, secular apparatus. What results, what stays around like a lingering stench that's remembered by many listeners, is not anything that resembles a "war on Christmas," but instead, the notion that Christmas is a time for war, and that there will be no "peace" until and unless their idea of order is imposed on everyone. That's the ultimate message of this song; after all, if we just put the coded language together at face value, if they're dropping in the middle of a Christmas song the assertion that somebody must be "killing the children," isn't that enough reason to go to war? Certainly that's the same series I've heard from the anti-abortion Christian forces out on the street.
It's also way too easy to attribute such corrosive notions to Christian leaders or commercial interests. There's a bottom-up component to this kind of rhetoric that's repeated in churches all over the country. Why? Because it works, for some value of "works." The churches that adopt such language are often the large megachurches, or want-to-be megachurches. It's in that context that the source of these lyrics is even more significant: "Casting Crowns" is the product of a megachurch 25 miles from Atlanta, Georgia. They're also a participant in the "Battle Cry" church youth group organizing campaign of Teen Mania Ministries that is directed at churches that seek to expand and perpetuate themselves. And while some might assume that their music must be sold by some obscure Christian company, it's in fact produced and distributed by a subsidiary of Sony.