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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Of Christmas, Courage and the Common Good


Of Christmas, Courage and the Common Good
Rampant commercialisation and the “Walt Disneyfication” of Christmas has reduced Christian spirituality to mere sentimentality. Christ has been hijacked by “Christ-less” carols, cakes, cool cards and cozy nativity scenes and portrayed as one entering into a world of comfortable spiritual sentiment.
In Malaysia, the Government holds a national “Christ-less” Christmas open house, whilst from time to time accusing Christians of being traitors, conspirators and proselytizers of Muslims in Malaysia who appear to be the world’s most easily confused, convinced, controlled and converted!
In reality’ “Christmas is not a nice story and it has nothing to do with the nativity scenes we see on our Christmas cards or in most of the Christmas paraphernalia…” notes Nils von Kalm, an Australian sociologist.
Real World
In sharp contrast to the modern vehicles of entertainment, the narratives of the first Christmas in the Bible are stark short and simple. They do not allow the imagination to dwell on the detail of time or setting. As Charles Anderson of God Web would put it: “The Bible does not offer brilliant descriptions of scenes or costumes, landscapes or cityscapes…
“The biblical writers were struggling to express that which is beneath the surface and to reveal the fire that burns at the very heart and center of life…One searches the scriptures in vain for descriptions of the manger, we are given absolutely no detail to satisfy your curiosity about what the baby Jesus looked like…(or) the costumes of Mary, Joseph and the magi.”
Anglican priest Joy Carroll Wallis echoes the same when she reminds us that “Jesus didn't enter a world of sparkly Christmas cards or a world of warm spiritual sentiment”. Sadly, “we have often settled for the sweet coming of a baby who asked little of us…” (Fr Richard Rohr, Catholic priest and writer).
Relevant till today
The dangerous world in which Jesus was born into and the ensuing deep struggle between light and darkness, death and life, fear and faith – is equally real till this day and in our very own beloved country.
Over the past year Christians have been increasingly discriminated against due to the frequent contravention (with impunity) of the constitutional guarantees of our religious freedom. We have been used, refused, abused and reused as a bogeyman, a scapegoat and a convenient punching bag.
We had to face the constant taunts, threats and tirades of baseless accusations by extremist and fanatical “Little Mullah Napoleons” in Umno, Perkasa, Pembela, the Home Ministry, and various Muslim departments, and the tricks of spent politicians who act like saviours of Islam political expediency.
Umno, the dominant political party of BN, has politicised religion for its survival by creating unfounded insecurities and fear amongst Muslims and a distrust of other religions. Its newspapers are given licence to spew and spin unsubstantiated and wild allegations against Christians and to spread all sorts of calumnies.
The continued racial and religious polarisation in the country by Umno, a party deep in depravity and debauchery, has reached disturbing levels never seen before, are further compounded by a culture of corruption, cronyism and crippling fear.
As Tengku Razaleigh has put it with brutal honesty: “Umno has indeed lost its soul…it is tempted more and more to fan racial feeling and abuse public institutions to maintain power. This is a death spiral.”
Meanwhile communities such as the Orang Asli, Indians and the indigenous peoples of East Malaysia are increasingly marginalised. They are deceived, discriminated against, displaced, dislodged, dispossessed, deprived and disempowered. Many have become disillusioned, demoralised and dysfunctional.
We have before us a deeply divided nation, decaying institutions without impartiality, a dour economy with deepening debts, a Prime Minister dishing out endless slogans and dogged by allegations, a dominant and desperate political party which resorts to diabolical means to stay in power, elite politicians devoid of a sense of shame or decency and a disturbing diaspora rate!
We are confronted with the increasingly damning evidence that the country is going to the dogs and that we are living in a “sham democracy” (Tengku Razaleigh).
Radical Response
The world in which Jesus entered was not very different in comparison to our world. It was “a world of real pain, of serious dysfunction, a world of brokenness and political oppression. He was born an outcast, a homeless person, a refugee, and finally he becomes a victim to the powers that be” (Joy Carroll Wallis).
The response of Christians in Malaysia should be the same as that of Jesus: “Herod recognizes something about Jesus that in our sentiment we fail to see: that the birth of this child is a threat to his kingdom, a threat to that kind of domination and rule. Jesus challenges the very power structures of this evil age.”
This point is highlighted equally effectively by Fr Richard Rohr: “What we call the Incarnation, God becoming a human being, becoming one of us, strikes directly at the heart of evil and corruption in the world. God becoming human looks evil in the eye and takes it on without flinching. As Bruce Cockburn sang it so brilliantly, it is God ‘kicking the darkness till it bleeds daylight’.”
If Christians are to be faithful to their Holy Scriptures then they must allow God’s Word to confront, challenge and “convert” them! We must refuse to allow ourselves to remain at the level of the sweetening and softening of the message of Christmas.
Christians in Malaysia have a choice of comfortable Christianity (Christmas pudding, presents and the perfect paraphernalia) or the courage to challenge (by God’s grace and courage) both the darkness and the very divisive and destructive power structures in our country.
Surely, the suffering and injustice in our country are too great now to settle for any “infantile gospel” or any “infantile Jesus”. God invites us to work with him in His Kingdom -- to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with Him (Micah 6:8). Our “yes” would mean we striving to put Christ back into Christmas!
Reversal
A genuine and complete understanding of what Christmas really means must include a deep appreciation of a song called the Magnificat by the Blessed Virgin Mary. Renowned Bible scholar William Barclay describes it as “revolutionary”. The song highlights four revolutions that God inaugurated at Christ’s birth – a moral, social, economic and spiritual revolution. It links religion and politics, faith and economics.
Mary prayed a model prayer just like Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2 and in the Psalms, and her son grew up to pray a model prayer in Luke 11. Her Magnificat is a strong reminder that God is always with His people through whom love and justice are to triumph over arrogance, truth over evil.
It is a song that encapsulates the great themes of Christianity, a song of “reversals”. In place of the proud and the powerful, God will lift up the powerless, weak, poor and the ‘least of these’ (Matt.25). God is one on the move to bring justice, a reversal of the way things are, even the status quo!
In her Magnificat, Mary prophesied about Christ’s mission. Jesus fulfilled his mother's prophesy in his own Nazareth Manifesto -- his first words, in Luke 4 -- by saying, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor."
Just like Mary, Christians become partakers and partners of Christ’s mission when they first allow God to work a “reversal” in their personal lives -- in terms of their purpose, priorities, values and thinking – in order to bring about real, relevant and radical change in Bolehland.
Celebrating and living out Christmas calls for a personal transformation (reversal) – from one of compromise to courage, convenience and comfort to one of conviction and commitment to our duty and responsibility towards social action, justice and mission.
May the concerns and commitment of Christians in Malaysia be not confined to the well-being of Christians alone but may they embrace the struggles encountered by the peoples of all races and religions, yes, even the Muslims too.
May Christians in Malaysia champion “the common good” and be the very embodiment of agape (divine love) as Christ is born again in our hearts this Christmas! A Blessed Christmas!
Martin Jalleh reads Malaysia Chronicle

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