We are tearing ourselves apart, yet we need each other as never before.
Let’s pretend there are places where people have never heard of Christmas. Imagine being from such a place and suddenly finding yourself in the thick of it, here in Australia.
You may not come across the unlikely story of a baby boy born to save us, but you’d definitely spot the decorated streets, homes and trees and the bearded man in red, and you’d rightly conclude that an Australian Christmas is above all a pagan festival.
I grew up in a family and community that accepted the religious messages of Christmas. My family attended church, prayed for unfortunates and sang carols with conviction. Nowadays I value Jesus for his teachings but don’t believe he was divine.
A couple of billion Christians do believe, and will reaffirm their faith tomorrow in churches around the world, reflecting the global spread of European culture courtesy of colonialism – the same colonialism that brought everyone capitalism, fossil fuels and a heating planet.
But in the developed world the religion that gave birth to Christmas is now trumped by non-religious things. The same applies in China, India, Turkey and a dozen or so other essentially non-Christian countries which observe Christmas but don’t give it a public holiday.
Amid everything else happening in our world – wildfire, heatwaves, storm and tempest, not to mention Brexit, Donald Trump’s impeachment, public disorder in Hong Kong, Paris, Santiago, India – it’s hard to think of Christmas quite as we used to, years ago.
There is an unavoidable contradiction at work on Christmas Day, between a celebration of the humble birth of a Jewish child 20 centuries ago and the extravagant shopping, feasting and travelling that always accompany it.
A common response has been to keep it simple, to forgo gifts, or at least expensive ones, and limit the feasts and travel, but it’s been a losing battle. As life becomes more fraught people want an escape, and there’s no better escape than a trip away or a good party.
The English philosopher John Gray observes that religion, which answers deep human needs, is way beyond rational argument. We should accept that it will never die and focus on its excesses, when people take themselves into thoroughly silly places in its name.
One of the best examples of this is Israel Folau. His athletic gifts have graced many rugby fields, but all that went by the board when he applied his particular brand of Christianity to the complexities of modern Australian life.
Folau’s antipathy towards homosexual and transgender lives defies the facts of sexuality and gender. Even sillier is his deduction that the root cause of Australia’s fire crisis is an un-Christian support for same-sex marriage. Which brings us to where Christianity went wrong.
Gray tells us that before Christians got hung up on the idea that we must believe in Jesus to save ourselves, the world’s religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism, focused not on belief but on observance – on personal and communal rituals that give form to daily life.
Which is as it should be. Humans are social animals and like to ponder how they came to be, how they should live with each other and other species, and how they die. Rituals giving shape to this thinking are important.
Then along came the religions of belief, Christianity and then Islam a few centuries later, preaching that if you went outside specified norms – if you were homosexual, for instance – you were an infidel, a non-believer, and could be put to the sword.
Inevitably they came to blows, an example that has caught on. In the wake of Islamist terrorism, Hindus in India, Buddhists in Myanmar and Jews in Israel all take issue with Moslem minorities. In China, the state has determined that Moslems in that country’s west must stop practising their faith.
Jesus preached love, peace, and caring for nature – God’s creation if you like – as do all the great religions, each in their own way. But we are beset with hatred, strife, and abuse of nature. While needing each other as never before, we are tearing ourselves apart.
There is a universal value in Christmas that extends way beyond Christianity. It’s about togetherness, cherishing common values and the institutions that defend them, and it takes in everyone. Not simply Christians, but every blessed one of our species including heathens like me.
Christmas Day is for all of us. Its messages of peace and love invite us to connect with all, the familiar and the foreign alike. Next week we should resolve to continue applying those messages through 2020, because being together is the heart of humanity, and without it we’re done for.