(22 December 2009, slightly edited here)
I am no longer religious, however, the season and the way the people I live among express it prompt these reflections.
A few days ago, I attended a Christmas music choral concert in which my young daughter performed. I think a sense of peace would easily be transmitted by the song “Silent Night” even if all intelligible words were stripped from it so it was a pure vocalise devoid of religious ideas. Music has that power, and that magic. Despite the many shortcomings of Christianity, to it’s credit it has spurred the writing of much good music. Listening to Mozart’s “Jubilate Deo,” I realized it might be better to hear all the familiar Christmas songs in Latin, because then our English (or French, German, or Spanish) language minds would, in most cases, be freed of textual and ideological distraction. For example
Personent Hodie – Andrea & Ella
25 December 2014
The concert (not the video above) was hosted by the Mormon Church at its large facility in Oakland, California. The extensive grounds have tall palm trees, an artificial river, and large buildings all festooned with colored lights in a flamboyant display of Christmas decoration that widens the eyes of 10-year-olds; it looks like Oz. My daughter’s group, the San Francisco Girl’s Chorus, had been invited to perform that night as part of a week-long series of free concerts intended to draw in prospective members, as well as to delight the current ones. A very enthusiastic church woman presented me with a brochure describing the concert series and crisply snapped it open while promoting the quality of the week’s line-up. Looking into the blue eyes shining from the weathered face of this energetic, lean and perfectly turned-out woman, I thought of the many Mormons I’d met during my career as a nuclear weapons physicist.
Since Mormons are unlikely to have rambunctious personal histories, are conscientious about pursuing prosperity, and often have good training in administrative and technical fields, they can frequently pass the filters to obtaining high-security US government jobs. I think theirs is the quintessential Yankee religion; a faith of imaginative child-like Wagnerian grandeur, with its creamy, velvety N. C. Wyeth style iconography of a golden-haired blue-eyed Jesus, to inspire its sober, industrious, well-scrubbed, pale-faced people, the inheritors of the Conquest in the North.
I always find it necessary to be patient with enthusiastic Christians, because I know how it is when one has awakened to greater insights and wishes to share, by “saving” others. Christmas tends to be a time of year when such patience needs to be exercised.
Here in the Yankee homeland, where God and the Almighty Dollar are so conflated, a religion is most precisely defined by the Tax Code. Each religion is some mix between feelings of spirituality and a tax-dodge scheme. It is this latter element that motivates churches to fish out new members from among the more “respectable” and “responsible” segments of the population, that is to say people with money. I find it tiresome to be hit-up by the always cheery, always smiling, always “sincere” people on missions, whether implicitly as at the choral concert, or explicitly under the fire of a Jehovah’s Witnesses direct-marketing assault: they knock on doors in targeted zip codes. Overall, I would prefer people to keep their religions private, “zipped up” like their pants as it were.
I realize some will take offense at my criticisms of their religions, but this is of no consequence since I do not advocate legislating discriminatory measures against groups targeted on the basis of personal attributes. I can think and say whatever I like about your religion, or lack of it, and you of mine, so long as we all adhere to the principle of equality under the law, which is enshrined in the Constitution. The purpose of my opinions on other people’s religions is entirely to guide my own life, not to provide excuses for persecuting others. Naturally, I grant everyone else the same privileges of thought, but I also see no allowance for the discrimination against one group because of the religious convictions of another.
This point was contested in California (and other states) this last year, where the more sexually repressed populations of numerous religions righteously exercised that delightful sensation of persecuting people feared as shadows, and seen as opposites and even “unclean,” by the populist political action of banning marriage between homosexuals. Marriage has nothing to do with religion, it is entirely a legal construct that defines the property relationships between the state and: two contracted individuals, their families, and between parents and their children. It happens that homosexual couples (male or female), are just as likely to wish to raise children, to ensure the inheritance and health benefit rights of their loved ones, and to take advantage of the tax deduction for “marriage,” that is to say of paying their income taxes jointly. Why should this matter to heterosexuals, except as a resentment (against “giving away” a financial benefit) brought on by prejudice, envy and greed?
2,500 years ago, Heraclitus wrote that “bigotry is the disease of the religious,” because he must have found enough examples of cruelty and prejudice being justified by religious convictions. It may be more true today. Any honest religious sense would express itself in a charitable and compassionate attitude toward other people, that is to say other “types” of people; and during the month of December in cultures infused with Christianity this is called “Christmas spirit.” Imagine if a real “Christmas spirit” was brought to popular consciousness in North America and Europe, and then focussed onto it’s land of origin, Palestine.
In his history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire (1776), Edward Gibbon wrote: “Phoenicia and Palestine will for ever live in the memory of mankind; since America, as well as Europe, has received letters from the one, and religion from the other.” Today, Palestine suffers under an Israeli assault that is in every way like the “Indian Wars” carried out across the United States in the 19th century, to “clear the land” for “progress.” Apologists for this land-theft and population displacement will issue very heated and very convoluted arguments to justify the continuing expansion of Israel, really the continuing invasion and colonization of Palestine by the Israeli Zionists. But we can dismiss all of that, the verbiage of decades, with the clear understanding that what is happening in Palestine is the simple and cruel consequence of an overwhelming force of arms. The Palestinians find themselves in the same situation as the Arawaks and Tainos of 500 years ago: a more powerful and technically advanced European-origined people covet their land. It is ironic that the Christian West that supports this “Indian War” against the Palestinians derives so much of its mythology from a religion born in Palestine.
The Palestinians are historically unlucky for four reasons: 1) theirs is a small, weak, poor and disorganized nation, 2) the Christian mythology of the powerful Western military powers works to obscure the reality of the Palestinian situation, and dull sympathy to it, in too many Western minds, 3) the history of crimes by fascists against European Jews in the 1930s and 1940s is skillfully exploited by Israeli public relations organizations, to badger Western public opinion and sow it with guilt, so as to extract money and acquiescence to Israeli aggression and land-theft, and finally 4) the natural disinclination of any individual or nation to sacrifice his and its comfort to protest, let alone fight against, the exploitation of a foreign people; the reality that most people not directly affected are willing to ignore the elimination of another “tribe.” They will say “how sad” or “how unfair” but they will allow the “Indians” to die out, without acting.
During the Christmas Season, we in the West tell many stories about Jesus Christ, and sing many songs about peace, salvation, giving, “a child is born” and “Christmas spirit,” to brighten the depth of winter and add some emotional warmth to a chilly world. But, this seems to have little practical effect when it comes to countering the Israeli aggression in Palestine. Here in the West, we have our Christmas parties, our Santa Claus for the delight of the children (and of course our commercial ambitions), a seasonal excuse to hear music or go to the ballet, our family get-togethers and dinner feasts, winter sports and church assemblies. Putting Christian charity into practice is an entirely different story, the whole point of our attitude is to give a seasonal nod of thanks for our blessings, and let somebody else get crucified for them. It’s easier if you don’t look and they’re “heathens.”
A few days ago, I finished reading W. Somerset Maugham’s novel “The Painted Veil,” about an unfaithful British colonial wife, a superficial young woman who unexpectedly finds herself in the midst of a cholera epidemic in southern China in the 1920s. Her husband, a bacteriologist and M.D., is leading the public health effort, and she is instructed and awakened by observing the responses of the different types of human character caught up in this awful reality with her, and by how the existing racist and class social constructs casts each of them. In going out for walks it becomes necessary to learn to ignore the cadavers of natives, which sometimes collect outside against the wall of the colonial residential compound. Doesn’t this sound like the attitude of many of us in the Imperial heartlands, when watching the TV evening news broadcasts where a mention of “Gaza” or “peace process” might occur?
To discuss Palestine at Christmastime, here in the U.S. or in Europe, is to highlight the hypocrisy of so much “statecraft.” Israel was bombing Palestine and Lebanon during the last Christmas season, remember?
I have a personal Christmas story involving Palestinians. About seven years ago on New Year’s Day, I was driving my family to visit my parents, who lived almost two hours away; this was to be our “Christmas” get-together. Suddenly, the car gave out a metallic bang, then immediately the entire drive-train felt and sounded like a rapidly spinning barrel of bolts. I veered off the highway at an exit that was fortunately nearby, and coasted downhill along the exit lane, onto a street, and within a few hundred meters into a service station.
Being a holiday, I had little expectation of much help. I met the owner inside the small office, and asked for a quick evaluation of the car’s mechanical state, and recommendations. With me were my wife, my two older children and my young daughter who was about 3 years old; we were halfway between home and my parents’ house. It was quickly evident that the transmission had broken, and this could not be repaired soon. I commented that I felt like Joseph trying to take his family to Bethlehem, that my donkey had given out, and I might now have to find a manger for the night. The owner quickly perked up and asked: “Have you been to Bethlehem?” No I had not. He had, he was Palestinian and his relatives worked as the mechanics. He thought I might also have been Palestinian because I have a “swarthy Mediterranean appearance” (as one upscale paleface in New York put it years ago).
The owner was very nice, he understood my problem because he, too, was a family man. So, within an hour we had concluded a contract to have my car repaired at his shop (it would take weeks since a rebuilt transmission had to be acquired and shipped) and we were on our way. We arrived at my parents house a little late but in style, in a Mercedes Benz 280 SEL 4.5 sedan. This car was loaned to me, not rented, at the Palestinian’s insistence (“You don’t have to rent a car, I have a car for you. It’s my wife’s old car, she has a new one”).
The repair job would be expensive enough (and it’s held up since). During our stay at the service station (while the mechanics were investigating), my family walked next door to a little convenience store and bought snacks, and the older children played with the baby, to keep her occupied. The Palestinian and I chatted about — what else? — our families, our origins. He was very pleasant and low key, he knew he would make money on the repair job, and yet he was completely conscious of the human dimensions of my situation, and of our similarities: we were both “Josephs,” trying to move our families in safety.
He had a lot of cars on his lot, and he picked out one of the very best for us. I enjoyed the use of that Mercedes for a month, it had style, comfort, room and pep, but that big V8 engine sure gulped gasoline. I could see why he had retired it. Still, I wish I had one again. A month later I picked up our car, returned his, paid our bill, and didn’t see the Palestinian again. Last year, I stopped in to see the station, but it was gone, a new business development occupied the site; nobody knew about any previous gas station. I always think of that Palestinian around Christmas and New Year’s, and whenever I hear the word “Bethlehem.”
One cannot draw any grand international political conclusions out of isolated personal interactions. However, one can be reminded by such interactions that labels, like “Palestinian” or “Iranian” (another story for another time) are not just abstract elements of larger political concepts; they are first and foremost people, most of them good, ordinary, everyday people just like most of “us.” Remembering THAT is the absolute first step to any plan, any action to stop the bombings, the aggression, the land-theft, and the killings in the lands of “Phoenicia and Palestine,” which “will for ever live in the memory of mankind.”
So, in response to any inquiries about my religion, as well as to the Christian sentiments of the season, let me quote myself (from a 2004 essay) to challenge others to try this for religion:
God, let me experience life without thought of profit, preference or death.
Let me know justice, by allowing me to experience the consequences of my acts as others experience them.
Let me know You for what You are: the life in all, the knower, the known and the unknown.
Let me be curious without fear of thought.
Let me be expressive without thought of fear.
Let me be forgiving, an instrument of compassion.
Let me be alert, an instrument of knowledge.
Let me be humane, an instrument of peace.
Let me know truth.
Let me be grateful.
“Palestine’s Gift of Christmas” was originally published at Counter Punch on 22 December 2009.