Exile and the Prophetic: Redeeming the Christmas season?

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This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

So what if there was a Christmas tree at Auschwitz. That doesn’t invalidate Christmas and its symbolism, does it?

Star of David helicopter gunships patrolling the Palestinian sky. That doesn’t invalidate the Star of David so many Jews wear around their neck, does it?

I agree. It doesn’t invalidate anything. It simply places violence and atrocity at the heart of that symbolism and what that symbolism points to.

At the heart of Christianity – and Islam – and Judaism – and modernity – is beauty and violence, a violence we partake in or suffer from.

All the religious symbols I know of are held hostage by their history of violence.

I include the symbolism that adorns modernity and our secular brethren who have their own variation of religion. Since Christianity has been severely disciplined over the centuries, losing – thank God – most of its temporal power, it is modernity and its symbolism that is called upon to justify itself. Like modernity’s progress – and where it has taken us. Like modernity’s technology – and where it has taken us. Like modernity’s social organization – and where it has taken us.

This doesn’t mean our modern salvation play is only bad, corrupt and murderous. Like Christianity and Islam, there are at least two sides to modernity’s coin. Nor can we go back behind our various religions as if there’s a way forward without them. There isn’t.

The same with Judaism and Jewishness? You bet. How sad it is to see us join the parade of religions. There’s no Jewish way back to a place of innocence.

Is there a way a forward? Does that way forward include reclaiming the rich and varied symbolism that what went before us?

If Christmas trees and Stars of David aren’t ‘innocuous,’ are they redeemable? Is it worth trying to redeem the symbols of modernity, the truly great world religion to which every head bows?

Instead of trying to redeem these religions, the need is to establish a justice that forces them to place themselves in the broader stream of life. There they might find strength to look within themselves. What they’ll find is violence. They might find the resources for healing, too.

Whatever the balance and however long it takes, to think that once involved in the cycle of violence and atrocity there is a place of innocence where all can begin again is the mistake of mistakes. It sets everyone up for a repetition, as if history has no lessons to teach or learn.

There’s something more troubling than recognizing violence in what one holds so dear. Once a religion has enabled destruction and death the major force of that religion is always be prone to that way of being in the world. Understanding this, a dissident believer might think it better to abolish their religion than to risk a repeat performance.

Thus the arrival of Christians, Muslims and Jews of Conscience. Those of conscience have to walk their way through the religious symbolism that makes way for violence and destruction. Can we accomplish that walk separately, encased in our own failed religions, or only together, keeping our violating symbolism hidden away?

Whether we like it or not, the exile we feel, the exile we have to undertake – in order to right the course of our inheritance that won’t be righted – that exile is permanent. It is more painful when Christian, Jewish and Muslim holyday symbolism is trotted out. Could there be anything more depressing than the holydays of Christmas, Yom Kippur and Ramadan for religious folks of conscience?

Religion’s holydays are so hypocritical they defy the imagination. Christmas is among them, only to be outdone by Easter. Yom Kippur is among them, only to be outdone by Passover.

Can you imagine celebrating the salvation when that celebration means disaster for others? Christians do.

Can you imagine celebrating your liberation when you are oppressing another people? Jews do.

Can you imagine celebrating the computer and cell phone paraphernalia as the global warms and the seas rise? We do.

Steve Jobs. Our messiah?

The state of Israel. Our redemption?

If there’s a way to redeem the Christmas season or any other religious season it would certainly be important to have a go at it. But, then, after all that reforming it might be exile all around.

Exile isn’t easy. It takes patience and solidarity.

It may be too much to invoke the prophetic amid the Christmas trees that surround us.

Especially in the (un)Holy Land.

About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is retired Director and Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University and author of The Heartbeat of the Prophetic which can be found at Amazon and www.newdiasporabooks.com

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