Tuesday, December 26, 2017

"Though the frost is cruel" certainly rings true

The Stoning of Saint Stephen by Domenico del Barbiere (Met)
Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen
When the snow lay 'round about
Deep and crisp and even

     Kinda late for Christmas carols, ain't it Neil?
     Not really.
     For as many times as you've heard the bouncy opening lines of "Good King Wenceslas," have you ever wondered exactly what "The Feast of Stephen" might be?
     Of course not. That's my job.
     The Feast of Saint Stephen is today, Dec. 26, also known as "Boxing Day." A holiday in Britain and Canada.
     While the Feast of Stephen honors the first Christian martyr of the same name, Boxing Day has nothing to do with pugilism. 
     Rather, it was a day when Christmas boxes were delivered to the poor and to tradesmen—an early form of re-gifting, I assume. You took the fruit cake you didn't want, re-wrapped it and delivered it to the butcher.
    As if that weren't enough, today is also the first day of Kwanzaa, the holiday created in 1966 for black people who wanted a Christmas unsullied by white folks—and given the way white people leave claw marks on Christmas, the stink that Fox News sorts makes over questions like what color Santa Claus should be, who can blame them?
    That's too glib—Kwanzaa is really a celebration of African cultural heritage, and whatever its roots, Kwanzaa is now more of an auxiliary celebration than a replacement. It's there if you want it. Maybe I've been cocooning extra hard, but Kwanzaa seems muted this year—perhaps the trickle-down effect of Trump's general racial contempt. Perhaps people keeping their heads low. Perhaps I am mistaken. 
    With Christmas, 2017 in the books, it's time to begin performing the rites on the year. Typically, in the media, that consists of re-burying celebrities who died over the past 51 weeks, of highlighting the various horrors that occurred, and surveying where one could go to party on Dec. 31.
     I'm not sure I have the stomach for any of that. 
Saint Stephen
     Last year's dirge for 2016 still seems sadly apt.  We already had a sense that Donald Trump wasn't going to rise to the occasion of the presidency, but rather would pull the office down to his level of pettiness, narcissism and deceit. Though it was shocking just how readily an army of GOP quislings lined up to flatter and applaud, that wasn't entirely unexpected either.  Enough; it was bad enough living through 2017, forgive me if I pass on the opportunity to reprise it. 
      Not that we want to forget history. Every time someone speculates whether evangelicals will survive supporting Roy Moore, or Trump, or whatever jaw-dropping moral wrong they're endorsing at the moment, I feel compelled to observe that Christianity endorsed both slavery and Jim Crow for several centuries and came out just fine. It'll survive this too. As St. Stephen reminds us, mythologizing wrongs committed against your own faith while shrugging off crimes your faith commits against others is what religion does, has done, and always will do. Don't hate me for pointing it out.


  1. It isnt the fault of religion ( or democracy) that people can be such astounding hypocrites. Sometimes its more amazing we are capable of such fine and noble sentiments than it is that we fall so far short.

  2. Political tribalism, religious tribalism -- It's us against them. We're always right, they're always wrong. Survival. We can't see beyond the ramparts.

  3. I have to push back against "Christianity endorsed both slavery and Jim Crow for several centuries" -- it is not as if there were a united Christianity doing this. Roman Catholicism and European Protestantism fell away from both support of or tolerance towards or ignoring slavery well before the US Civil War (and in many instances before there was a US, so to speak); and denominations in the states, both pre-nationhood and pre-Civil War were divided on slavery. As for Jim Crow, it would be difficult to make the case that U.S Christianity in its myriad expressions was united in support for it, even as the non-Jim Crow states had their own forms of institutionalized racism (sundown towns, for example). I think Anonymous at 8:40 am has it closer to the truth -- it's pretty amazing that we can be willfully blind to what the lessons of religion should teach us, and as religious institutions are composed of actual humans subject to all the things that religion tries to help them overcome, evil happens and can be woven into the social fabric so that one might not even recognize it.

    1. "With or without religion good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil, that takes religion." Stephan Weinberg

      Neil has driven me, as he often does, to Wikipedia to learn more about St Stephen, which left me somewhat confused. Although he has been dubbed the first Christian Martyr, one wonders if he should indeed be considered a Christian. His death seems to have been an outcome of a dispute between Jewish factions in Jerusalem, with him representing a minority Greek-speaking community that was being given a short stick by the Hebrew-speaking majority. I does seem to have had lasting consequences, as his speech to the Sanhedrin was considered by some Jews to be an anti-Semitic attack on the foundations of Judaism and his death at the hands of Jews providing a rationale for Christian anti-Semitism.


    2. And few if any slave owners in the U.S. were Catholics.

    3. "If any?" There were quite a few Catholic slave owners in Louisiana, and in Catholic parts of Georgia. I suspect the reason there were relatively few Catholics overall who owned slaves was at least as much of an economic one as religious; they were not, as a whole, wealthy enough. I'm not dissing Catholics (I am one), but I don't think Catholics can pat themselves on the back about this, either.

      I think Bill has stated the case very well.

    4. Or that most southerners were Protestants.

    5. Straw man Bill. You draw in "united" to muddy the waters. Nobody suggested that. The hundreds of Christians denominations don't unite on anything. The point that you can't look at is that faith across the board -- Jews too -- tolerated it despite their supposed teachings.

    6. At least the British Prots turned against slavery as far as the trade went, sooner.

    7. I thought we could give the Quakers a pass, but a quick search shows even their history is not unblemished.

    8. Thanks for reminding us, NS, that there were a few Jewish slave owners in the south as well, though few indeed.

      The Quakers usually were helpful to runaway slaves. Some forget that there were Cherokee owners of black slaves as well.

    9. Bill - you are right that not all Christians supported either slavery or the jim crow laws. For example, the movement against slavery in the British Empire was driven by committed Christians like Wilberforce. Christians were also involved in the fight against slavery in the United States. In fact, the Southern Baptist Convention was formed in part because of the disagreement over slavery with churches in the north. However, it is also true that you can find Christians who were strongly in favor of slavery and justified it on various grounds including that it exposed the slaves to Christianity. We may find it embarrassing today but you can still read their justifications. I wonder what later generations will have to embarrassed about when they look at how we have intertwined politics and faith in our society. One other thing to consider - regardless of whether one was for or against slavery, the overwhelming majority of whites in America were racists including people we revere like Lincoln. I doubt we would have been any different if we had lived back then.

    10. Few Jewish people owned other people because then as today there weren't a lot of Jews . The per capital percentage of slave owners was the same as that of other Faith's. All of us have ancesters that were part of this Abomination.

    11. I don't draw in "united" to muddy the waters! I am arguing against using "Christianity" as a monolithic entity that "endorsed" slavery and Jim Crow when the evidence (I say as a non-Christian and former religious scholar) suggests a much more muddled picture -- and indeed one where the actual theology of many denominations was explicitly anti-slavery. If you had said Christianity endorsed anti-Semitism or a secondary status for women, I wouldn't be arguing along these lines, because in those cases there was and is evidence in doctrine and statements of belief and practice for centuries to show that.

      David P. Graf and Wendy C. -- I apparently wasn't clear that I was talking about Catholic and Protestant denominations, not individuals. Wendy, I am specifically not talking about individual faith, but the positions and teachings and statements of the various church bodies.

  4. "-- it is not as if there were a united Christianity doing this."

    Um, yes, there was. Almost every slave owner was a God-fearing Christian, no matter the denomination. You can't absolve faith in this exercise.

  5. Neil, let me make your point stronger. It’s not merely that faith across the board tolerated slavery “despite their supposed teachings.” They tolerated it because of their teachings. The Old Testament is replete with rules for the care and treatment of slaves, one set for Hebrew slaves, another for non- Hebrew. How can slavery be wrong if it’s part of God’s plan? —Gary

    1. When the Founding Fathers talked about all have certain inalienable rights, I am willing to bet that they never thought that it would include those with a different skin color or women. Over time, we learned that those words extended to all Americans. In the same way, over time the new covenant found in Jesus' words turned out to have the same impact. How could you love your neighbor and still make him or her a slave?


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