A man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, was just and devout, “waiting for the consolation of Israel.”
Having lived long enough to see the newborn Jesus brought to the Temple for Jewish rites, Simeon praised God, saying, “Mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.”
According to the American Religious Identification Survey in 2001, 81.1 percent of Americans are Christian, and another 1.4 percent are Jewish.
And if the 81.1 percent take their Bibles seriously, they will recognize that in some sense they are Jewish, too — that this Jesus who is their Lord and Savior is Himself meant to be Israel’s consolation and its glory.
Is it any wonder, then, that the vast majority of the people of this nation have a heartfelt affinity for the state of Israel?
And is it any wonder that the vast majority of Americans are not terribly bothered by religious expression in the public square? That they don’t see how an expression of faith that is offered in, yes, good faith, in an inclusive manner, can possibly be a problem, in a nation where the overwhelming majority of people actually do share that faith in the first place and where the most prominent minority faith is the root from which the majority faith sprang?
OF COURSE, THE 17.5 percent of Americans who don’t share those two faiths therefore do not automatically see reason to celebrate when those faiths are invoked. But are they actually harmed by such invocations? Of course not.
I have an secularist friend, for example, who actually argues against “taking Christ out of Christmas.” Having a holiday called “Christmas” that is full of warm wishes and full of a spirit of giving does no harm to him, he says, and indeed the spirit of the season warms him as well; but he does think it is outrageous for his Christian friends to be made to feel guilty for openly expressing their happiness.
That friend of mine gets it. What he sees is that one man’s faith does not necessarily burden the unbeliever. One man’s joy need not be another’s sorrow.
The genius of the U.S. Constitution is not that it tries to repress faith, but that it encourages faiths of all kinds, or, equally, an antipathy to faith of any kind, to be shouted from the rooftops without fear of reprisal. And if perchance one of those faiths is mentioned in the public square, it still burdens nobody unless coercion is involved.
And, moving to the realm of foreign policy, when a heartfelt affinity for Israel that may happen to be bolstered by religious sentiment is based just as strongly on a shared civic faith in representative government and the rule of law that respects individual rights… well, how, pray tell, do those shared affinities threaten anybody else? Does Israel try to force Judaism on its neighbors? Do we Americans try to turn Middle Eastern nations into Christian satrapies? Of course not. No more so, for instance, than we do anything to try to force Muslims within American borders to accept Jesus as the Son of God or to worship at a Jewish Seder.
(As an aside, it might do a lot of Christians some good to share a table at a Jewish feast. How such warmth and hospitality can ever have been seen as a threat is a mystery indeed. And, to share that hospitality is to make anti-Semitism a bizarre and foreign worldview to any decent human being.)
Nobody, anywhere, is harmed or hindered by a faith that is not forced on those who do not share it.
Even if we Christians believe that our Christ is a light not just to Gentiles but also the glory of Israel, while the people of Israel do not so believe that their glory has been realized in the person of Jesus… well, so what? In our Judeo-Christian tradition, we can all rejoice at each other’s rejoicing. Likewise in our American civic tradition: One man’s celebration can be all men’s celebration, for that which lifts our neighbors lifts us, too.
“In him was life,” writes St. John, “and the life was the light of men.” To such a light, 81.1 percent of us say Amen. And the Amen rings out for the other 18.9 percent as well, not through compulsion, but in an offering of Joy.
Merry Christmas, Light and Life, to all.
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