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Every Monday (except for vacation), Pastor Ryan Ahlgrim will post a scripture passage and commentary, inviting readers to submit their comments for a readers\' dialogue. You are welcome to join the conversation!

Strengthening Democracy

Over Christmas break I read an excellent and provocative book, “How Democracies Die.” The authors, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, are professors of government at Harvard University; one is an expert on Latin American governments, and the other specializes in European governments of the last two hundred years. Between the two of them, they have a wealth of knowledge about the many democracies that have devolved into autocratic dictatorships–and how that happened.

Their first valuable insight is that it is not a constitution of checks and balances that assures the survival of a democracy. Many nations have modeled their constitution on the United States’ constitution, and yet still failed. Rather, what keeps a democracy going are myriad unwritten rules and habits and conventions; democracy depends on a shared agreement to act within certain behavioral and procedural bounds. In other words, democracy depends on a certain amount of decency, fairness, and self-restraint by those exercising political power. When these norms get repeatedly violated and undermined, democracy is in trouble.

Levitsky and Ziblatt zero in on four practices that have doomed democracies, any one of which can endanger democracy: 1) a rejection or weak commitment to democratic rules of the game, 2) a denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, 3) toleration or encouragement of violence, and 4) a readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media. Often a president will be fairly elected and begin by supporting the democratic institutions, but in response to opposition or political logjams, will begin demonizing opponents, packing the judiciary with political allies, limiting the freedom of the press, and then changing the constitution or the rules of the game in order to put one party in perpetual power.

Another valuable insight is that the civility and cooperation of the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States during the first six decades of the twentieth century was due to their implicit agreement to limit the participation of African Americans in the democratic franchise. But with the coming of Civil Rights legislation, and the Democratic Party becoming the party that actively incorporates minorities and promotes minority rights, the old consensus and civility between the two parties disappeared. Ever since, we have become an increasingly politically polarized society. This was exacerbated in the 1980s when Newt Gingrich advocated dispensing with civility and instead going into attack mode whenever possible, demonizing the political opposition. Can we be a democracy that fully includes all of its citizens? We are still working that out. It’s not only a question of whether our democracy will fail, but also a question of whether we have ever been and will become a full democracy.

The last section of the book explores how we can save our democracy. Hard-core liberals and conservatives are unlikely to be pleased with the authors’ suggestions since the path to strengthening democracy depends on fostering mutual respect and moderation. Each political party is tempted to respond to the other’s perceived transgressions by retaliating when they have the opportunity. But this simply strengthens polarization–which puts democracy at yet greater risk. We must renounce hard-ball politics–even if it’s just one side that does so.

One of the big take-aways for me was just how fragile and vulnerable democracy always is. For it to work, we must be always fostering mutual understanding and respect; we must build trust and social capital.

The church is one of those social institutions that could and should be taking a leading role in doing this. Rather than committing itself to one political party or ideology, the church should have a social and political vision that can transcend the partisan divide and demonstrate genuine hospitality and understanding to all. Unfortunately, many churches in the U.S. have been doing the very opposite–making the problem worse.

Ironically, it is churches with a long history of not being nationalistic and political that are best positioned to do this. American democracy just might depend on denominations and religions that have never sought national political power.

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My Disagreement With Jerry Falwell Jr.

Recently the Washington Post published an interview with Jerry Falwell Jr, the president of Liberty University and one of the most influential evangelical leaders in the United States. The subject of the interview was how Falwell, as a Christian, justifies his support for President Trump, despite Trump’s obvious character flaws and record of personal immorality. Falwell’s answers show how he integrates his Christian faith with his political philosophy. I found his answers illuminating, but also problematic. Setting aside the question of whether there are sound Christian grounds for supporting Trump as president, I would like to zero in on Falwell’s political philosophy and my disagreements with his philosophy and biblical understandings.

Falwell begins by making a crucial distinction between the earthly kingdom (nations with their political and economic systems) and the heavenly kingdom that Jesus preached about. According to Falwell: “In the heavenly kingdom the responsibility is to treat others as you’d like to be treated. In the earthly kingdom, the responsibility is to choose leaders who will do what’s best for the country.” In other words, the kingdom Jesus preached is about our personal behavior and relationships, which is quite different from what the policies and procedures of a nation ought to be. “It’s a distortion of the teaching of Christ to say that Jesus taught  love and forgiveness and therefore the United States should be loving and forgiving …. You almost have to believe that this is a theocracy to think … that public policy should be dictated by the teachings of Jesus.”

This is a very interesting argument, and it has much to commend it. First of all, I am glad he did not say that the “heavenly kingdom” only concerns itself with going to heaven after we die. Falwell rightly realizes that when Jesus spoke about God’s kingdom, he was speaking about the kind of behavior and relationships God wants to see right here on earth. As Jesus says in his famous prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.” The “heavenly kingdom” is about bringing heaven to earth, bringing God’s will to this world.

Falwell is also right that most of Jesus’ teachings are about personal relationships, not about the policies that Herod Antipas or the Emperor Tiberius ought to be implementing. Contrary to what some of my scholarly friends would claim, I do not think Jesus taught a political philosophy for nations (for the simple reason that Jesus and his followers had no access to national political systems). Rather, Jesus was relying on God’s kingdom to become a full political reality on earth through the intervention of God, not through government policies.

But the problem with Falwell’s position is that it divorces Jesus and his teachings entirely from how we do our national and international politics. For Jesus, personal morality, communal morality, and government morality are all interrelated. A careful examination of his teaching reveals Jesus’ hope for restructuring society in general: upending social stratification, implementing radical inclusion, and eliminating systems and practices that perpetuate poverty and violence. Jesus was not merely calling on people to be nice in their personal relationships; he was calling on his followers–inspired by God’s grace–to begin a new social vision that would bring an end to violence and needless suffering–particularly among the poor.

Jesus didn’t have a political philosophy (in the modern sense) because he did not belong to a nation with a representational government. But since we live in a democracy in which all of us share (however attenuated) in the process of shaping the policies and decisions of the government, we need to translate Jesus’ social and moral vision for our nation’s situation.

Falwell is right, though, that we cannot simply turn Jesus’ teachings into laws or public policy. Love, forgiveness, and nonviolence are not practical principles for running a government. There is indeed a fundamental difference between the community of faith (the church) that lives out Jesus’ teachings in as full a way as possible, and the national government which has a responsibility of bringing order to a pluralistic society, enforcing laws and protecting citizens from injustice and invasion. Nevertheless, we can and should take our values and hopes–many of which we learn from Jesus–and bring them into the public square for debate and possible implementation through policies and legislation (if not in violation of the Constitution’s stipulated rights and form of government).

Since Falwell divorces Jesus’ teachings from government policies, his political philosophy becomes simply “national interest.” For Falwell, this primarily means promoting the commercial wealth of our nation. He backed Donald Trump for president because of his business acumen: “Our country was so deep in debt and so mismanaged by career politicians that we needed someone who was not a career politician, but someone who’d been successful in business to run the country like a business.” One can argue whether Donald Trump’s business success and acumen have been greatly exaggerated, and one can also argue that the tax cut he gave to businesses and the richest Americans has created an even more enormous national debt. But let’s set that debate aside. Let’s focus on the claim that what matters most in a president (at this time in our history) is that we have an outsider businessperson who will lead us into greater commercial wealth.

Enhancing the health of the economy is, of course, a very reasonable and important goal. As Falwell points out, our current economic recovery is helping to alleviate poverty by giving us some of the highest rates of employment–including among the poor–that our nation has ever had. If alleviating poverty is a key Christian concern, then supporting a president who bolsters the economy makes a lot of sense.

But economic health needs to be a long-term strategy, not a short-term gain for businesses. In the long term, we need reasonable regulations so that businesses–for the sake of maximizing their profits–do not put our health and environment at risk or cheat in the stock market. We need sufficient taxation to pay for the many necessary government services and national infrastructure. We need a sufficient safety net for those who cannot find full employment.

Presidents need to be more than successful business people from outside the beltway. For a president to get things fixed and be politically successful, he or she needs to work with Congress–and that necessitates the kinds of political skills and knowledge that the career politicians have. It also requires the ability to compromise and work across the aisle. In addition, the president is responsible for foreign policy, and so it is important that he or she possess deep geopolitical knowledge and be able to work effectively with allies.

Finally, Falwell believes that questions of moral character are to a large extent beside the point in choosing a president: “I don’t think you can choose a president based on their personal behavior.” This is because everyone is a sinner, everyone has flaws, and even the most decent-looking candidate may have done terrible things we don’t know about. “So you don’t choose a president based on how good they are; you choose a president based on what their policies are.” There is some validity in this perspective. One could also make the argument that sometimes in crisis situations you need a tough character–even a scoundrel–not a nice, decent president.

But being tough, pugnacious, and “politically incorrect” is different from being so amoral (or immoral) that the president puts his or her own interests ahead of the interests of the nation and preserving the integrity of the government and the well-being of the world in which we all must live. Character matters. It can mean the difference between a president and a dictator; it can mean the difference between preserving democracy and undermining democracy; it can mean the difference between getting accurate information and being fed lies; it can mean the difference between protecting rights and violating rights; it can mean the difference between bridging our differences and polarizing us even further; it can mean the difference between valuing pluralism and breeding prejudice; it can mean the difference between negotiation with an opponent and self-serving war. In addition, character in a president has a “trickle down” effect: it influences the character of society as a whole. If the president is crude, others are emboldened to become crude; if the president is utterly selfish, others–in and out of government–will follow his lead.

The problem with Falwell’s Christian political philosophy is that it fails to be in any way visibly Christian.

Isaiah 42:1-4

This brief passage from Isaiah is truly remarkable. It envisions the establishment of justice throughout the earth without the use of any coercion.

It is nearly impossible for us to imagine this. Justice has always been something imposed by a stronger force. When we were children, our parents likely imposed justice when squabbles emerged with our siblings. “You cheated!” “That’s not fair!” “I’m going to tell Mom!” We depended on our parents to establish order in our lives–an order that was fair to all. Our parents likely established that order through rules backed up by sanctions for noncooperation–such as taking away toys, or putting us in time-out, or (my parents’ preferred punishment) a swat on the rear.

As adults, we rely on courts and police and prisons to establish justice. If we think we are being treated unfairly, or someone has been negligent against us, we sue in order to get justice. If someone has attacked us or is breaking into our house, we call the police to arrest the offender.

On the level of international relations, nations depend on their military forces to defend their rights and resources, or they call upon an international court to arbitrate disputes and impose fines.

At every level in our society and world, some sort of greater coercive power backs up the maintenance of justice. Of course, one of the drawbacks to this system is that whoever has the most coercive power imposes their own justice–a justice that almost invariably favors the one with the most power. Might makes right. Or to put it a little differently, might gets to define what is right.

The ideal of justice in American society is that justice is blind; in other words, justice should not show any preferences–everyone should receive the same treatment regardless of wealth, race, gender, orientation, religion, etc. This is a wonderful ideal. But our own system of imposing justice through coercion–through the presence or application of greater force–tends to undermine this ideal. That’s because those who exercise coercive power (e.g. judges, police, governors) see the world through their own eyes, and they tend not to be able to see and experience the world the way the poorest and powerless do. The powerless, by definition, do not have access to coercive power, and thus they do not get to define justice; as a result, justice tends not to favor the powerless.

Isaiah dreams of another way for justice to be realized. Justice is not imposed by whoever possesses the tools of coercion; rather, justice comes about through gentle persuasion. The truest, purest justice comes from a stance of complete non-coercion.

But how can this be possible? Surely, without coercive power to back it up, justice will never happen; those most willing to use force will impose their own rough justice.

Isaiah’s hope is that God’s servant, filled with God’s Spirit, who is utterly persistent and impossible to crush, will carry out this nonviolent justice. Who is this servant? A close reading of the various “servant songs” in Isaiah make it clear that Isaiah is thinking of the people of Israel. The servant is God’s people–a people who have been conquered, deported, and made powerless. Nonetheless, they now have a different kind of power–the power of God’s Spirit, and God will use them to peacefully bring about a new kind of justice in the world. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but eventually and inevitably.

Isaiah had the people of God in mind, but the followers of Jesus could not help but see Jesus himself as the embodiment of this hope. Jesus epitomizes what Isaiah dreamed of. One of the things that makes sacred scripture Scripture is its ability to speak to us on multiple levels. Both interpretations are right: the servant is both the people of God and  Jesus. And for those of us who follow Jesus, we carry on this task of bringing forth justice through peaceful persuasion, by the power of God’s Spirit.

It begins in our homes in how we parent. It continues in how we order our life together as a congregation. And it becomes a witness to society, providing a kind of leavening influence. As a community of faith, ordered by love, we show society another way to achieve justice. It will never be complete in this world; it will never be perfect through our efforts. But we continue to live it out persistently until God brings about its fulfillment.

Isaiah 11:1-9

Edward Hicks, an early nineteenth century Quaker minister and artist, was inspired by Isaiah’s vision of wild animals–hunter and prey–lying together in peace. He was so focused on the theme, he painted sixty-two versions of “The Peaceable Kingdom.” Even in other paintings, he still included this theme. Hicks was not imagining that there would come a time when wolves lie down with lambs, or that lions will eat straw like an ox. He did not take Isaiah’s vision literally. Rather, he saw it as hope for a world in which competing nations–very different from each other–would learn to live in peace. In the background of “The Peaceable Kingdom,” behind all the peacefully reclining animals, one can see settlers and Native Americans making a treaty together. (Quakers were proud of their good and peaceful relations with Native Americans in Pennsylvania.)

I suspect Hicks has correctly interpreted Isaiah 11, particularly verses 6-9. Isaiah’s hope, and Isaiah’s vision, is one of world peace. It is a kind of return to the Garden of Eden, a restoring of the harmony humanity was always meant to have.

But how does Isaiah believe such a restoration or redemption of the world will come about? In verse 1 he hopes for a new king to arise–a king who will come from the line of David (a royal line that has been cut down). Why must this new king be a descendant of David? Because David symbolizes the ideal king who was blessed by God with an eternal promise of favor. (The real King David was a scoundrel and philanderer and murderer, but that’s beside the point.) This new king, though, will be much better than David. He will be filled with the Spirit of God. What this means, primarily, is that he will have God-inspired wisdom and righteousness. This will enable him to promote God’s ideal justice: a justice that is never misguided by selfish influences or false perceptions, and a justice that is focused on fairness and protection for the poor and powerless.

How different this kind of justice is from the kind of justice we often see around us! Today we see justice that often favors the police when they shoot unarmed and sometimes innocent people. We see justice that favors white people when they “stand their ground” and kill people of color, but which arrests (or kills) people of color who “stand their ground” when using lethal force. We see justice that targets people of color for arrest. We see justice that favors the defendant who can pay for their own lawyer. We see justice that through fines and bail jails the poor for being poor and keeps their poverty going. We see justice that shoots tear gas at men, women and children who are desperate to find asylum in the United States. We see justice that separates babies and children from their immigrant parents. We see justice that passes laws favored by corporate lobbyists and the rich. Isaiah dreams of a very different justice.

The new king will also conquer his enemies, but not in the traditional way of military might and weaponry. Rather, “he will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked.” In other words, his words will conquer. His power is the power of persuasion and moral authority.

Then comes the scene of wild animals resting together, and children playing with them. “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” Ultimately, world peace depends on widespread “knowledge of God.” What does this mean? Does it mean everyone has to believe in the existence of God? Does it mean everyone has to become doctrinally correct? No. To know God means to live for that which is greater than ourselves: to live for goodness, justice, love. To know God means to live a life for others rather than for ourselves. It is a “spiritual” life–a life not based on materialism and self-interest, but based on a commitment to the ideal good, no matter what the personal consequences. As 1 John 4:7 says, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.”

As the Jesuit paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin, wrote: when humanity learns to harness the power of love we will have, for the second time, discovered fire.

It is love that is the key to world peace. And the new king Isaiah hoped for has already come: the King of love, Jesus. It is not nationalism that we should be pushing, or militarism, or even some brand of religious orthodoxy. We should be harnessing the power of love. When love covers the earth like waters covers the sea, world peace will not be only a dream.

Micah 4:1-4

The first three verses are virtually word-for-word the same as Isaiah 2:2-4. This immediately raises the question: Was the prophet Micah quoting from the prophet Isaiah, or was Isaiah quoting from Micah, or were they both quoting from another source? The question cannot be answered, but obviously this particular vision of world peace was so appealing it found its way into two prophetic books!

It continues to be one of the most appealing passages in all of the Old Testament. It beautifully articulates the desire for all war to come to an end everywhere, and instead for humanity to cultivate the fruits of peace.

Micah 2:4 adds a verse that is not in Isaiah which gives the vision a more personal touch. In addition to the grand vision of nations turning their weapons into farm implements, verse 4 speaks of each individual (or rather, each individual family) being able to sit peacefully in their own vineyard, with each family having enough resources to survive, unafraid of someone taking it away.

This vision contains several hopes that we need to ponder:

  • Rather than believing that war is inevitable, this vision believes in world peace. Do we?
  • Rather than viewing humanity’s salvation as simply spiritual, this vision affirms a salvation that is social and political. Do we?
  • Rather than hoping for salvation outside this world, this vision hopes for salvation in this world. Do we?

The realist will say that this vision is impossible. And the realist would be right–it is impossible. But that then opens up two possibilities: either (1) God will do the impossible, intervening in normal human history, or (2) this vision is meant to motivate us to work towards it always, even though it can never be fully achieved. Perhaps we are to believe in both.

A few other observations about this vision:

  • According to this vision, world peace will result when God is worshiped by all nations. Why is that? Because all will be operating from the same moral template (“out of Zion shall go forth instruction”). What made Israel’s faith unique, and their concept of God unique, was their assertion that God stands for justice and goodness and mercy, and that Israel’s God is not a local God but the universal God. In other words, there is a built-in universal moral order. The task of Israel is to get as many people as possible on board with this universal moral order.
  • In contrast, many people today try to achieve world peace through a kind of polytheism–affirming every individual or cultural set of values. That can work in personal relationships, but we still need a common legal and political framework to make society work as a whole. Thus, a unified moral vision is necessary for a functioning society.
  • The universal moral vision hoped for in this passage is not imposed on all the people of the world; rather, all freely embrace it. This is not a world order of peace imposed by a powerful empire. This is a peaceful world order achieved through moral and spiritual persuasion. Persuasion implies not simply affirming everyone’s values. Persuasion implies that we are advocating for a particular set of values grounded in a particular spiritual relationship.
  • Peace also depends on everyone being able to economically survive. Until we find a way for everyone to have their own vine and fig tree–the basic resources needed to flourish–there will be no peace. I think this inevitably means that those of us with an overabundance of basic resources may need to give some of it up. This is not a world of infinite resources.

Micah’s vision inspires and motivates me to be an untiring advocate for Jesus’ moral vision, grounded in trust in a gracious, nonviolent God. I want to see as much peacemaking here on earth as possible. I want to see as much economic justice here on earth as possible. I want to see as much salvation here on earth as possible. I will not settle for giving in to the “is.” I will always live for the “ought.” And I will trust in God to have it turn out rightly in the end.

Daniel 7:1-22

Next Sunday begins the season of Advent, so for the next four weeks I will reflect on four Old Testament passages that will be read at the beginning of the four Advent services.

The Book of Daniel was likely written during a time of severe persecution of the Jews in the second century B.C. The Greek empire created by Alexander the Great ruled Judea, and the ruler Antiochus Epiphanes was particularly intent on replacing the Jewish faith and way of life with Greek-style civilization. Those Jews who resisted were killed. The Book of Daniel was written to give guidance and encouragement and hope during this desperate time when Judaism faced possible extinction.

Chapter 7 is the climax of the book, expressing the hope that God’s kingdom will come and replace all the violent and vicious human kingdoms that have oppressed the Jews. The chapter begins with a vision. Daniel sees four great beasts come out of the sea. The sea is a symbol of chaos in the Bible. In the very first chapter of the Bible, before anything is created, the waters of chaos are present (Genesis 1:2). God’s creation of the earth consists of dividing and ordering that watery chaos. At the end of the Bible, the sea is gone–indicating the elimination of all sources of chaos (Revelation 21:1).

Out of the sea of chaos come four beasts: a winger lion, a bear, a four-headed leopard, and an especially fierce dragon-like creature. These four beasts represent four empires that conquered and ruled over the Jews: the Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians, and the Greeks. The ten horns on the fourth beast represent the ten kings that succeeded Alexander the Great. The little horn that uproots some of the other horns is Antiochus Epiphanes who gained the throne by eliminating others. But in verse 11, the judgment of God causes the fourth beast to be destroyed.

Then comes the grand finale. In verse 13 Daniel sees “one like a son of man” coming with the clouds of heaven. The phrase “one like a son of man” means one that looks like a human being. The clouds of heaven bring this person before God, “the Ancient of Days,” and God gives him kingship and glory and dominion over all peoples of the earth forever. This is the coming of the kingdom of God (which Jesus would announce a couple of centuries later).

Who is the “one like a son of man”? Christians, of course, readily identify him with Jesus. Jesus himself used the phrase “son of man” to refer to himself, and he may have had Daniel 7 in mind.

But for the author of the Book of Daniel, “one like a son of man” refers to the faithful Jewish people as a whole. In verses 19-22 an explanation is given regarding the fourth beast and the coming of God’s kingdom. The explanation concludes by saying, “and the time arrived when the holy ones gained possession of the kingdom.” The people of God–the holy ones–are personified in a human-like figure that stands before God. Daniel may have had the archangel Michael in mind–the angel that represents the Jewish people.

“One like a son of man” is capable of multiple and flexible meanings, and one of the characteristics of the Bible is that its symbols may be applied in different ways for different occasions. There is no contradiction between saying “one like a son of man” refers to the archangel Michael, as well as to the faithful people of God, as well as to Jesus.

I think it is noteworthy that this final empire, unlike the empires that come before it, is human-like instead of beastly. It is pictured as a human instead of as a monster. Ironically, our human empires are monstrous whereas only God’s empire is truly humane. Only when we orient ourselves toward the God of love and goodness do we become truly human.

Daniel 7 continues to be a vision of hope for us today. We do not know how or when God’s empire will come, but we have been assured that it has already begun in Jesus and continues to be embodied in a preliminary way through communities of faith and love that follow him. Perhaps the seeds of God’s empire are growing even now and will gradually come to fruition here on earth. Or perhaps we are to live out God’s empire faithfully and patiently, regardless of the ups and downs of history, until the day when God brings the empire suddenly and completely. Either way, our mission remains the same: live it out now, and don’t give up hope.

Time for Some New Holidays

Thanksgiving is coming up in a few days, but does anybody really care? It’s been squeezed out of relevance.

This year I noticed that the local Kroger store began selling ceramic pumpkins for Halloween at the end of July, and the local Lowes store put up its Christmas displays the day after Halloween. Thanksgiving has virtually disappeared–at least from a business standpoint.

Sure, lots of people will still get together this Thursday to eat turkey and green bean casserole, and there will still be a Macy’s parade and football games to watch, and there will still be Black Friday sales the next day, but how much do we think about–or care about–the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, or whether or not we give thanks to God for all our bounty? Compared to the attention this holiday received in my youth, Thanksgiving is a shadow of its former self.

I suppose this has happened for two reasons: (1) businesses find it more profitable to begin the Christmas shopping season after Halloween instead of waiting until after Thanksgiving, and (2) we now realize the Mayflower pilgrims’ relations with the Native Americans were not so commendable.

It’s not just Thanksgiving, though, that’s in trouble. I think many of our holidays are suffering from a lack of meaning. Now they exist primarily for the sake of selling candy and cars. All of them have been commercialized into sterility. Christmas, that jangly, gaudy, empty excuse for excess epitomizes this process.

American society desperately needs to re-focus some of its holidays before it entirely loses its soul. Let me suggest three possibilities:

  • Change Veterans Day back to Armistice Day. In 1938 an act of Congress made November 11th–the anniversary of the end of World War 1–a national holiday called Armistice Day. It was “a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace.” But in 1954 Congress changed its mind, renaming it Veterans Day, a day to honor veterans. I do not oppose honoring veterans, but I do lament that we no longer have a day dedicated to the pursuit of world peace. Couldn’t Veterans Day be moved to Armed Forces Day (in May) so we could once again have a day focused on how we might build peace more effectively?
  • Change Thanksgiving to Native American Day. Instead of a holiday for mindless gluttony, how about a day for lamenting the European-led genocide of the Native American people? We could still remember those Mayflower pilgrims, but in a fuller way. Let’s tell the whole story, including the fact that virtually all of the land we live on today was stolen from the indigenous population. And let’s bring the story up to date by looking at the dismal conditions of the current Reservation system.
  • Change Christmas from an orgy of presents for ourselves into a day dedicated to the poor–just the poor. According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was born into circumstances of extreme poverty; in fact, it was exactly this poverty which was the God-given “sign” that the savior of the world had been born (Luke 2:12). Jesus would grow up to make pronouncements such as: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). So let’s make this a national holiday for combating poverty and looking to the poor for our own salvation.

Of course, American businesses–let alone Congress–have no interest in making these changes. So change won’t come from them. Change will have to come from us. We will just need to begin renaming and re-focusing these holidays until enough people are doing it that it just might catch on.