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Issue Date:  December 23, 2005

From the Editor's Desk

Accepting tolerance with humility

What a fitting end to this year that we would have to gingerly pick our way through the season, dodging the shrapnel of the “Christmas war.”

I was grateful to see comedian Jackie Mason campaigning on Fifth Avenue on behalf of the “Jews for ‘It’s OK to say Merry Christmas’ ” campaign. It made lots of people happy.

I found myself wishing that comedians would surface to mediate other elements of the culture wars, people who could raise the laughter level and dial down the volume and vitriol a bit.

If a consensus about saying Merry Christmas and the displaying of mangers and angels is indeed developing, it means that maybe we’re reaching an acceptable degree of civility over the issue. Some would have us believe that the whole of Christianity is at stake, that this is some kind of battle for the soul of our faith. Piffle. It is a battle for the right to feel comfortable and unembarrassed about commandeering public space for a few weeks for some religious symbols that, while wonderfully sentimental and heartwarming, have little to do with the real activity of faith.

Mind you, I love it all. I am not a Scrooge. I love the rush of childhood memories, of a time when it was presumed that Christianity was the local and national religion, that the bells and the lights and the occasional crèche were proof that we were good and godly people, when Jews were quiet about it all and when there wasn’t a mosque within a hundred miles of my little town.

We all know that scenario has been turned upside down. If we come to some accommodation of public religious symbols it is with a far different understanding of what it means to live in a pluralistic society and with respect for differing beliefs.

The trick is in not overstating the meaning of such agreement. “War” means a winner and a loser. For too many, I fear, public manger scenes and Merry Christmas greetings become self-congratulatory symbols of some sort of victory. They mean in some minds that “Christian” culture is again in ascendancy and taking a rightful place of honor and power.

That, of course, is antithetical to everything we believe began with that humble birth in Bethlehem. We have to remember that Jesus turned religious and civil presumptions on their heads. We do badly, always have, wielding power in God’s name. We do badly presuming that because we are free and rich and powerful, we are necessarily blessed by God.

Better, I think, to accept whatever tolerance others have for our traditions and symbols with graciousness and humility, to thank them for their tolerance, and to quietly wish for ourselves a commensurate understanding and acceptance of their traditions and symbols.

In that spirit, from all of us at NCR, Merry Christmas!

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, December 23, 2005

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