The very first Christmas card that I received this December was from a Sikh friend in Thailand. He and his family fondly wished my family and me a Merry Christmas and a joyous New Year. As the cards continued to come in from all over the world, I realized that some were from Buddhists, some from Hindus, and yes, there were even similar greetings from Muslims. Growing up in India I remember often being greeted at Christmas with the words, “Bada din mubarrak,” which literally means “Greetings on the Big Day.” We would accordingly greet them in response and welcome them to our house for some sweets and delicacies.
A greeting such as this was not exactly meant to be a doctrinal test for orthodoxy, either by the greeter or by the greeted. I don’t recall my Hindu friends questioning the “bigness” of the day and asking for a change in the greeting. Even unbelievers understood the courtesy of wishing someone well on that special day. Yet, here in North America a strange reversal has been taking place. All around us “Christmas bashing” has gone on. After all, not everybody believes in it, so why should anyone be wished well at Christmas?
The ubiquitous American Civil Liberties Union, ever present to eradicate belief from the public square, lent its oppressive muscle to those who denied any government or state agency the freedom to put up a Christmas tree, or children to sing Christmas carols in schools. In keeping with that hollowness, a vacuous ceremonial pronouncement came at the lighting for the “People’s Tree” on Capitol Hill. This way the ceremony only offended the people for whom the tree was a celebration of the true meaning of Christmas and protected the rights of those who want the benefits of the season without the reason.
One civil libertarian, yes, one, demanded of a school in New Jersey that no Christmas tunes be played because it was not just the words that offended his sensitivities but the melodies as well. I heard one well-known talk-show host, a guru of psychological harmony and wellbeing, acknowledge that she would be offended if she were wished a “Merry Christmas.” Is the day coming when someone will be uncomfortable with “Good Morning” as a greeting because the word “good” is a derivative of God and they would not want to offend an atheist?
To be sure, this bigotry has come from our new cultural ethos of tolerance—something by which cultural liberals mean a society that allows only their views to be expressed in public while banishing everyone else’s views to their private chambers. And so the “Happy Holidays” rolled in on the heels of “Turkey Day” with the spirited haters of the season venting their vitriol against those whom they castigate for “audaciously claiming” these to be religious holidays. (Fortunately, most of them do not realize that the very word “holiday” is derived from the word “holy” or that would send them poring through a revisionist dictionary to re-baptize that word as well!) This microcosm is only a small portion of the bigger picture: Western civilization is on the verge of spiritual bankruptcy as it moves steadily towards cultural suicide.
As I have pondered this, I have been wondering what has happened to the West in general and to America in particular. Where has this culture lost its way? Europe, of course, long secularized, mocks America’s religious belief and wonders when we will come of age. I suppose they are delighted to see this outrage towards Christmas as at least a small glimmer of hope for them that we too will join their ranks of secularism writ large in our worldview.
Italy’s European Affairs Minister, Rocco Buttiglione, reminded Europeans how pagan they have become when he wrote in an article that by European standards, George Bush would be considered unfit for his job not for any other reason but for his religious beliefs. Even worse, said he, European legislators marvel that President Bush is “not ashamed” to express these beliefs. These are the very beliefs that prompted Buttiglione himself to withdraw his candidacy for the European Union’s Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner. Is it possible, do you suppose, that Europe’s anti-God stance made him realize that their definitions of justice and home affairs amount to nothing, and therefore, why would he want to become the Minister of Nothing?
That aside, a venomous and brazen anti-Christian attitude is now wielded in the West. We must ask ourselves an awful lot of questions to understand how this came to be. How did it come about that while so-called Muslim scholars do not hesitate to admit that Islam and democracy are not compatible, a Muslim can still have democratic rights to call his festivals by their names while Christians cannot? How is it that while Muslim radicals attacked the United States—and still set their sights on its destruction and on killing those within their own moderate ranks who would challenge them—the Koran is required reading at some academic institutions in the West, though in those same institutions the Bible is mocked in their classrooms?
How is it that a Muslim in Canada can get away with demanding that the Shari’a law be introduced into the Canadian legal code but would scream outrage if a westerner in a Muslim country were to ask to be tried by his own legal system? Why is it that the Hindu American Foundation is filing amicus briefs in two cases before the Supreme Court siding with the removal of the Ten Commandments from public display—one engraved on a war memorial from years before—when they would be incensed if a Christian in India asked that all Hindu relics and art from Indian courtrooms be removed because the country, by its own pronouncement, is “secular”? I know it doesn’t sound politically correct to ask such questions but wouldn’t they ask the same questions if they were in this position of being singled out for banishment?
You see, it is a bigger issue than Christmas carols being banned. Something has gone radically wrong in the West. The powers that are at work behind the scenes think they know what they are doing by pandering to the destroyers of America’s historic faith, but in reality, they don’t have the foggiest notion of what is actually at stake here. While in America we may think that by evicting the “Christian God” from its public square it is rending the arena neutral, we are ignorant of the reality that, in the long run, Eastern religions will not allow them such “no man’s zone.” Europe will find out that once Turkey is admitted into the European Union, their leaders will have to be careful about what public statements they may make about God. Nature abhors a vacuum, especially a spiritual one, and though this flirtation with absolute secularism may win the momentary dawn of a new era, it will lose the day to more strident religions than the Christian belief. Of that, I am certain. Ask any Muslim missionary that question and he or she will tell you that is so.
How did we get here?
The truth is that America’s values are based upon the bequest of a Judeo-Christian worldview. Take a look at the founding of the nation. The Federalist Papers that argued for the unification of the states did so for many reasons. One was that “Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government” for the quest of life and liberty, which they deemed “unalienable rights,” gifts from the Creator. They spoke of “Nature, and Nature’s God.” They pledged their commitment to the statutes with “sacred honor.”
The last verse and chorus of The Star-Spangled Banner reads:
“Oh thus be it ever when freeman shall stand Between their loved homes and war’s desolation; Blest with victory and peace, may the Heaven-rescued land Praise the Power that had made and preserved us a nation. Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just; And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.” And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
This was composed in 1814. Not long after that America, The Beautiful was penned, in which it was recognized that God had shed His grace on America for good and for brotherhood. And in 1832 America was written:
Long may our land be bright With freedoms’ holy light, Protect us by Thy might Great God, our King!
But it was not just America’s songs that acknowledged God; it was her leaders’ thoughts as well. In his Gettysburg Address in 1863 Lincoln closed with the prayer, “That this nation under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” Earlier that year, in The Emancipation Proclamation, he had closed with the words, “I invoke the considerable judgment of mankind and the gracious favor of Almighty God.” And years before that, the Declaration of Independence ended with the words, “With a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our Sacred Honor.”
Now one wonders, what do these words mean? Sacred… Honor…Holy… Providence… God? You can be absolutely sure that if the American Civil Liberties Union had their way, these words would never have made it into these songs and documents as national sentiments. They simply “violate the sensitivities” of the irreligious or the die-hard secularists for whom this world and this world alone must define freedom.
How, then, did we get to the point where such power is wielded by those who, in the name of freedom, deny us the right to preserve our historic traditions? A foreign friend once asked me what the American Civil Liberties Union stood for. I sarcastically said, “None of the above.” But the more I pondered that response the more I realized how true it is. It is certainly not American because it denies both the worldview that framed America’s founding documents and denies a vast majority of Americans the right to enjoy their festivals the way they always have been enjoyed. It is not civil because it redefines civility by making us think that tolerance only works one-way. It certainly does not understand liberty because liberty is not the bequest of naturalism. Naturalism begets a nature “red in tooth and claw” and makes determinism inevitable. That is not liberty. Liberty is the gift of the One who made us with intrinsic worth and taught us to respect life and property. And as for “union”, they spend millions of dollars to spread disunity. So much for their name and mission!
Sometime following Christmas, writer Tom Wolfe was being interviewed on his most recent book, I Am Charlotte Simmons. The storyline is woven against the backdrop of the hedonism that now runs through the veins of the American academy. The interviewer asked him how he thought such thinking became legitimized in our culture. Wolfe was unhesitating in his answer: It was when Nietzsche pronounced “the death of God” in the late nineteenth century. I have asserted that sequence for years. One can argue with the exact dating of the transition but who can argue against the logic of that assertion? Dostoevsky had said that if God is dead anything is permissible.
Nietzsche died at the beginning of the twentieth century. Take a look at the slide from that time to where we found ourselves by the end of that century. Abortion of the unborn has reached astronomic proportions. Even Edward Kennedy, an extreme liberal, averred that we should be trying to curtail the number of abortions. One shudders to wonder who, amid the myriad babies that have been killed in the womb, have we decimated along the way? Could there have been a mind that could have developed a cure for cancer? Could there have been another Martin Luther King or an Einstein or a Churchill or for that matter, another Mother Teresa—those who fought for the weak? Proponents of the right to abort fail to deal with the reality of what we are silencing amid the noise of our “rights”. Millions, even nations, have been banished to the domain of the voiceless.
That is the logic of killing God, isn’t it? Having killed Him we had to find a justification for killing other realities as well. But that was going to take genius of a different sort. Killing God was easier because the “right to belief” has a ring of goodness to it. How were we going to attack different moral frameworks? We altered such realities by rewording our acts. Rather than calling it the “freedom to destroy,” which it really is, we call it “freedom of choice.” Those who treat life as sacred are now the killers—the killers of choice. Anyone who believes in the parameters of sexual sanctity is the killer of freedom and pleasure. Even marriage has been desacralized so that we no longer have homes, we have “civil unions,” and why should anyone argue against a “civil” union? By rewording something you alter its look.
But the mask is taken off when you get closer and listen more intelligently to the voice behind the masquerade. Did you see and hear, during the American election, the hatred being vented against the Right by these voices? Don’t forget they are the same ones who want laws passed against “hate speech.” Canada, interestingly, while considering the provisions of the Shari’a law for the Muslim, is at the same time making it illegal to speak out against homosexuality. The former would make blasphemy against the Islamic sacred beliefs a crime and the latter will stifle the pulpit on the sanctity of sex. The follower of the Shari’a will be able to make any pronouncements against the Christian faith and the person who believes sex is nothing more than a personal choice can castigate the Bible as sexist. So in effect, the Christian faith becomes the sole voice silenced.
Did you hear the Hollywood elite speak with passion against The Passion of the Christ? The actor Jon Voigt scathingly attacked Mel Gibson for focusing so much on the gruesome. What? Did I hear him correctly? I had to see humor in that attack, for two miracles had taken place. A relativist had finally admitted that violence on the screen can be overdone, and second, that the screen can change behavior in the viewer. Please take note. Voigt—who starred in Deliverance, which I am told is a graphic, disturbing film—and others like him resented a film for being ideologically driven but crowned Michael Moore’s film with the highest praise. They were disturbed, they said, because the film was too violent. Are these not the same purveyors of violence who are outraged by censors?
Why all this anger, I ask? This is not a little tempest in a teapot. This is a firestorm intended for one purpose alone—to silence Christianity. Can you see the trend? First, we kill God. Then, we kill man. And to justify it all, we kill language. But language is guaranteed as part of our freedom. How does a purveyor of free speech kill the right of others to have the same privilege? This is cleverly done by transferring their hatred onto those they wish to silence—and the word “phobia” is added to anything they are against. Funny, they have never thought of themselves as Christophobes.
To drive home the last stake and elevate their view they co-opt the scientific community and come up with an educated response. Enter Richard Dawkins of Oxford, who has proposed that religion is a virus that has made its way into the software of some DNA, and therefore, it must be expunged. This is liberalism’s cure for the malady that plagues their freedom. Moral absolutes, according to such demagoguery, are the bane of our existence brought into play by the virus of religion.
Here is the conclusion. No, they are not against absolutes. They are only absolute relativists. No, the destroyers of our cultural values are not against freedom. They are only against the freedoms of those who challenge them. No, they are not against phobias. They are only against the phobias that others have. No, they are not against the sacred—the head of the ACLU is brilliantly ordained as a reverend. They are only against God. No, they are not against killing. They are only against those who kill for different reasons to theirs.
I do not recall hearing anything from Michael Moore when Saddam Hussein slaughtered his thousands. Where is his bleeding heart when tens of thousands of Christians are martyred and brutalized in so many totalitarian regimes? Did we hear a whimper from Hollywood a few short years ago when a Christian leader was brutally murdered by the Iranian authorities? I can accept the argument of the person who cries out against the slaughter of innocents in the war in Iraq if at the same time that person cried out against all slaughter of innocents.
No, that does not happen. I could list a dozen other such glaring inconsistencies. But herein is the cancer within the soul of our cultural relativists. The slide has taken place because the West wanted to remove any warning sign that cried “Stop!” to living with contradiction. Christianity makes such a challenge. Relativists decry the violence in The Passion because it exposes the violence in our own hearts. They redefine words because they refuse to recognize that “In the beginning was the Word.” Their peace is a bundle of contradictions because they reject the Prince of Peace. They have killed truth because truth is too coherent for them and they want the benefit of incoherence. They are terrified of some “fundamentalist takeover” and so assign phobias to their opponents.
When you stop and think about it, it has been the same right from the beginning of human history, hasn’t it? “Has God said?” in the Garden of Eden was followed by “You shall surely not die.” The fear of God was replaced by the fear of losing “freedom.” Adam and Eve failed to realize then, and we fail to realize now, that there is no such thing as absolute civil liberty. If mine is to be guarded someone else’s will have to be restricted and the reverse is true. Absolutes always restrict for the right reasons. And it is all born out of one thing, “sacred honor”—to honor God and your fellow human being. Only in that sequence can life be lived out logically.
Cultural liberalism had better wake up to the truth. The bottom line is that humanity is broken on the inside. We live with contradiction because life has fallen apart within. We dress it up with language like makeup plastered over a corpse, as if we have given it life again. Until we see the truth of our own brokenness we will be shattering everything and making a hell around us. This is where reality has a strange way of calling our bluff. God does not leave us destitute. In no uncertain terms He shows us a glimmer of hope, not the bankruptcy of the relativists’ answers but the image of God deposited in their souls, revealed by their questions.
A rude awakening
And amid all our self-centeredness, a rude awakening has come to us as an earthquake of gigantic proportions rocked continents the day after Christmas, and tens of thousands of people were swept into the sea. This is a tragedy too horrific to imagine. We have all sat glued to our television sets numbed by the loss of life. What is the question the cultural liberal asks? How can God allow such a thing? Where is God when such catastrophes happen?
Maybe it is time someone whispered that when Christmas was banned, the right to ask any question of God ought to have been banned as well. But the question haunts, doesn’t it, and there is no answer to be found in “The People’s Tree.” The thief who stole the joy and life of Christmas Day was arrested the morning after by the deluge of grief and death. In the courtroom of reality he was found guilty by his own interrogation. How?
Analyze the question. It is a self-defeating question for the scientific naturalist to ask why this happened because very few animals were lost in the tragedy. They intuitively sensed the danger that approached and fled long before the water could reach the shores. What happens to scientific naturalism’s theory of evolution here, when creatures on the lower evolutionary scale were smarter than those higher up the scale? If survival is the ultimate good, this seems like “devolution” to me. As a matter of fact, I even heard one person say that this is Nature’s way of balancing the numbers in a crowded world. Naturalism breaks under the weight of its own argument.
Similarly, the philosophical naturalist poses the question in a self-defeating way, for to ask the question is to assume a moral framework and there cannot be a moral world for the philosophical naturalist. According to this belief, our world came from primordial slime; can good or bad come from such chemistry? What about the Hindu or Buddhist? He would have to say that this was the karma of the individuals who perished in the deluge. Period. And the Muslim? The Muslim is so committed to the absolute sovereignty of Allah within which no freedom is granted to the “creature” that his answer would just be “Inshah-Allah”—the tsunami was just the will of God.
The question of “why” only has meaning because the Christian faith legitimizes it. And so the very question betrays that the soul is not completely dead in the West. Yes, the answers to life from the relativist may betray that “God has died,” but the questions from his soul at a time like this reveal that he cannot kill Him completely. A sovereign God in his grace has given us the freedom to ask such questions.
You see, in our human courtrooms revisionist wordsmiths in the role of prosecutor may play tricks with the words of others, but in the court of reality their own words will accuse and indict them. Whether we like it or not, only the reason for the season gives reason to the question and only in that season is the reason for the answer. That is why Christmas will always be celebrated in the heart even when it is denied public utterance. That is the bequest of the “Big Day.”
I would be remiss if I did not end with a warning and a glimmer of hope. Maybe I can summarize it in two illustrations.
Last year when I was in India, I went to visit my grandmother’s grave. I do that each time I go to Delhi. But there had been a lot of rains and some of the graves had sunk into the mud. With friends, I looked and looked and couldn’t find her grave. The caretaker said that he no longer had the register in his possession to tell me where she was buried. I knew the general area but just couldn’t find it. I began to get quite anxious about the possible loss of her grave. Then all of a sudden, I saw her name and the verse of Scripture that was inscribed above it. I was so grateful and proceeded to arrange for another, taller stone to be erected there. You see, even a grave has significance because it is a marker of a life, a relationship, and a memory.
Those who seek to change our vocabulary are gradually eradicating the relationship between truth and culture, between the past and the present. They want to remove all markers that brought us this far. They should be sure that if they continue in this way the very worldview they have put into place will one day eradicate them as well. Do you remember the words of Martin Niemoller who tried to warn those who remained silent to the Nazi atrocities? He said,
First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.
Those who wipe out the memory of the Christian faith will find out that the logic of their position may one day lead someone to wipe them out as well, and there will be no belief left to come to their aide, for there will be no one left with reason to speak of loving those who despise you.
So what is the glimmer of hope? I began this essay while I was in Beijing, China, where all over the city I saw banners that said, Merry Christmas. I spent one morning going through the Forbidden City on Tiananmen Square. This historic city was constructed in the fourteenth century as the home of China’s emperors. As I walked in the cold with some friends from one gate through to the next, deep in the inner sanctum of the palace of the Forbidden City I saw a small Starbucks. Yes, you read that correctly. And on the window of that Starbucks it said Merry Christmas. I stopped and pondered: How odd it is that in the land of Mao where individuals were humiliated for the sake of the “People” I should see a sign wishing me a Merry Christmas, while in the land where individual freedom is touted as defining the nation’s reason for being, the “People’s Tree” won the day.
But I found out something more, as I visited that vast land. The Chinese Church is now one of the largest in the world. No, Mao and his Cultural Revolution, standing on the shoulders of Marx, could not stop the faith that has transformed millions throughout history. In a land where the State has stopped at nothing in its attempt to crush the spirit, the spirit has triumphed. The contradiction of contradictions may be that God uses even the wrath of men to praise Him.
And so I thought: Maybe the East will bring the message to the West to awaken her to her heritage. Voices may sing to us in foreign accents of that silent, holy night, and no legal pronouncements from our cultural iconoclasts of the West will be able to stop them. That will truly bring contradiction full circle so that we might see the nature of truth that forces off the mask of contradiction and shows us that the cry in tragedy is really the longing for Christmas to be true.
What the civil libertarians need to know is that God simply will not be conquered by our puny little outbursts and our juvenile pronouncements. Christmas did not end with the night of Jesus’ birth. In fact, there were those who tried to kill Him then as well. They thought they had succeeded but it was only a momentary illusion. There was a day in which the central figure of Christmas rose again from the dead. That is why death itself is not the greatest tragedy. The greatest tragedy is when we have banished God and are buried by our own questions. Christianity will never be banished to the grave because it follows a Savior who knows the way out. That is the truth for life and it is worth celebrating.
Ravi Zacharias is president of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries