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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Christmas is Subversive
distributed 12/23/11 - ©2011

This week's Eco-Justice Notes -- a Christian theological commentary as we hover on the brink of the Christmas celebration -- was first distributed a decade ago, on December 20, 2001.

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Christmas is a profoundly subversive holiday.

Millions of families gathering to open mountains of gifts are not subversive, of course. But the central theological point of this Christian holy-day is a direct challenge to the core assumptions and values of our modern world.

Recognizing and believing the message at the heart of Christmas could actually lead us to change our lives. We could find ourselves called to confront the most powerful ideologies and institutions of our day.

What is Christmas? It is the celebration of God breaking into human history with a saving act of love in and through the person of Jesus. At Easter, we can get tied up in questions of how that saving love works. At Christmas, we simply rejoice in the wonderful fact of Emmanuel, of God-with-us.

The remarkable proclamation of this celebration is that God's saving love is poured out:

  • not only for the rich and powerful
  • not only for the righteous (it is Santa who divides the kids into naughty and nice)
  • not only for the folk of a particular nation, geographic area, philosophical persuasion, or any other faction
  • not only for humans ("God so loved the cosmos" is the language of John 3:16)

Christmas reminds us that God comes among us to bring Good News to all people, indeed, to all of creation.

What is so subversive about that?

Christmas tells us that (in the eyes and heart of God) all people, all creatures, all parts of creation, have intrinsic worth. We are all worth loving and saving, just because we exist.

God comes to us in a pure act of love and grace. There's no exchange where we need to do something useful for God. We don't need to prove our worth. We don't need to be better or more valuable than any other part of the creation. God loves and cares for each of us, just as we are.

That's not the way our world works.

We like to think that we are living in The Technological Age, defined by wondrous advances in science. But even more significantly, we live in The Economic Age, when our understanding of the world, and all things in it, is shaped by economic perspectives. People, other creatures, and "natural resources" are deemed to be valuable, or not, for what they can provide to others. Much of the time, both individually and institutionally, our relationships with people and the rest of creation are grounded in the exchange value of labor and commodities. The value of others is often defined in dollars.

There is more at stake in the difference between economic worth and intrinsic worth than intellectual categories. How we understand the worth of others shapes our morality and ethics.

The great anti-slavery movements of the 1800s were driven by the moral passion of those who saw the intrinsic worth of enslaved humans. That movement for freedom was driven by the radical notion that all people -- however oppressed or despised -- have moral standing because of their innate value. The abolitionists made clear that people are not things to be bought and sold, used and abused. The labor of people has economic value; the people themselves have intrinsic worth.

The claim of intrinsic value in the lives of the enslaved was clearly an attack on the economic system that brought prosperity to regions and nations. Claims of intrinsic worth were practical and philosophical threats to the status quo.

And the same is true today. If we take seriously the premise of Christmas -- if we truly believe that God cares enough about creation to come among us with saving grace -- then we will be called to a different morality. We will be compelled to denounce systems and ideologies that recognize only the monetary worth of what God so profoundly loves.

This Christmas, I pray that God's loving perspective on the world may break into our lives and our churches. I pray that we may be transformed by the astounding proclamation of Christmas. I pray that we will be compelled -- as a matter of our deepest faith and ethics -- to love, protect and preserve God's valuable creation.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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