Monday, December 03, 2012
One irony of this dispute to me, is that in the parts of Asia where I have lived, and where there are still relatively few Christians, no one seems to feel much angst about forthrightly celebrating Christmas. In Chinese it's called "Holiday of the Holy Birth." Whose birth is being celebrating is no secret at all, since the approximate date since that birth is printed at the top of every newspaper. In practical England, where churches have largely emptied out, not even Ebenezzar Scrooge seems to complain about the word "Christmas," still less the period of merriment it signals. Signs appear outside every restaurant a month or two in advance, inviting citizens to hold their Christmas feasts at those establishments -- what's to be offended by, when the king is the official head of the Church of Lukewarm Anglicans?
But in the United States, where Christmas has been an official federal holiday since the administration of Ulysses S. Grant, all this has somehow become very controversial.
Why is that? Why should we celebrate the birth of a Jewish preacher who was born over 2000 years ago in the Roman Empire? Shouldn't we celebrate the winter solstice, or Hannakah (a minor Jewish holiday, in a country where Jews are a small minority), or Kwanzaa, whatever that is supposed to be?
I don't want to pick a fight with Rhode Island. But not only because of tradition, but for the best of secular reasons, I think everyone should join us Christians in celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.
Last week I took my boys to see a wonderful film called The Life of Pi. In that film, the main character's father notes with disapproval how his son is trying to be a Hindu, a Muslim, and a Christian, all once. He tells Pi, "Why not adopt three more religions, and make every day a holiday?"
On some important respects, Christmas already gives us to celebrate every day -- and not just us Christians.
So let's start with the Hindus, and count reasons why Hindus should celebrate Christmas. Last year, I blogged the 12 Books of Christmas. This year, I already named ten times as many books explaining the difference Jesus' birth has made to humanity as a whole. (That doesn't mean I'll post 1200 next year!) This year, I'll also give twelve reasons why each of the world's great non-Christian religious groups should come carolling with us, and even Lincoln Chaffee should tag along, too.
12 Reasons Hindus Should Celebrate Christmas
(12) India needs a quiet holiday after Devali.
(11) Commonwealth solidarity.
(10) India does, after all, contain tens of millions of Christians, who contribute a great deal to India, not least in medicine and education.
(9) Many of India's greatest reformers were deeply influenced by Jesus: Ram Mohan Roy, William Carey, Keshab Chandra Sen, Pandita Ramabai, Mohandas Gandhi, Mother Teresa.
(8) Jesus reconciles the importance the Vedas and Indian tradition place on sacrifice, with Gandhi's feeling that the sacrifice of innocent animals (and human beings) is immoral. We don't sacrifice animals anymore, not because the Rig Veda was totally wrong, but because it was more right than it knew -- God is the sacrifice!
(7) As Ed Vivwanathan explains in his Hindu primer, Am I a Hindu?, even from a Hindu perspective, one can easily believe that Jesus truly did take much of the karma of (at least his close) disciples upon himself. What a relief that must be!
(6) Lower castes should celebrate the birth of Jesus, because their lot in life has improved greatly (by and large, there are exceptions) since the news of Jesus arrived in India, and inspired reform.
(5) As Robert Woodberry points out, the influence of biblically-based missions -- Protestant in particular -- is largely responsible for a vibrant print culture, widespread education, and the growth of democracy in India, as elsewhere. (Some of it due to the direct actions of reformist Protestant missionaries, and some due to the competition those actions inspired to good works from Hindus and Muslims.) Vishal Mangalwadi tells the story of the remarkable variety of scientific, educational, linguistic, and reform achievements Carey and his colleagues accomplished, in several of his books.
(4) Tribes in eastern India have a lot to celebrate on Christmas Day. Penniless and illiterate headhunters early in the 20th Century, some tribes are now better educated than lowland Indians, because of the influence of the Christian message. (In some cases, with barely a missionary to bring it -- the story of one tribe is told in a fascinating film with a title like "Beyond the Next Mountain," about the amazing life of Rochunga Pudaite, and what happened to the Hmar people.)
(3) Hinduism might well have been almost entirely swallowed by Islam by this time, had British imperialists not provided a counter-weight. The early imperialists, however, were ruthless, until evangelical reformers began to force England to treat its Indian subjects with respect and with their well-being in mind.
(2) Indian women should sing especially exhuberant carols to celebrate the birth of Jesus. His influence brought about a higher status for women in India: ending the burning of widows, combatting forced prostitution and sacrifice of infants, introducing medicines that prolong life, starting schools for girls. (For a general over-view, start here. There is a lot more to be done, however.)
(1) Jesus, J. N. Farquhar argued in a book by that title, is the "Crown of Hinduism," who not only challenges evil and reforms corrupt institutions, but also fulfills many of the deepest truths embraced over the centuries by Indian tradition. Jesus makes sense of the blood sacrifice of the Rig Veda, in which God sacrifices himself for the salvation of the world, as Banarjea pointed out in the 19th Century. He shows that God is compassionate, the best of Buddhist morality. He puts loving worship at the heart of devotion, like the bhakti schools. He shows how God can be incarnated among us, an avatar, a sadguru who really does "lead us out of the darkness, into the light."
Next: "Why Buddhists Should Celebrate Christmas!"