Jacksonville, AL.    During his December 20, 2006, news conference, President Bush told the nation, “As we work with Congress in the coming year to chart a new course in Iraq and strengthen our military to meet the challenges of the 21st century, we must also work together to achieve important goals for the American people here at home.  This work begins with keeping our economy growing. . . . The recent report on retail sales shows a strong beginning to the holiday shopping season across the country.  And I encourage you all to go shopping more.”

At the beginning of this year’s Christmas season, President Obama announced his second escalation of the war in Afghanistan—an additional 30,000 troops for the unwinnable imperial bloodletting.  Echoing Bush, Obama did not neglect the dogma of economic growth: “But as we end the war in Iraq and transition to Afghan responsibility, we must rebuild our strength here at home. Our prosperity provides a foundation for our power. It pays for our military.”

These two examples represent the twin obsessions of the American elite: materialism and militarism.  The golden calf and the gatling gun.  One might think that Christmas, of all times, ought to be about something else, but one is going against conventional wisdom in 21st -century America to hold that notion.  In light of the New Testament, this should not come as a surprise.  There has always been a large countercultural element to genuine Christianity.  That is the whole point of “Love not the world” (I John 2:15-17; cf. James 4:4-5).  The Church is the assembly of called-out ones—called out of the world.  Spiritually, not physically.

Of course, you do not have to be a Bible-believing Christian to care about humanity and peace.  Scores of libertarians and social-justice liberals share these concerns.  But the theologically orthodox Christian should have an even deeper commitment to such values.  Christians want their children to grow up to be socially well-adjusted.  We want them to be able to easily communicate with and empathize with their neighbors and workplace colleagues.  We want the light of Christ which shines within to be seen by those around them.  We don’t want the shining to be hindered by a reputation for being “strange.”  Having said all that, we also want our children to be citizens of Heaven and to not love the World.  While we want them to fit in with society in some ways, we don’t want them to lose the distinctive values of the Kingdom of God.

It is a challenge to raise children so that they will be perceived as “normal” by their peers while simultaneously being faithful to the teachings of Christ and responsive to the guidance of the Spirit.  This is a challenge of interest and concern not only to parents of young children, but to all believers.

Obviously many factors play a role in shaping the development of thought and action in children.  The Christmas season provides us with a seemingly small but actually important factor to consider in this development: Christmas presents.  The gifts we give to children may not say much in and of themselves, but they often reflect something larger than themselves.  Without either giver or receiver being aware, gifts often symbolize competing value systems.  Two manifestations of an ungodly value system are greed and violence.

The slogan “Let’s put Christ back into Christmas” refers at least partly to the commercialization of Jesus’ birth.  Commercialization is one component of materialism.  It is the crass buying and selling of serious thoughts, deep feelings, and momentous actions . . . up to and including the birth of Immanuel.  Materialism is often associated with societies characterized by Marxist economics and atheistic religion, but it is also rampant within capitalistic and theistic societies.  It is the value which says, “Everything has a price.”  It is the value that leads us to believe that success is measured in terms of money and possessions.

The Bible contains many references to God’s special concern for the poor and weak, and many warnings directed toward the wealthy and self-satisfied.  People cannot truly serve both God and Mammon.  The parable of the bigger barns shows that a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.  The message to the Laodicean church serves as a warning that a combination of material prosperity and spiritual poverty can exist even among professing Christians.

Christmas is big business in America.  Spiritual truths are easily lost sight of amidst the whirlwind of shopping, charging, and wrapping.  The eternal significance often gives way to temporal concerns centered on the transfer of currency and goods.  The spirituality, simple family traditions, and emphasis on community which characterized the Christmas season in times marked by less affluence and less mass advertising have been displaced in recent decades.  We are urged to spend freely—even if it results in living far beyond our means.

The period between late November and late December has become a pillar of the nation’s economy and a haven for individual cries of “Gimme!”  Those wishing to move away from a Christmas tainted by materialism can place limits on holiday spending, encourage the exchange of homemade presents, and displace worldly values with heavenly values.  Many of the requests for possessions come from children shamelessly manipulated through television and movies.  Unfortunately, even the popular Disney and DreamWorks films are examples of this.  Fortunately, there are alternatives to the commercialism and artifice promoted by the big entertainment corporations.

Instead of exposing children to plastic nature, we can give presents which emphasize God’s role as the creator of the Earth—including all of its wondrous animals, plants, and elements.  Respect for creation and love for the Creator can be instilled at an early age by sharing stories and gifts about Noah and the ark and about the beasts which presumably surrounded the manger on the night of our Savior’s birth.

Instead of introducing children to plastic history, we can teach them about Christians who have played significant roles in American history and who can, in some ways, serve as models for us today.  There are many examples, including William Penn, Patrick Henry, Angelina Grimké, and Fannie Lou Hamer.  In the divisive 1860s, we can point to Wendell Phillips and Robert E. Lee, if we can accept gentlemen as diverse as a  Massachusetts abolitionist and a Virginia general, respectively.  Rather than vulgar and insipid characters like SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer—little more than advertising props, really—it could be more interesting and inspiring to share with children the exploits of Jonathan Edwards and Dorothy Day.

Many of us complain that television and movies are too violent.   Graphic and gratuitous violence in the world of entertainment not only reflects but seems to contribute to real-life violence in our society.  Many of the nation’s cities are wracked by crime and gangs, but it is not just an urban problem.  A casual disregard for life extends into the smallest towns and most remote farms.  Desensitization to cruelty and bloodshed abounds.

According to Jesus, peacemakers shall be called children of God, people who live by the sword shall die by the sword, we should turn the other cheek, and we should love our enemies.  These are “hard sayings,” but they are also true sayings.  Paul reminds us that we are contending against evil spiritual beings, not against fellow human beings.

During my childhood, I received many toy soldiers and guns as Christmas presents.  I had lots of fun playing with them.  My acceptance and use of items of pretend violence did not cause any readily-noticed harm in my life.  The potential effects of war toys should not be exaggerated, but neither should they be minimized.  The harm that may have been done in my life is not easy to see because our culture glorifies war and sanctions violence . . . despite New Testament teachings to the contrary.  When I unthinkingly used mock instruments of death in the course of my play, I was being true to my culture, not to my faith.  A century ago, the Christian statesman William Jennings Bryan pointed out that it is a “little strange that the birthday of the Prince of Peace should be celebrated by the presentation of toys illustrating mimic warfare.”

Alternatives to war toys and violent action figures include presents which promote the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Peace is an important component of both advents of Christ.  During the first coming, the angels announced peace on Earth among people with whom God was pleased.  The second coming includes the promise of universal peace after the reign of evil has been overthrown.  Children should be taught to look forward to the peaceable kingdom which will exist during the millennial reign of Christ on Earth.  Natural desires for aggression, courage, and glory should be channeled into the desirable goals of standing against the wiles of the Devil and doing battle with invisible principalities and powers.

Thinking about Christmas presents in these terms may strike the reader as pretty exotic.  That’s just the point.  As Christians, we have too often accepted worldly values in lieu of heavenly values and the customs of culture in lieu of the customs of faith.  Thinking about holiday gift-giving is an example of trying to follow Paul’s admonition about not being conformed to this world, but rather being transformed by the renewal of our minds.

It is important to question the assumptions of the culture in which we live.  We were not born into a godly realm.  We were born into enemy-occupied territory.  It is not surprising that the world in which we find ourselves is organized on the basis of force, greed, selfishness, and other satanic principles.

Christians should recognize evil principles for what they are and be guided by the alternative principles exemplified by our Lord.  The anniversary of his incarnation presents a wonderful opportunity not only to act upon the heavenly principles of peace, sharing, and selflessness, but also to pass them onto our children in the form of Christmas presents.

Postscript: I want to thank fellow Social Justice Committee members of the Mid-Mo Greens for inspiring the writing of this piece: Susan Lloyd, Mary Beth Schillinger, and Shirley Taylor.

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Jeff Taylor
Jeff Taylor was born and raised in Spencer, Iowa. He is Professor of Political Science at Dordt College. He is author of three books: Where Did the Party Go?: William Jennings Bryan, Hubert Humphrey, and the Jeffersonian Legacy (University of Missouri Press), Politics on a Human Scale: The American Tradition of Decentralism (Lexington), and The Political World of Bob Dylan: Freedom and Justice, Power and Sin (Palgrave Macmillan).  He has written for Green Horizon Quarterly, Modern Age, Chronicles, The American Conservative, FirstPrinciplesJournal.com, HuffingtonPost.com, LewRockwell.com, AntiWarLeague.com, and CounterPunch.org. He is roughly half German, a quarter English, and the rest is Irish, Scotch-Irish, and French. In 1814, his ancestor Barzilla Taylor fought at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend as a Tennessee volunteer under General Andrew Jackson. The Taylors came from England in the early 1600s, settled in Virginia, and moved through the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, Illinois, and Indiana, before ending up in Pottawattamie County, Iowa. Jeff spent his entire life in the Midwest until moving to Alabama in 2008. He returned to his home state three years later. He has degrees from Northwestern College, University of Iowa, and University of Missouri. His research emphases are American politics, political theory, political history, and international relations. A political independent, Jeff has been active within the Democratic, Republican, and Green parties at various times.  His ideology, or political philosophy, is a mix of moralism, libertarianism, and populism. His favorite writers include C.S. Lewis, Watchman Nee, A.W. Tozer, Gene Edwards, Bonaventure, François Mauriac, Leo Tolstoy, Søren Kierkegaard, Thomas Jefferson, George Orwell, Dwight Macdonald, C. Wright Mills, Gore Vidal, Gabriel Kolko, Noam Chomsky, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Susan Brownmiller, Andrea Dworkin, Malcolm X, Murray Rothbard, Kevin Phillips, and Bill Kauffman. Jeff is the husband of Shirley Taylor, and the father of William, Jane, and David.  He is an ethical vegetarian and a low church Protestant.  Jeff can be reached via email at wherego (at) aol.com.

9 COMMENTS

  1. A Holiday Thought…

    Aren’t humans amazing Animals? They kill wildlife – birds, deer, all kinds of cats, coyotes, beavers, groundhogs, mice and foxes by the million in order to protect their domestic animals and their feed.

    Then they kill domestic animals by the billion and eat them. This in turn kills people by the million, because eating all those animals leads to degenerative – and fatal – – health conditions like heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, and cancer.

    So then humans spend billions of dollars torturing and killing millions of more animals to look for cures for these diseases.

    Elsewhere, millions of other human beings are being killed by hunger and malnutrition because food they could eat is being used to fatten domestic animals.

    Meanwhile, few people recognize the absurdity of humans, who kill so easily and violently, and once a year send out cards praying for “Peace on Earth.”

    ~Revised Preface to Old MacDonald’s Factory Farm by C. David Coates~

  2. Well now, someone finally recognizes and records one of the more remarkably ham-handed and ridiculous statements of the recent speech by our “eloquent President”….that the purpose of our prosperity is to “pay for our military”. Though I doubt he meant it in such a simplistic manner , perhaps he did, but it was one of the few honest statements to come out of Washington in recent memory. Our lives here, our loves and toils, debts and hardships are all boiled down to keeping our military abroad in this dangerous world. We are, as our beloved President has now informed us, Military Camp Followers…the ditch-diggers, contrabanders and harlots who follow the military train about and furnish the necessities of life on campaign.

    Merry Christmas indeed. At least our Bankers, refreshed from a little TARP stimulus and paid up so as not to have to control their spending habits….they are doing “Gods Work” but are cautioned not to appear in groups of 12 or morte, partying to hard during this season so that the “wrong Impression” might be sent. Heaven forfend, the Wrong Impression…we would not want that now, heck no.

  3. A fine and thoughtful set of reflections, Jeff; thanks for contributing them. I wasn’t a toy soldier collector when I was young, but much of the rest of what you write about I can relate to perfectly.

    It’s good to see you around here. For those of you who don’t know and might be interested, Jeff wrote a superb book a few years back, What Did the Party Go? William Jennings Bryan, Hubert Humphrey, and the Jeffersonian Legacy, a wonderful consideration of the evolution of liberalism and the Democratic Party over the 20th century. I take issue with some of his interpretations, but I strongly recommend the book to anyone interested in populism and American history.

    So Jeff, you’re a Green these days? Good for you! I hope to get a social justice and/or localism group going with my local DSA soon.

  4. Russell, Thanks for the praise. I wasn’t a toy collector so much as someone who liked history, including wars, so I bought and received lots of toy soldiers–army men, knights vs vikings, cowboys vs indians, Patriots vs Brits, Union vs Confeds. I spent hours and hours playing with the little military men. My brother and I also had a large collection of toy guns, from sound-producing machine guns to western six-shooters, plus a police revolver and an army automatic. We used those when playing army with the neighborhood kids. It was great fun ducking around corners and stalking the enemy.

    One good thing about such play is that it involved my imagination. It wasn’t zoning out in front of a computer or television. Many computer games use repetitive low-level mental functioning, I think, where your fingers are more active than your brain. Also, the outcomes are predetermined by the program, whereas there are an endless number of scenarios you can come up with when you’re using toy soldiers, toy cars, and other old-fashioned things. So it wasn’t all bad.

    I don’t want to be pollyannish about the subject of kids and violent toys. I don’t think it’s inherent in our biology but it’s so rampant in our society, and how we raise boys, that we think it must be innate. But many pacifists and peace-minded folk, especially the men, grew up playing with these kinds of toys and activities. In the long run, did it harm them? Maybe we were perceptive enough at some point to distinguish between fantasy and reality, or to grow up, whereas some people never do. I think some of the most enthusiastic soldiers are still wielding toy guns with the neighbor boys in their minds when they’re shooting real people in real places around the world. So maybe violent toys don’t harm everyone equally; I suppose it partly depends on predisposition, nurture, and life events.

    I’m not really a Green at the moment, although I have an article on democracy to write for Green Horizon Quarterly next month. I’m more of an independent. I was an active Green from the late ’80s to the early ’00s, while also dabbling in Rep and Dem politics as a suitably populist candidate arose. What I like about the Greens is that they hold the promise of ideological transcendence. Liberal on social justice and ecology, but conservative on decentralization and community economics. Grassroots democracy is right-and-left populism. So it’s not knee-jerk big government liberalism with bloated bureaucracy. The nonviolence commitment also gives pro-life Greens an opportunity to appeal to basic Green values although they remain a minority voice within the party. What I don’t like about the Greens is the party’s failure to live up to its promise of transcendence.

    D.W., Thanks for the comment. Obama goes on to talk about other things our prosperity pays for, including diplomacy, but the State Department mostly provides diplomatic cover for the Pentagon unless you see Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, Condi Rice, and Hillary Clinton as pacifists. So I don’t think I’m taking his words out of context by not continuing with the quote. It’s significant that paying for the military was the first thing that came out of his mouth.

    JC, Thanks for the sobering Holiday Thought. Sad but true. I deliberately left out violence against animals in my essay because that’s a whole ‘nother subject (although related). Callousness toward human life often translates into callousness toward animal life, and vice versa. Humans and animals are not the same but we do have the same Creator. Ethical obligations go along with the package.

  5. Welcome aboard, Jeff. I heartily second Russell’s recommendation of Where Did the Party Go? From WJB to HHH is like falling off a cliff…

  6. Thank you, Bill. A couple months ago you asked, “Where have all the Iowans gone?” This Iowan is in Alabama. I’m learning a lot and enjoying the warm culture, but I do miss the upper Midwest!

    Katharine, Your post is interesting, and even touching. It is complicated, especially when family is involved. I can relate to much of what you say. The charade of buying things for people who can afford to buy their own things and they probably won’t want what you buy anyway, and the same goes for you, does get to be tiring and annoying. You do want to make a statement by how you live your life but you don’t want to be seen as a kook because that undercuts your influence. Here’s a good book my wife found years ago: Unplug the Christmas Machine (http://www.amazon.com/Unplug-Christmas-Machine-Complete-Putting/dp/0688109616).

    In the end, we have to do the best we can and realize we can’t control the world. One thing I learned from Tolstoy is that I can make a little contribution toward peace or justice or freedom in my personal life and that may be the best I can do. Jesus said, “He who is faithful in small things will be faithful in large,” or something to that effect, I think. Bono (not to compare the two!) has said, “I can’t change the world, but I can change the world in me.” It’s the personalization of social change.

    Based on the examples you give, I think you’re on the right track. You’re doing well. And you’re smart enough to see nuance: foam swords Yes; toy guns No. There is a natural tendency toward aggression and competition, for girls and boys. It’s not completely bad. The Fall has corrupted that drive, but aggression, competition, strategizing, bravery, and the like, can be put to better use than berating, hitting, torturing, and killing human beings…or animals.

    I’m not advocating a world of sunshine and smiles, butterflies and kitty cats. That’s not the real world. It’s part of it, Thank God, but there are other aspects that must be dealt with in a realistic manner and we can encourage our children to harness the qualities that are exploited by Madison Avenue and the Pentagon to tackle the less pleasant aspects of life. Instead of growing up to kill people in a dishonest and fruitless war against “the axis of evil,” maybe our kids will grow up to fight real evil, in its various subtle and not-so-subtle guises.

    You’re right that I’m casting this in human and spiritual, instead of parental, terms. That’s because I wrote most of it 15 years ago, before I had children of my own. Now that I have a 1 year old boy and a almost-6 year old girl, I get to try to put it into practice! I considered it a small victory a couple years ago when my daughter was walking down the neon-pink toy aisle telling every Dora the Explorer product that she wasn’t going to be tricked by her. She understands branding.

  7. “Thinking about Christmas presents in these terms may strike the reader as pretty exotic. That’s just the point. As Christians, we have too often accepted worldly values in lieu of heavenly values and the customs of culture in lieu of the customs of faith. Thinking about holiday gift-giving is an example of trying to follow Paul’s admonition about not being conformed to this world, but rather being transformed by the renewal of our minds.”

    As a pastor I struggle with this all the time.
    Best Christmas gift ever: Likely the one we gave our 2 sons and their families last Christmas–a week at the beach with all of us together as a family. 8 months of anticipation, a week of enjoyment, a lifetime of memories.

    Your comments about wanting our children to be well adjusted socially, likewise on target. We are stuck with Liviathan-Claus. I conclude that taking steps to redeem Christmas is more profitable than rejecting it–at least from the viewpoint of being salt and light in our world.

    Thanks,
    hm

  8. “Of course, you do not have to be a Bible-believing Christian to care about humanity and peace. Scores of libertarians and social-justice liberals share these concerns.”

    What is a “social-justice liberal”? And some libertarians don’t give a damn about anything except for Rasputin economics and some nebulous harm principle. As a Bible-believing Christian, I apologize. Beyond that, excellent article Mr. Taylor.

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