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Why Jesus Won't Dance with Santa

Mark Forman

On Christmas Eve 2004 I stood with a few hundred other people at the steps of the Nelson Cathedral singing carols. Even the cancellation of the official service due to bad weather didn't deter people -- a spontaneous service broke out that was ragged but enthusiastic.

If the Son reveals the true nature of the Father, then we cannot escape the conclusion that meekness and humility are aspects of the eternal being of the Godhead itself.

Since there was no band there was also very little musical timing and coherence and it is quite possible that while one part of the crowd was singing about Santa another section was singing about Jesus (Snoopy didn't make an appearance this year due to the absence of the band).

It is common for Christians, in the lead-up to Christmas, to complain about the merging of Santa and Jesus and to lament the tainting of the gospel message by commercialism. On the one hand I share this concern. But I also can't help thinking that we only have ourselves to blame. There is a reason why in popular culture Santa and Jesus have become such comfortable dancing partners -- we've forgotten what each of them stands for and why it is that any attempt to get them to hold hands is bound to end in tears. Not only have we skewed the story of Jesus but we have also refused to name and resist the worldview that comes with the Santa package.

It's not that we've stopped thinking about Jesus. Far from it -- we fervently sing about 'being more like Jesus', we wonder 'what would Jesus do?' if he were in our shoes, we have bumper stickers that ask: 'are you following Jesus this close?' It's just that the Jesus we follow is often a sweet and sickly version of the Jesus in the gospels.

Somewhere between the original version a couple of thousand years ago and the person we sing and talk about today Jesus has been transformed from a political revolutionary into a sweet little baby who wouldn't even cry out to his parents, let alone upset the people in power.

Don't get me wrong, this kind of Jesus makes me feel very comfortable -- he's the one I grew up with. The Jesus who accompanied me through my teenage years was very similar to the Jesus that Mel Gibson created last year -- lots of death but not much of life. In the church tradition I grew up with Jesus' death was rarely grounded in the real world and history, and consequently the crucifixion was understood in terms of an otherworldly cosmic sacrifice and apparently had nothing to do with the way he lived his life.

This version of Jesus has had a profound influence on the values and priorities of his followers. One of the most noticeable consequences is that the Christian community has invested a large proportion of its time and resources in saving souls from hell and has given little thought to the ways in which it might be shaped by Jesus' life on earth. As Ched Myers observes, "If Jesus is not grounded in the real world, the Church finds it convenient similarly to be disengaged."1

I speak from experience. In my early teens I regularly visited the Hamilton City Square with other members of my youth group. There we would hand out tracts that talked about the need to be 'saved' with our ultimate goal being for people to agree to pray a prayer that would see them receive 'salvation'.

To be fair, this fervent focus on saving 'souls' was often accompanied by genuine care and compassion for needy people in society. For example, the church of my teenage years regularly visited and cared for people in prison. But as I remember it, this compassion was seldom followed up with an analysis of the structures and systems that result in an over-representation of certain ethnic groups in prison. I remember often coming away from the place with a sense of oppression, but I never thought to ask what this might have to do with my Christian faith.

The most important thing for me was to care for people in order that one day they might be 'saved'. We were good at serving the marginalised, but we never stopped to ask why they were marginalised. We cared for the social debris of our community, but we didn't think to ask how we might challenge the structures of society which contributed to them being in prison.

The reason I did not ask questions like these is because I did not think they had much do with Jesus or with following Jesus. No-one told me that Jesus was put to death by the state powers because he was subverting the very structures of their power. I always thought that Jesus had to die because God had decreed it and that Jesus' life was just a curtain-raiser to the main show of his crucifixion.

I was not aware that Jesus was executed by an instrument of political torture and that the kind of life he advocated and demonstrated was a direct challenge to the structures of the social, religious, political, military and economic powers of the day. No-one told me about Jesus subverting the empire of his day, so I didn't think to ask about the empires of my own time and what it might mean to subvert its unjust and oppressive structures as Jesus did.

Which brings me back to Santa. I wonder if one of the reasons why Santa (and the commercialised worldview associated with him) now dances a cosy jig with Jesus is because we've forgotten the provocative nature of Jesus' life and we've therefore become blind to contemporary empires and worldviews that are antithetical to the gospel message. As Walter Brueggemann puts it, we have been 'scripted' without our knowing it.2 And what is this script, the dominant worldview by which we live?

It takes on many different forms, but its everyday guise comes in the form of the icons and brands we wear on our shoes and clothes and the designs on the food packages we open. The 'liturgy' of advertising has done a great job of shaping our thinking. These symbols are so familiar to us now that we no longer know what they represent.

We seem to have forgotten (or deliberately chosen to ignore) that these images are the friendly face of the "new rulers of the world"3 -- the multinational corporations (such as Nike, Gap, Coke, McDonalds, Microsoft).4 Through television and advertising these new emperors promise us that they have the power to make us safe and happy. We have been socialised into believing that through science, technology and industry these rulers can achieve unlimited economic growth and prosperity for the whole planet. If we just free up (through free trade, and if that doesn't work, through US military force) these corporations to do their thing, then the whole world will be 'blessed'.

Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat, in their book Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire, put it this way: "This cultural force promises nothing less than the blossoming of a new civilisation that will eventually bring an end to international conflict, resolve hitherto intractable problems like poverty and environmental degradation, and produce increased prosperity for all . . . .5 And yet as Walsh and Keesmaat point out, all the evidence seems to contradict these claims.

One of the primary problems with globalisation is that far from bringing prosperity for all, it requires cheap slave labour in the form of sweatshops, military attacks by the US military and the pillaging of natural resources in order that a small percentage of the world might prosper while millions go hungry.6

What might it mean to follow Jesus in this context? How can we subvert the spiritual and earthly powers of the day just as Jesus did? I find it disturbingly difficult to know.

It is too easy to serve and participate unwittingly in this global economic empire. For example, it is near impossible to buy a pair of running shoes today without in some way participating in this new economic religion. And sometimes I'm tempted to conclude that the McDonalds ad is right after all: "There's a little M in everyone".7

But I am also convinced that despite what we are repeatedly told, there is an alternative. I am not referring only to our attitude to money and consumption -- though this is an important place to start. More than this, our task is to proclaim that the entire script of the economic empire, the worldview and 'gospel' of consumerism and militarism, has failed. This has to be done in community, otherwise the task is too difficult, too wearying.

As followers of the one who was crucified for his resistance to empire, one of our projects is surely to cultivate imagination, to shape, nurture and form our Christian communities according to the 'counter-script' of Jesus. Our mission is to proclaim and demonstrate that although there appear to be no alternatives to this unjust system, We Beg To Differ!8

The corporations will not define for us what is important in life and what it means to be a human being -- Jesus will.

Santa will always want to dance with Jesus (why wouldn't he -- global Christianity represents a huge percentage of potential consumers). But the followers of Jesus will not be silenced. And Jesus will not dance with Santa.