The Season of Good Sales: “What does it matter?”, sneer the atheists and secularists. “The whole silly story never happened.” It matters because the still-cherished principles of secular humanism may be traced all the way back to the Roman Empire of 2,000 years ago, when ordinary human-beings gathered to hear and repeat the words of a carpenter’s son. It matters, also, because, to paraphrase Robert Harris, writing in his latest, terrifying, novel The Second Sleep: when morality loses its power, power loses its morality.
WHAT HAVE WE just celebrated? Christmas? A holy festival? Or a bacchanalian celebration of conspicuous consumption designed, built and delivered to a palace or a hovel near you by Global Capitalism PLC? I think we all know the answer to that. What hurts the most is that we fall for it every single year. Proof, if proof is required, that Pavlov’s dogs weren’t the only animals conditioned to salivate whenever the jingle-bell rings.
Consider the fact that Christmas is celebrated in just about every mall on the face of the planet. They’re doing it in Shanghai, Tokyo, Singapore and Bangkok. The only part of the world where you might struggle (and, quite possibly, incur some risk) to find Christmas displays and commercial enticements is in the Muslim world.
Now, why is that? The answer is simple. Because Muslims still believe. Islam remains a living and, for the most part, uncorrupted faith. It is still illegal in Muslim countries to practice “usury” – lending out money at interest.
The same was once true of Christendom. Indeed, one could argue that the forward march of capitalism was only finally secured in the British Isles in 1854 with the passage of “An Act To Repeal The Laws Relating To Usury”. The commercial imperative has long since laid low the ancient claims of religion in the Christian West. In the Muslim world, however, the good fight against Mammon goes on.
It would be an interesting exercise to quiz a thousand young people chosen at random from the countries where neoliberal capitalism reigns joyful and triumphant, and ask them to locate the events of Christ’s birth in the broader New Testament narrative.
Would a majority still be able to accurately re-tell the story? Mary’s pregnancy; the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem; the birth of the infant Jesus in a stable; the shepherds in the fields; the Angelic Host’s proclamation of peace and goodwill toward men; the journey and arrival of the Magi; King Herod’s massacre of the innocents; Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus’ flight into Egypt. How many would attempt to place Santa Claus somewhere in the Christmas Story? It’s probably best not to know!
Astonishingly, not even our senior Christian clerics seem to be able to tell the Christmas story correctly. In the NZ Herald of Saturday 21 December 2019, one of them wrote (on behalf of all the major denominations) that: “Jesus, God’s son, was born amongst the animals. He grew up in a family that experienced poverty. He spent the first years of his life as a refugee, eventually fleeing for his life from a wicked dictatorship.”
Ummm. No. He didn’t. Joseph was a carpenter and, like blacksmiths, carpenters in the ancient world were not to be counted among the poor. Jesus had a comfortable upbringing. Nor did the Christ spend the first years of his life as a refugee. Yes, the New Testament has him fleeing to Egypt, but his return to Galilee was not long delayed on account of King Herod’s sudden and mysterious demise. So, quite where this “eventually fleeing for his life from a wicked dictatorship” comes from is anybody’s guess. The Gospel According to Golriz Ghahraman perhaps?
“What does it matter?”, sneer the atheists and secularists. “The whole silly story never happened. The gospels were thrown together several decades after the alleged birth, life and death of Jesus of Nazareth – if such a person can truthfully be said to have existed at all!”
It matters because the still-cherished principles of secular humanism, which continue to inspire the multitude of moral arbiters who police social media, come with provenance papers tracing them all the way back to a peculiar collection of Jews and Gentiles living and writing in the Roman Empire of 2,000 years ago. Ordinary human-beings who gathered to hear and repeat the words of a carpenter’s son: the Galilean rabbi, Yeshua Ben-Joseph. Words that still constitute the core of the what remains the world’s largest religious faith – Christianity.
It matters, also, because, to paraphrase Robert Harris, writing in his latest, terrifying, novel The Second Sleep: when morality loses its power, power loses its morality.
Meaning that, with every passing Christmas, the stuff we’re conditioned to buy will amount to less: and the Carpenter’s story we no longer remember will count for so much more.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 27 December 2019.