(Editor’s Note: Vital Conversations is a running series of commentaries from various faith leaders. The series is sponsored by Phillips Theological Seminary, though contributions come from theologians who are unassociated with the seminary.)
I used to make a lot of trips from northeast Oklahoma to Las Vegas. The reason for my frequent two-day drives was to represent my company at technology trade shows hosted there.
One of my favorite stops along the vast landscape was at a gas station off I-40 in the middle of the New Mexico desert. As I refilled the fuel tank, I would ponder the meaning of a profound sign posted on a light pole between the gasoline pumps: “Drive offs will be persecuted.”
I always assumed the sign maker unintentionally substituted “persecuted” for the more commonly used prosecuted, but who knows?
The next hour or so of that long drive would keep my brain engaged, imagining the types of persecution likely to come the way of a gasoline-thieving scofflaw.
This week, my imagination has moved on to the persecution of Christmas by those who might harbor a happy “Seasons greetings!” in their hearts.
Blogger and author Rachel Held Evans provided a persecution flow chart a couple of years ago that assists those who need help understanding whether they are being persecuted (or not).
You don’t need to see the chart to understand her point, but that link will take you there.
Held Evans asks, “Did someone threaten your life, safety, civil liberties, or freedom to worship?” If the answer is, “Yes,” the chart notes that you are being persecuted.
But if you answer, “No,” to that question, the chart takes you to another question: ”Did someone wish you happy holidays?”
Regardless of your answer there, the chart reveals that you are not being persecuted.
But here’s the reality: Red cups at Starbucks, holiday programs at public schools and seasonal greetings (as opposed to “Merry Christmas”) do not keep God out of Christmas.
I agree with Held Evans when she says the whole story of Advent is the story of how God can’t be kept out.
Persecution of Christians and other people of faith certainly exists in this world. In nations like North Korea, areas controlled by the Islamic State, and other parts of the globe, a lack of dedication to a singular ideology or faith can mean death.
But drinking coffee out of a red cup without reindeer on it isn’t persecution or a denigration of the Way of Jesus.
Instead, the idea that a Christian Christmas is disappearing actually reflects the reality that an increasing number of people in the U.S. mark the holiday in a more secular way.
In 2013, a Pew Research study found that only about half of those in the U.S. view Christmas as primarily a religious holiday. That figure is likely lower in 2015, based on other Pew studies about the decline of religion in the nation.
That decline is not about persecution. Instead, as Phillips Seminary President Gary Peluso-Verdend argues, Christians, at least in the United States, have contributed to this shift.
He says they have lost the war for Christmas and that loss has nothing to do with the so-called war on Christmas promulgated by those mostly on the conservative side of the political spectrum.
No, the lost war for Christmas was the Christian attempt to make Christmas a big cultural holiday AND keep Christ in Christmas, Peluso-Verdend says. That war has been so thoroughly lost to the culture that even many who identify as Christian are fighting for the other side.
There has been plenty of righteous outrage on both sides as the Christmas war gets an early start this year.
For those who claim to follow a God of love, it might be best to save the persecution label for those whose lives and liberty are truly endangered for what they believe, while also taking time to understand the fears of those who sense the decline in their dominance.