I have wanted to write about seeing the nativity on our courthouse lawn since a few weeks ago when I drove past and saw it there. It sits where it sat last year. And one more Christmas season has brought one more year of people asserting they have the right to place it there.
I am not certain when this practice began; however, I am certain I am not alone in my annual distress over it.
I am also certain that I am not the only person who believes it is inappropriate to place a religious symbol that favors one faith expression on public property that is to serve all citizens regardless of faith. At least that’s the indication I got from others during various conversations these past few weeks. I am also confident that those who share my view feel it is futile (or folly?) to complain or to do what I nearly did a few weeks ago – write a letter to the editor of the local paper. To a person, each friend in my Bible study of 14 years advised against a public display of discord.
“What will that do, Joy? What do you hope to accomplish? You will only tick people off.”
There are historical grounds for their predictions for that’s what happened in 2007 when someone – not me – complained and alerted the ACLU. People got ticked off that a complaint about the crèche had been filed, yet as a result of the complaint county officials removed the crèche, donating it to the local ministerial association.
Undaunted, a group identified as “Christian Congregations of Winnebago County” affixed a sign to the manger and placed it back on the lawn. This time – because of the sign – the crèche was able to remain as a sponsored placement, enabling the county to adhere to our government’s separation clause.
Details of what happened in 2007 and also last year when the crèche was left on display for three months after Christmas are recorded here (Winnebago supervisors say Nativity scene issue is settled, ACLU disagrees).
Four years later, these questions remain: What is the point of having a crèche on a courthouse lawn? Why does our county need to display a crèche at Christmastime when not even all of the 26 Christian churches in the county do?
I anticipate this answer: To celebrate Christmas and the birth of Christ.
I also anticipate this response: If people of other faiths want to place something on the courthouse lawn, they are welcome to do so.
But I doubt that.
I doubt that Wiccans, Buddists, Muslims, Jews and others are truly welcome to display items of faith on the courthouse square in recognition of their high holy days. I also doubt that members of those faiths want to do it. Overt displays are typically part of the Christian witness and not usually the way that people of other faith expressions publicly share.
Government holidays, retail sales promotions tied to holidays, movies and television shows with holiday themes – even boycotts of businesses accused of not honoring holidays with the respect some believe appropriate. In our nation, Christians have a monopoly on all of the above. County governance is no different.
According to a 2000 report on Congregations and Membership in the United States, only 1 person in Winnebago County named a faith expression that wasn’t aligned with Christianity. The faith listed was Baha’i. Full report: Congregations and Membership in the United States 2000. Nashville, TN: Glenmary Research Center.
Yet, I know people who have lived or who currently are living in my county as permanent residents that claim Judaism, Buddhism, and atheism as their faith expression. (And I don’t mean to offend atheists by labeling atheism a faith expression.) Evidently these individuals fell outside the scope of such a report.
But what would it matter? Those who live in this county are aware they live in Christian territory. Should there be any doubt during the month of December, all they need to do is look toward the courthouse. The lighted crèche marks the courthouse lawn for Christians as effectively as our neighbor’s dog has marked our lawn.
As a person who spiritually identifies as a Christian, I am grieved that plastic figurine symbols have displaced the good news they profess to proclaim. Being a Christian has become the right to display a crèche on a courthouse lawn rather than individuals displaying acts of mercy and grace and unconditional love – behaviors that should be the most reliable identifier of a person’s chosen belief.
Author and blogger Rachel Held Evans named this inclination to stake out Christian turf through overt signs of celebration as “entitlement.” This week she reposted her December 8, 2010, blog “Blessed are the entitled?” Her thoughtful dispatch provides context for her provocative conclusion:
Don't tell anyone, but sometimes I wonder if the best thing that could happen to this country is for Christ to be taken out of Christmas—for Advent to be made distinct from all the consumerism of the holidays and for the name of Christ to be invoked in the context of shocking forgiveness, radical hospitality, and logic-defying love. The Incarnation survived the Roman Empire, not because it was common but because it was strange, not because it was forced on people but because it captivated people.
Let’s celebrate the holidays, of course, but let’s live the incarnation. Let’s advocate for the poor, the forgotten, the lonely, and the lost. Let’s wage war against hunger and oppression and modern-day slavery.
Let’s be the kind of people who get worked up on behalf of others rather than ourselves.
That’s exactly it.
Let’s not fight for our right to display a crèche on the courthouse lawn. Let’s become the good news the crèche represents.
Figurines are figurative. Faith is real. Faith is love in action. It has nothing to do with a crèche on public display unless you are feeding the hungry from its manger or sheltering the homeless in its shadows or advocating for those of all faiths alongside the angels of your own.
Only 11 months remain before the advent of Christmas 2012. I need to get busy. If I don’t become the change I seek, I will be but a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal; for if my faith is real, I must move beyond symbols as well.
So here’s to a new year filled with provocative questions that are answered through acts of abundance.
Let’s start with this one: What do I have that can be given to someone in need?
And guess what? Good news. No restraint is required.