Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Crèche at the Courthouse

Restraint is not a quality I exhibit well. The fact I am writing this now – after Christmas – is proof that I have a measure of restraint. But the holiday is over. Waiting is done. And, please  note: If you are someone uncomfortable with contemplating faith expression or why people do what they do, please stop reading. Your time will be better spent elsewhere.

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.


Cathy Olson said...

I have always been disturbed by that display on the courthouse lawn. But I am even more disturbed by the way people cling to it when reasonable citizens point out how wrong it is. But then, the good people of Iowa did vote out three Iowa Supreme Court justices for upholding our state constitution and allowing loving couples of the same sex to marry. No one can accuse Iowan Christians as being tolerant people.

c h a s e said...

Excellent post! I absolutely loved it. I actually read it several times, so as to not miss any little detail you perfectly crammed in.

Sometimes I want to do bad things. Like tear apart fake plastic mangers, or vandalize stupid religious ...symbols that likely cost more money to create and display than it would have cost to feed a starving child for weeks... I’d kick at baby Jesus’ head to see how people would react, especially people that know me, know my upbringing and understand I’m not doing it out of hate – but out of disgust for how the church has become more about displays of fakeness than ‘love in action’.

It takes less work to set up a manger than it takes to actually preach the Gospel through action in our everyday lives. That’s why people do it, in my opinion. It’s an easy way to “evangelize”. It’s an easy good deed. Just like when people donate unnecessary amounts of used goods to places that don’t actually need any of it. It’s a write off, or tax exempt option.

Thank you for continuing to be a provocative voice for a community, an area, in need of one. I can’t wait to hear more of your questions next year, and I look forward to furthering my own understanding in regards to: What do I have that can be given to someone in need?

Don’t hold back, Joy! I promise I won’t either. Smother the world with love. And kick a plastic Jesus doll in the process… Even if no one is looking. ;)

PS: LOVED Rachel Held Evans’ excerpt you included. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Joy - here are a few facts about the Christian Churches in Winnebago county of which you aren't aware: Besides the county food bank, the Congregational Church in FC & the Methodist Church in Lake Mills both have active & thriving food banks serving many local families day in & day out now for years. The food, personal hygiene items, diapers, baby food, all come from local churches, businesses, schools, etc. Every Thanksgiving, the Lake Mills Ministerial makes & delivers food boxes for local families in need. The Ministerial also spends thousands of $ annually paying rent, utility deposits, prescriptions, gas for vehicles, helping local families who find themselves in tough spots. This has been going on since 1993. Just this past Christmas, the Lake Mills Ministerial prepared 60 food boxes overflowing with food, hygienic items, toilet paper, toothpaste, etc. for 60 local families along with Toys 4 Tots. Included was a supply of meat - ham, chicken, hamburger, bacon, all purchased by the ministerial at almost $2000 cost -- provided free to 60 local families. Your call for the Christian churches to do "acts of mercy & grace & unconditional love" & "Faith is love in action", is already being answered, only it's being done anonymously, quietly, behind the scenes, "in secret" just as Jesus said in Matthew 6:4. No doubt there's more the Christian churches could do but I wanted you to know that not all the churches are simply gathering to meet in a building once a week & then doling nothing with their faith or simply erecting a creche once a year on the courthouse lawn. Day in & day out for many years, the churches have been actively demonstrating "mercy, grace, & unconditional love" to those in need & will continue to do so without the need for public recognition or praise or in spite of public criticism from those who don't know what the churches are actively doing.

Joy said...

Dear Anonymous:

As a member of one of those congregations and as a community observer, I am aware of many of the things you listed and am deeply grateful for the "love in action" that occurs through those gracious acts of generosity.

Still, none of what you enumerated explains why a creche has been placed on public property in the name of the Christians of Winnebago County. What was the intended hope for that type of witness - one that dares to cross the line of separation of church and state?

I am still struggling to find the answer to that question.

A sincere thank you for commenting. All the things you listed make our area a better place for all in our communities - for all who are our neighbors. And the fact it is being done without public recognition is very much in the spirit of Christ, who regularly admonished those he healed to not tell.

Again, with all that, I think about the diversity of faith present within our county and struggle to know what the believed intention of such a public display is.

Because of your ability to provide such detailed examples, you must be involved in many of the things listed. Thank you for all you do on behalf of others as your witness to Christian love.

Blessings to you ...

Bowdymom said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joy said...

To the person who posted: "We live in a democracy. Majority rules."

I hope you would never advocate abuse of majority rule to suppress the rights of a minority. When that happens, we all lose.