I would like to open today's sermon, I mean column, with a newsflash out of Vatican City, courtesy Reuters: "Pope John Paul, battling to keep Christ in Christmas, has defended nativity scenes that are being stripped from holiday celebrations in some Italian schools to avoid offending non-Christians."
This could be a farcical joke, but the trite wire copy is pathetically true. For starters, it seems that a school in Como has edited out the name "Gesu" (Jesus) and replaced it with the word "virtu" (virtue) in its choir's renditions of Christmas hymns. Which rhymes and everything, but falls flat. Also, the province of Vicenza has canceled its annual contest for the best nativity scene in the schools of the province. Then there's the elementary school in the northern Italian city of Treviso that has decided to nix its traditional Christmas pageant depicting the birth of Christ in order to present a dramatic, um, Virtumas presentation of the adventures of Little Red Riding Hood.
Substituting Li'l Red's fairy-tale trip to Grandma's house for Mary and Joseph's biblical trip to Bethlehem may sound like something that happens down the rabbit hole, but Reuters reports that things are on the level: "The teachers said the famous tale was a fitting representation of good and evil and would not offend Muslim children." And Muslim children, it turns out, are the only "non-Christians" in the Reuters story. Not Jews, not atheists, not whatever other minorities are content to live in a historically Roman Catholic country and just walk on by the old creche without "taking offense," that traumatic postmodern condition more damaging and contagious than any plague or pestilence.
But why does a seasonal depiction marking the anniversary of the single-most significant religious, historic and cultural event in the Western world -- of which Italy remains a part -- offend anyone in the first place?
I don't get it -- and I'm Jewish. If "taking offense" is the issue, isn't eradicating the commemoration of Christ's birth -- and the universal ideal of peace on earth -- equally as likely to make Italian Catholics take offense? Of course, ruffled feelings, either on the part of Italy's 1 million-plus Muslims or 50 million-plus Catholics, are not the issue. Power is.
I recently came across something Eric Hoffer, the man known as the "longshoreman-philosopher," wrote 30 years ago about dissent and power:
It is maintained that a society is free only when dissenting minorities have room to throw their weight around ... As a matter of fact, a dissenting minority feels free only when it can impose its will on the majority: what it abominates most is the dissent of the majority.