Paul Greenberg

Some people have a funny idea of fun. Like the Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas. This year he celebrated the holiday season by launching GrinchAlert.com -- a website where people could report businesses they thought weren't doing enough to celebrate Christmas.

"Too many businesses have bowed down to political correctness," the reverend complained. "I thought this would be a fun way to call out businesses that are refusing to celebrate Christmas."

It doesn't sound like much fun to me, calling out folks. It sounds more like intimidation. ("Celebrate Christmas -- by name -- or we'll put you on our little list.") Let's just say it doesn't have quite the ring of peace on earth, good will toward men.

Some of the types who used to sell "protection" in Chicago had more finesse. My father, who tried to make a go of a little laundry there back during the Prohibition Era, told me they were always very polite, but there was no mistaking their meaning, or what would happen to his business if he didn't pay up. He didn't, and it did. But at least they didn't pretend to be doing it out of a sense of Christian duty.

On the other extreme, there are those who shy at any mention of the reason for the season, and prefer Winter Holiday to Christmas, as if its name needed to be disguised. Grinches seem to come in both persuasions.

It happens every year: Some folks insist on making a political cause of Christmas, while others want to ban any mention of it from the public square. I'm not sure which is sadder. Both show an edgy intolerance for the variations in human preferences, and a failure to appreciate the power of good will to let us live with them, and with each other. Not just in peace but harmony.

Toward the end of the Christmas season, I just wished both sides of this tug-of-war would leave the rest of us out of it, and let us celebrate in our own way, or even not celebrate. Why match the Thought Police on the left with a Christmas Police on the right? For just one blessed day of the year, could we stop the squabbling? And just let the light shine?

Christmas itself knows no boundaries. There is something joyful in the air this time of year, no matter what you prefer to call it, something that ought to unite folks, not divide us. It may be intangible, but who hasn't felt it? So could we please declare a Christmas truce on politicizing everything, including Christmas?

There are those who are offended by the expression of any religious sentiment in the public sphere while others -- like the Rev. Jeffress in Dallas -- are offended by its omission. They may deserve each other, but why subject the rest of us to their fusillades? It's like being caught in a polemical crossfire, and to what end?

Christopher Hitchens, who is as relentless an atheist as he is a friend, a great debater who drinks with as much verve as he talks, and a fine fellow all around, noted that a lot of believers have been praying for his recovery from a life-threatening illness -- even if he's not inclined to join them. To quote his response to all the sincere prayers on his behalf: "I say it's fine by me, I think of it as a nice gesture. And it may well make them feel better, which is a good thing in itself."

Indeed it is. For many pray to purify their own souls, not to shame or coerce others. Prayer is funny that way; you start out petitioning for some boon and end somewhere else, maybe spellbound in adoration or love or God knows where. For prayer is a listening as well as an asking.

All I know is that a nice gesture need not be only a nice gesture; it can be all. Or at least an opening to all.

The way style can be all in a writer. Choose the right word in the right place and it makes all the difference -- the difference between platitude and originality, empty pomp and simple humility, meaning and nonsense, good will or its opposite. And whether he raises the level of discourse or lowers it even further.

When it comes to faith, hope and charity, the comment from atheist Christopher Hitchens about those praying for him -- include me in the crowd -- shows a degree of charity, which is said to be the greatest of these. Believers who think going around taking names is the Christian thing to do would do well to emulate him.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.


 

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