The evil that men did for Christ's sake

The founders of Christianity failed to civilize the demonic human spirit. We have all failed.

christmas (do not publish again) (photo credit: avi katz)
christmas (do not publish again)
(photo credit: avi katz)
PEACE ON EARTH, GOODWILL TOWARDS MEN. Ah, yes, it’s Christmas time in America again. The carols are everywhere and you would have to be dead to resist the wisp of hope for humankind that comes with the chiming of the bells, the smell of pine in the streets and the tinsel in the store windows.
But wait before you hum along. There is a catch.
The celebration of the birth of Christ is promoted as the salvation of the world: God’s gift of His son to create everlasting life for the sinning descendants of Adam and Eve. The possibility of eternal salvation is universal and generous and, we are told, to be joyous in its wake.
But beware the fine print. It’s not as universal as all that. You have to believe in Jesus Christ as the savior, in order to be received into the life beyond death that we call heaven. And what kind of a gift is it if you have to give up your own God or philosophy or relatives to receive it? What kind of generosity is it that requires you to believe in its truth in order to receive its benefit? What if your oncologist demanded that you believe you would be cured by his latest drug and, if you don’t believe, you can’t receive it?
This is theological blackmail.
In the name of the Christ child, all kinds of murders and wars have been perpetrated. The list of massacres for the glory of Christ is astonishingly long. The numbers of persecuted and exiled dead would make a mighty mountain that would reach right into the throne of heaven itself, if there were such a throne.
Since the birth of Christ, peace has remained elusive on earth and whatever happens in heaven has remained obscure. The Magi arrived with their gifts. The donkey and the cow in the stable hung their heads over the cradle and yet there remain the murderous swords of the Crusaders and the pious priests of the Inquisition. And on I could go with the unloving acts of Christians, who celebrate the birth of Christ with the lights on the evergreen and the poinsettias in their pots.
Universal love remains beyond our human capacity. Paul and his adherents created a religion that had great popular appeal, but failed to create a faith that instilled lasting respect of one man for another.
They, the founders of Christianity, failed to civilize the demonic human spirit. Of course, no religion has yet been able to tame the savage core. We have all failed.
Still, when I hear, “Hark the herald angels sing,” I do not sing along. In German homes in 1943 the carols were sung and at Bach and Handel concerts in the churches of Munich and Freiburg “excelsior” was shouted to the heavens. And at the very same hour, we know what was happening in Auschwitz and Dachau, and that babies and their mothers were lying in the stench of ditches in the forests of the Ukraine. The three wise men were not wise enough to save the Jews.
The little drummer boy drums on and the juggler juggles before the statue of Christ and the Western world hopes each Christmas that good King Wenceslas will be really good and then, in January, it becomes clear again that someone is going to pay for not being Christian or not being a certain kind of Christian, or for daring to doubt, or for simply joining a church someone else doesn’t like.
Santa Claus is a sweet enough fellow bringing presents to all the good boys and girls. “Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house”…the Jews were hiding in attics and in cellars.
On Christmas Eve the Cossacks sang to the newborn King and, in March, they rode into the villages and plundered and raped.
Yes, it was not the song that resulted in the killing, and it was not Christ who instructed them to pierce little babies with the points of their swords, but I can’t help but think that the lyric of Christmas is no more than a sentimental jingle. The true face of Christian Europe for two thousand years was not made of gingerbread.
The season for giving is also the preamble to a season for hatred.
Who poisoned the wells? Who brought plague to the town? Who caused the frost to kill the crops? The non-Christians, of course.
And this is why I greet the news about the babe in the manger with a sadness that will not go away.
I know that all of this is not polite or politic and, as an American Jew, I am behaving badly in admitting that “Jingle Bells” is not my song. But there it is. Peace on Earth is far beyond our reach and I fear will forever remain so.
Contributing editor Anne Roiphe is a novelist and journalist living in New York.