Commentary: Tribalism in the Christmas Octave

The Flight into Egypt by Vittore Carpaccio circa 1515 CNA 12 15 14 The Flight Into Egypt, Vittore Carpaccio

Pope Francis recently warned against the commercialization of Christmas, and reminded us that if our Christmas isn't centered on Jesus, it is fake. But beyond commercialization, there is another temptation, among Christians and others, conservatives as well as liberals, to politicize the Christmas message and twist it to fit into our contemporary political squabbles.

It was this tendency that I took on this week when I tweeted:

"If you are returning to the town of your birth for a government mandated census, you are not a refugee.

If you are fleeing a murderous king who wants to kill your child, you're seeking sanctuary, and are owed it as a matter of justice.

You're welcome."

Fr. James Martin S.J., whose views on human sexuality I find confusing, but for whose defense of the unborn I am deeply grateful, misrepresented my comment to a horde of his progressive readers. Either out of ignorance, or ignoble intent, he framed my comment as being a partisan one pitted against refugees.

I am told that Fr. Martin had earlier claimed that the Holy Family were refugees in Bethlehem, so he may have thought my comment was directed at him (it wasn't). Fr. Martin exegetically self-corrected, and rightly noted that the Holy Family were refugees in their flight to Egypt. But how he could have missed the fact that we agree on the justice owed to the refugee? Is it animus or ignorance that could have placed obstacles before his understanding of a very clear, simple distinction between when the Holy Family were not refugees (Bethlehem) and when they were (Egypt).

But the progressive priest had sounded a dog whistle against a "known conservative," and so, as I am sure Fr. Martin was well aware they would, many of his readers rallied together in unison with common ad hominem cries against me. None of them are worth repeating. It was conduct unbecoming of humanity, instigated by a Catholic priest, and it saddened me.

I was touched that a former student of mine, active in progressive politics, sent me a note to say he was embarrassed by his tribe, and wanted to apologize on their behalf. Several priests and bishops sent me private notes of support, and many complimented me for not responding to the vitriol in kind. But on the Feast of St. Stephen, how could I do anything but count it all as nought compared to the witness of real martyrs?

But the point is not about me, or Fr. Martin. The fixed point of Christmas, as the Holy Father reminds us, is not partisan politics, but Jesus. The Christmas Octave is not made to fit us. We are made to be fitted to it. And so the Church bids us to attend to its every facet. On different days we follow the story of Jesus through the lectionary, and we focus on different aspects of the Gospel, and are reminded with daily feasts what it means to really conform ourselves to this Newborn King.

We shouldn't let politics divide Christians, nor should we let non-Christians co-opt Christmas. We should fight against the political instrumentalization of the faith. Whether priests or laymen, whether believers or unbelievers, we need to guard against trying to fit the Gospels to us. Rather we must constantly do the exegetical labor of making sure that we are conforming ourselves to the letter and spirit of the Gospel, that we are speaking the truth in charity, and making the distinctions which guard us against error. Our political tribalism disorders us. It makes us murderous towards our brothers and sisters, and turns us into Herod.

The Christmas Octave bids us to live another story. Not a story of tribalism, but a real life lived bearing true witness, online and off, to the Word made flesh. Each of us were fugitives from God, but God rushed to meet us in Mary's womb, to reveal to the Magi that his glory is not confined by small spaces, to show wicked kings that their rule has limits, and that justice will return.

May we be just to every person, each of us made in God's image, and commend what is just for all, the unborn, as well as the persecuted refugee. We will all do better by our tribes if we all first bow down together to adore Christ, before trying to fit him to meet our predictable political postures.

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Chad C. Pecknold, Ph.D is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at The Catholic University of America.  His opinions do not represent the opinions of Catholic News Agency.

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