Keep the Christ in Christmas

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They’re called nomina sacra—sacred names. The Earliest Christian scribes who copied the books of the Greek New Testament by hand so that they could be circulated to other churches had a relatively uniform set of abbreviations for divine names. For example-the word for “humanity” in the ancient Greek of the New Testament was anthropos. You can imagine writing that several times could become tedious so the scribes would write two capital letters—an alpha and a nu and then put a line over it. The word for God –Theos—would be abbreviated with a capital theta with a line above it. The nomina sacra for Jesus was Iota Eta and if it was in the nominative case (that is as the subject of the sentence) it would have a concluding sigma. It would look like IHS though many Christians think that means “In His Service.” Perhaps the most profound nomina sacra is the one used for cross, in Greek Stauro and in crucify stauroo. It looks like a smooth, curved capital “P” with a cross bar. It looks like a man on a cross. Of course with the persistent use of Christ, there was a nomina sacra for Christ. It was a chi with an line on top. A capital chi looks like an uppercase X. Nomina sacra were the forerunners of Christian symbols used to this day.
I mention that because this time of year we frequently see Christmas abbreviated as X-Mas. Many people assume that this is an attempt to remove “Christ” from the season. In reality, this particular abbreviation has a long standing tradition in Christian literature. Evenso, many Christians feel that the culture is trying to minimize the central of Jesus and maximize festivities, commercialism and marketing. People think that because the culture is trying to maximize festivities, commercialism and marketing. So everywhere, something of a tug of war that usually gets portrayed as a culture war is waged in this country over the appropriate expressions of religion. Instead of crafting scenarios where we are the victims, perhaps Christians should learn from early generations and see in simple letters and figures, representations of Christ.

Mystal’s Judgment of Helping and Moral Superiority

Recently, Elie Mystal, a blogger for Above The Law, took issue with a column by George Will challenging Affirmative Action. The blog post started with the following paragraph and a half.

People who think giving charity to those less fortunate also gives them the right to direct the personal choices of those receiving the charity are some of the worst people on the planet. The biggest offenders are religious organizations: “Ooh, here’s some food. Yes. You like food, don’t you? I bet you’re hungry — I can tell ’cause I can see your ribs. Well, it’s all you can eat in here… first, just say you accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior. SAY IT. Wonderful. Bon appétit!”

Organizations do it all the time, but there are plenty of individuals who also think giving a guy a buck gives them the right to tell the recipient how to spend the money. This behavior is the worst because it takes what should be a generous gesture (giving somebody money) and turns it into a cheap way to make a BS point about your moral superiority (“If this man did just one thing more like me, he wouldn’t have to beg for my scraps.”).

The rest of the article was devoted to refuting George Will’s stance against Affirmative Action. Mystal’s specific arguments about Affirmative Action made sense to me though they were largely based on his summary of arguments made by one of his former professors. He didn’t make it as clear in the argument why he distrusted Will’s motivation. He had interacted with Will personally. Perhaps he knows something from those interactions that he does not spell out in this article. In any case, from my perspective the complexities of responsible charitable assistance and the complexities of Affirmative Action are too intricate to be grouped together in this manner.

Too much of his criticism hinges on his perceptions of people’s motivations. Will is “disingenuous;” some people who give charity are really just advancing their own “moral superiority.” Public argumentation about policies and practices should limit the scope of investigation to assessing the harms and benefits of particular policies or practices. People’s true motivations are rarely clear to themselves and virtually inaccessible to others. Let’s judge trees by their fruits rather than their sap. People can do the wrong thing for the right reasons and the right thing for the wrong reasons. In the end, it’s the effect of what people do that can and should be scrutinized.

I have worked in professional Christian Ministry for twenty years. During that time, I have administered thousands of dollars of assistance on behalf of the churches I have served. I have never once treated a confession of faith in Jesus Christ as a prerequisite for giving assistance nor have I ever required someone to listen to a gospel presentation to receive assistance. I am familiar with the work of a number of Christian ministries. None that I know of require a confession of faith prior to giving assistance. A few–by no means the majority–do require people to listen to a gospel presentation first, but none requires acceptance of that presentation. Mystal’s claim that “Organizations do it all the time . . .” is an assertion made without the benefit of concrete evidence.

The judgment that people who do this are among “the worst people on the planet” is an unjustified hyperbole. He claims that such people are driven by moral superiority. I agree that moral superiority is bad–by the way, I think Jesus felt the way Mystal does about moral superiority–but I’m not sure I’m prepared to condemn the morally superior in the hottest places of hell. At best, Mystal makes a good argument that people who oppose Affirmative Action are uninformed or misguided. The link between Affirmative Action and charity is not clear. Further, labeling the well-intentioned who attach strings to their assistance as “the worst people on the planet” would require greater detailing of the harms involved.

Finally, such an argument does little to aid a genuine dialogue on the ways assistance can be offered in helpful ways. Many people desire to be helpful, compassionate good neighbors AND unfortunately enact their helping behavior in unhelpful, prejudiced, judgmental and destructive ways. Many of the people inclined to help are also inclined to be self-reflective about their helping behavior. Repeatedly I have seen people engaging in helping behavior and simultaneously assessing their own embedded prejudices and assumptions. People are mixed bags and not as neatly categorized as heroes or villains in the way that Mystal seems to do.

In a complex world filled with challenging problems, the sort of unelaborated assertions given by Mystal frustrate people who are searching for ways to exercise their compassion in wise and truly helpful ways.