2006-12-21 / About Town


By Robert Morton-Ranney

More cars on the road. More people in the stores. More music everywhere.

Must be Christmas.

Once again, we all welcome a socially sanctioned excuse to spend and eat too much (and, a week later, drink too much).

Christmas is a study in the ability of human beings to domesticate what was originally alien. To disarm what was once dangerous.

Mel Gibson’s latest attempt to be noticed, “Apocalypto,” is being touted as a film that lets us see and feel our way into yet another oncemighty since-vanished, civilization. We are told that those who watch this movie will observe the vitality of Mayan society in all its beauty and gore. Will be shocked by its savagery, yet warmed by the ties of its family life.

We will note the cunning and wit of both the good guys and the bad guys, admire the loyalty shown by each to their own circles, and share in the humor that punctuates the brief visits of all of us to this planet.

In the end, reviewers agree, we will be convinced that the great divides of time, language, and geography are less significant than we presumed; and we will understand how all of humanity is driven by love of family and the will to survive.

Which may well be why we have succeeded so well in our efforts to defang Christmas. By no means is Christmas the only holiday observed toward the end of each year but--forgive me, please- -it is the one I know best.

Now, however one may regard the factual probabilities of each of the details that are part of the traditional ‘Christmas Story,’ it is generally agreed that the punch line is “Peace on Earth.”

It is yet another expression of the genius of all the great religions— the suggestion that people acknowledge and embrace the dignity, worth and well-being of everyone. No matter their family, tribe, topography, or worldview.

This is a radical idea. In fact, it’s difficult to conceive of any idea more radical.

In order for persons truly to adopt it would require a revolution in personal and communal attitudes hitherto unseen. And this is because, somewhere deep inside us, lies the conviction that people who are identifiably different from ourselves are strange at least, and evil at most. Operationally, we usually settle for the middle ground and simply regard them as dangerous.

Such an inner conviction does not sit well with “Peace on Earth.” It sets up an inner conflict of the kind that psychologists call cognitive dissonance. We human beings do not like having opposing ideas inside our head at the same time, and we will go to great lengths to tolerate such a circumstance for as short a time as is absolutely necessary.

So, what’s a person to do? First of all, keep saying “Peace on Earth” over and over again. Get other people to repeat it. Write about it. Write songs about it. Put it in plays and movies and bedtime stories.

Make sure everyone hears it so many times in so many different contexts with so many different applications that it loses its meaning. Especially its original meaning. That way, everybody will just think it’s something nice that you say when it’s getting close to Christmas.

Alternatively, you could convince people that the real purpose of religious life is just to help them try to get into heaven. If you can get people to believe this, then they’ll concentrate on the parts of religious practice that make them feel like a better person and ignore the rest. If you do a really good job, they’ll start thinking that “Peace on Earth” really refers to peace inside them, and doesn’t involve anything else.

But, if you want to broaden your scope and get as many people as possible to ignore the radical meaning of “Peace on Earth,” what you need to do is convince everyone that the real focus of Christmas is family togetherness. In fact, get them to believe it’s the most important family time of the year.

Smother them with food, woo them with gifts, make them redecorate their homes, change their work schedules, have them travel great distances in little time, pump music into their ears until they can’t think of anything else.

Disrupt the ordinary flow of their lives, and make them think you’re doing it all in the name of relational warmth and fuzziness.

If you can accomplish that, not only will they feel guilty if they even think about not going along. They will empty their wallets to prove that they are.

And the next time somebody says, “Peace on Earth!” they’ll ignore it.

Return to top