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Putting Hussein in Christmas

Today's post is from Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, co-authors of Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire. Rita Nakashima Brock is a research associate at Starr King School for the Ministry at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. Rebecca Ann Parker, an ordained United Methodist minister in dual fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association, is president and professor of theology at Starr King School for the Ministry at the Graduate Theological Union.You can read more about Saving Paradise and see color plates of the art discussed in the book at 


On Sunday, Nov. 30, Daily Kos conducted a poll about whether or not Barack Hussein Obama should use his middle name when he is sworn in on January 20th. Chris Matthews of NBC had done a morning feature on how Ronald (Wilson) Reagan and Jimmy (Earl) Carter didn't like their middle names and omitted them. Obama could follow suit.

During the election, the right wing emphasized his middle name to suggest that he was not a Christian—as if there is something wrong with being a Muslim, as Colin Powell noted. Nathan Thornburg at Time criticized Candidate Obama for choosing not to defend his middle name, which Thornburg felt reinforced the right-wing use of it to stir up Islamophobia.

We hope President-Elect Obama will use his middle name. We'd look forward to an inauguration that had a few multi-religious overtones. Not just because Islam is one of the great world religions, but because the idea that Christians cannot respect the truths of other religious traditions is a betrayal of its founder Jesus Christ.

The nativity story in the gospel of Matthew reports an inter-religious convergence. Jesus' family was Jewish (and he was, too!). Tat-Siong Benny Liew, a New Testament scholar, reads the story of the magi as an interfaith revelation of the truth of Christmas. The magi, from Persia (Iran), were Zoroastrian monotheists who had their own ideas about a Shoshyant, a hoped-for Messiah who would restore justice and endow blessings. Because the Persian King Cyrus helped the Jews rebuild their temple after the exile, Jewish leaders had regarded Zoroastrianism favorably. Liew notes that the Zoroastrian magi knew a Jewish savior had arrived, who was important to the world.

Christians believe Jesus is a messiah, who reveals the presence of God in the world and brings a divine blessing of good will and peace for all. Mahmoud Sadri in "Gift of the Magi" suggests Iranian-Americans should also celebrate Christmas because Jews developed the idea of a messiah from Zoroastrianism. Sadri notes Christmas also has meaning for Muslims, who honor Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the Quran 19, 15-34, which tells the story of the nativity and virgin birth.

Christians in the fourth century adapted Christmas from a winter solstice holiday for the Roman god Saturn. Later, Christians in Northern Europe blended Christmas with their winter fire-lighting festivals and sacred trees. These festivities apparently bothered the Puritans, who outlawed the observance of Christmas in England in 1647. Jehovah's Witnesses avoid the holiday because Christmas is inextricably mixed up with Paganism.

Exclusivist Christian claims have wreaked havoc in the world—especially from the beginning of the crusades in the 11th century. Christian leader Bernard of Clairvaux coined the term "malecide," killing evil-doers, to replace "homicide," killing humans. Instead of condemning any homicide as a sin, as the early church had done, the medieval church promoted malecide as a way to atone for sin. Killing Muslims and Christians who opposed the crusades, such as the Cathars, became an act of holy war against the enemies of God. Christian leaders, such as Bishop Anselm of Canterbury, taught a piety of intense terror of divine judgment and hell and fear of human diversity.

Recovering the multi-religious dimensions of Christmas affirms the inclusive, hopeful, and open-hearted sensibility of the gospel accounts, grounded in a God so generous and loving that all creation is saved by the nativity. Let's celebrate Jesus' birth as a multi-cultural festival of life's goodness in religious communities that nurture justice, non-violence, peaceful cooperation, and respect and compassion for others. It is a happy holiday indeed, and Hussein would be welcome.

You may also be interested in Rita Nakashima Brock's post on Barack Obama's birthplace; Suzanne Strempek Shea's post on visiting Bethlehem, PA, for Christmas; and Eboo Patel's post on God and Man at Dartmouth.