Christmas Shopping: Sweaters for Jesus and Commonsense for Believers

From Methuen, Massachusetts comes the news that Mary Jo Coady discovered an apparition of Jesus on her electric iron. There’s a definite trend at work here and I’m astonished that no one else has picked up on it: Jesus is cold. Coady’s revelation came on the day after Thanksgiving, 2009. It comes hard on the heels of the 2008 discovery of Jesus on a toasted cheese sandwich, a 2006 appearance of the Savior on a pancake, several 2005 reports of Jesus on cooking utensils, and 2004 appearances on a tortilla, a pizza pan, and another toasted sandwich. Christians should stop ogling the images and buy Jesus a sweater.

My childhood home in Pennsylvania is always good for weird religious news. For decades the Borough of Chambersburg has decorated the fountain in the center of town that sits at the intersection of routes 11 and 30. The yearly adornments always include a crèche, despite the fact that a 1984 Supreme Court decision forbids holiday belief-specific displays in public places. Changes come slowly in south central Pennsylvania, but this year the legal writs hit the fan.

Conventional wisdom notwithstanding, the court’s decision—reaffirmed several times—does not ban religious symbols; it merely mandates that public agencies cannot favor one belief over another. Enter Carl Silverman. Silverman is the kind of guy you find in every town—an activist who often blurs the line between sparking needed public debate and just being a pain in the posterior. He represents groups called The Concerned Atheist Tax Payers Organization of Pennsylvania and the PA Nonbelievers, but he’s really a one-man crusader bent on making sure the line between church and state remains a solid one. When the crèche went up, Silverman asked for permission to put up a pagan solstice symbol and an atheist sign beside the manger.

What came next was the collision between provocation and elected stupidity. Borough officials ordered the crèche removed rather than allow Silverman’s assemblage. That decision pleased no one—Silverman promptly filed a discrimination suit and the Christian wrath overfloweth. Some church-goers have called for a boycott of downtown merchants, who had no say whatsoever in the decision. That would be a decidedly futile gesture anyway given that Chambersburg’s downtown is singularly devoid of holiday merchants. The town center has, for decades, looked like Detroit—a tawdry collection of consignment shops, used bookstores specializing in pulp romances, money-lenders, and a revolving door of erstwhile revivalists who soon go bankrupt.

So what has the Christmas season wrought? First, an opportunity for Borough politicians to look like morons. When will officials learn that the best way to handle provocation is to—dare I say it?—turn the other cheek? Second, it provided self-proclaimed Bible-believing Christians with another chance to spew hatred while patting themselves on the back for their public piety. The sanctimonious, but venomous letters in the local paper are worthy of something one might find on Al-Qaeda’s Website. Third, it’s a chance for hysteria to mutate into a mass flight from reality. Was the crèche mothballed? Not exactly; it moved all of 25 yards to the front of a Presbyterian church. Fourth, the depth of Christian intolerance has made a better case for a purely secular society than anything Silverman—or Karl Marx for that matter—could have ever dreamed up.

So there you have it folks. Your holiday shopping list is finished. Buy some sweaters for Jesus and some eau de commonsense for the faithful. Might I also suggest stocking stuffers of the U.S. Constitution and fruitcakes infused with anti-sanctimony chill pills? Perhaps some adult education vouchers to enroll in civics and logic classes? From where I sit, the biggest threats to religion in American society are the actions of fanatics. Apparition seekers render religion risible while Bible bashers make it baneful.


Aaron said...

Well said sir. Religious symbols have no place in the public arena. I am frustrated with the level of insecurity in evangelical culture. As if not having a historically inaccurate representation of the birth of Christ will somehow weaken corporate faith.

billwalker said...

Why not have a Mithra creche next year ?

Anonymous said...

Dunno about you but jesus is always in my bagel. No innuendo there.

Keith said...

Hi! Just started following you recently...Really enjoying your work so far. Just wanted to call out that in LYNCH v DONNELLY (1984), the court actually ruled 5-4 that the city of Pawtucket demonstrated an actual secular purpose for the display of their nativity, overturning earlier rulings. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynch_v._Donnelly)

Was that the decision you were referring to? Sorry, I don't mean to nitpick!

Anonymous said...

Keith--You are right to a degree. First, I'm a historian, not a legal expert, so by all means read the decision. My understanding of the Lynch case is that Pawtucket was allowed to display its creche because it also had a Santa Claus display and a generic "Season's Greetings" banner. The latter two was seen by the 5-person majority as endorsing a general sentiment, not a religious view. There was strong dissent in the case. The Lynch standard is what Chambersburg failed by not allowing alternative views.--LV