At this point, I have yet to see or hear from anyone I know a complaint about the red cups at Starbucks. That may very well mean that the reports of “Christian outrage” over the holiday cups is yet another example of media outlets generating clicks by pretending that a few angry Twitter users represent a trend.
In either case, the story is being reported by multiple media outlets across the spectrum and the outrage seems to exist among some of my brothers and sisters within the faith, and it piques my interest because the response strikes me as pretty wrong-headed, even if well-intentioned. A few, of many, reasons as to why this bothers me:
1. Historically, the Christian church has lived by the liturgical church calendar. Many churches continue this practice to this day, and by that calendar we are not yet in the Christmas season or any holiday season. Rather, November is largely made up of Ordinary Time. This year, Ordinary Time ends on November 29, but even then we will not be in the church’s Christmas season. Rather, we will be in Advent, which stretches all the way into Christmas Eve, and Christmastide begins with Christmas and ends at Epiphany (January 6). Bear in mind that Advent was not just another name for “Christmas season” but instead a time of quiet reflection, simplicity, and humility, geared toward cultivating a desire for Jesus to deliver the whole world from injustices, suffering, famine, selfishness, pride, etc. Advent is to Christmas what Lent is to Easter.
This means that if we want to keep time as the church tended to keep time for most of its history, we are to celebrate Christmas for a little less than two weeks (the 12 days of Christmas) beginning on Christmas.
This is surprising for many of us because we live according to a different calendar, one which was not developed by the church in order to help us live a reflective life of discipleship, but a calendar developed by marketing teams and corporations in order to train us to bump up our consumer spending during a season in which the weather would normally keep people home from unnecessary shopping trips.
If we allow ourselves to be caught up in real or perceived slights in how corporations observe Christmas through November and the first three weeks of December, we effectively indicate that we have adopted the marketing calendar of corporations rather than the theological community calendar of the church.
2. One of the Twitter reactions to the Starbucks cups being reported as representative is this:
“Alrighty then. #starbucks With 74% Christian nation, let them go bankrupt. Screw them.”
It is worth breaking this comment down in order to examine why this attitude is not the attitude that we Christians should adopt.
First, the commenter notes that a super-majority of Americans identify as Christians. 74% may be off by a few percent based on some recent polls, but the point stands that there area lot of self-identified Christians in the US. This fact alone should probably make us skeptical of claims that a coffee chain is declaring a war on Christmas or that we are on the verge of forgetting that Christmas exists and is associated with the birth of Jesus.
But I think there is something more telling here. The 74% comment isn’t just a statistical note, but a threat that there are many of us, that we are powerful, and that we will crush you with that power.
Bearing this in mind, let’s take a look at Mark 10:42-45,
“Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus notes to his disciples that the way of the world is to gather power and to lord it over others, and that the way of his kingdom is different, in which greatness comes through serving others.
In a similar vein, 1 Chronicles 21 and 2 Samuel 24 both tell of King David taking a census of the people of Israel, likely to assess their strength for conflict against their neighbors, and in so doing he provoked the judgment of God. A direct explanation is not given, but it would seem to be the case (as it was throughout the Old Testament) that David did wrong by thinking that his security rested in a worldly way of thinking about power and not in the promises of God.
When we, as Christians, threaten our neighbors with our great numbers, we do so at odds with the faith we claim to represent, in which the coercive force of the majority is not regarded as the standard of goodness and truth (remember that it was the coercive force of the majority that put Jesus to death).
Consider 2 Corinthans 12:5-10,
“…I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
In this passage we find Paul saying the same thing taught and exemplified by Jesus, the same thing that showed up in David’s census: God’s grace is sufficient, and God’s power is made perfect in weakness. Christians do not need Starbucks to promote our faith for us; we don’t depend on everyone around us celebrating our holidays; we depend solely on the grace of God.
3. Having already considered the first half of this Twitter user’s reaction (“Alrighty then. #starbucks With 74% Christian nation, let them go bankrupt. Screw them.”), we will look at the second:
We have already highlighted highlighted 2 Corinthians 12:5-10, and would now like to focus in on verse 6,
“Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say…”
Here, the apostle Paul is incredibly instructive for followers of Jesus. He notes in his letters that by worldy standards, his credentials are respectable, and yet he repeatedly emphasizes that those credentials ultimately don’t have anything conclusive to say about whether or not the message of good news he preaches is true. Rather, he says here that he only wants people to judge the truth of his message by the standard of what he says and does, the way in which he lives his life.
This is in line with so much of the New Testament. Jesus told his disciples that they would be known as his disciples by their love for one another. Jesus taught that a tree is known by the fruit it bears. Paul taught a follower of Jesus is known by bearing the fruit produced by the Holy Spirit in their lives “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
Marshall McLuhan, nineteen centuries later, would make a similar point by stating that the medium is the message.
The truth of the Christian gospel is attested to by the lives of those who proclaim it. I don’t want that to be true, but I can’t escape it as it is repeated again and again in the New Testament. If we try to promote Christianity through means that are antithetical to Christianity, than we do nothing but bring shame on the name of Jesus.
We are told to bless those who curse us, to pray for those who persecute us, to love our enemies, to go a second mile when compelled to go the first. If our reaction to a coffee company having red cups near one of our holidays is to threaten their existence with our massive numbers and to curse them with “screw you”, we should be moved to confess the wrongness of our response and to seek to change our ways.
This same thing applies to our response to all sorts of perceived forms of the “war on Christmas”. To my understanding (more on this in the next post) not having a store clerk wish us a merry Christmas by name, or not having City Hall set up a nativity scene, etc., are not acts of persecution against Christians at all. But even if they were, the response of Christians cannot be threats, or reminders of our large numbers, or invectives, but blessing and peace and forbearance and love.
To be a faithful ambassador of Christ (2 Corinthians 5), one cannot try to promote the name of Christ by acting in rebellion to his commands.
4. Finally, the reported outrage in response to the red Starbucks holiday cup is one portion of a larger annual theme in which some people perceive there to be a “War on Christmas”. This supposed war is one in which it is proposed that there are forces at work to cleanse American culture of Christianity, especially regarding the Christian holiday of Christmas.
The same stories are repeated each year, of retail clerks saying, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”; of Christmas being written as X-mas; of governmental buildings either not allow any religious displays (such as a nativity creche) or allowing all religious displays (a nativity crech, a menorah, and a Festivus pole).
It is simple enough to highlight the ways in which none of these things represent a special attack on Christians or Christmas, but more basically and more fundamentally important: the fact is that if we are free to practice our faith without being threatened with imprisonment, fines, violence, etc., while on our own time acting on our own behalf, we aren’t being persecuted.