Of Blasphemy and Racism

Blasphemy! Heresy! Treason! Racism! All loaded words, used less to convey meaning than for their effect as weapons. Few weapons in history have been as powerful. They have killed thousands, perhaps millions, and silenced many more. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” These will. They are intended to.

Consider “blasphemy.” It is a common hammer of religious leaders who are doubtful of their deity’s ability to defend himself. These nervous clerics and acolytes step in to threaten and, where they can, inflict the harshest penalties against any and all they accuse of “blasphemy,” which usually means saying anything that the listeners consider untoward or disrespectful vis-à-vis their deity. The harshness of the penalties, and the vagueness of what qualifies as an infraction, create a terror that intimidates both speech and action among others, which is the basic purpose of the label. The religious leaders of Judea during the days of Jesus’ mortal ministry repeatedly tried to silence Him by hurling “blasphemy” at Him. On the day of His death, they cried blasphemy to stir up the anger of the population—although they used another word, “treason,” when addressing the Roman authorities. Several dozen nations today (with little opposition from the U.S. State Department or other executive branch officials) are seeking to make blasphemy a globally recognized crime, at least when touching upon Islam or its sensitivities.

“Heresy” has similar uses. Rather than a crime of the impious, it is invoked in pious disagreements about whom or what is sacred. The Spanish Inquisition comes readily to mind. The accusation seems to be most commonly employed by those who lack confidence in the convincing power of their doctrines when faced with competing ones. “Heresy” is intended to close ears, “heretic” to silence speakers, both intended to end the debate.

Next we come to “treason,” which can be a real phenomenon and a genuine crime against the nation or people, and when proved and the traitor caught usually answered with stern—if not brutal—penalties. Genuine treason puts the nation or community at risk by exposing weaknesses to enemies.

In former times, as well as in nations governed by authoritarian regimes, “treason” has been invoked, however, less to label traitors to the state and the society as to subdue opponents to the supreme leader. Kings, emperors, czars, dictators, and others of the ilk sit nervously on their thrones—and for good reason. They lack legitimacy yet enjoy immense power (or its illusion), which lures other would-be despots. Nearly every one of the Roman emperors, for example, met death at human hands. The Soviet Union never had a legitimate transfer of power from one boss to the next. Tyrants, therefore, have little tolerance for opposition and are credulous of every rumor of resistance. That makes accusations of “treason” powerful tools of terror for scoundrels in such societies to employ to settle grudges, dispose of enemies, steal lands and wealth, or otherwise gain advantage. Many innocents have been so victimized.

Which brings us to “racism.” This is a modern weaponized word. Originally coined to identify people who would justify plunder and oppression by employing racial prejudices, it has been preserved long after such plans and schemes are suppressed by law and proscribed by social convention. Indeed, the word only works as a weapon because of the universal social opprobrium already attached to it. Its power as an epithet comes because no one in civil society considers it tolerable, any actual existence a bizarre aberration. Calling someone “racist” is tantamount to accusing him of being unfit for public association and worthy of ostracism. It is therefore used most commonly today, like the use throughout history of the other weapon words, to end debate, to intimidate opponents, to plunder wealth, and in general to gain advantage. “Racism” is the modern world’s “blasphemy,” “heresy,” and even “treason.” “Racism” is used to cause hurt, even where the absence of authentic racism causes none. Worse, it is used by real racists to shield or camouflage their own bigotry.

Employed as a weapon word, racism is losing meaning. When was the last time you heard a reasoned discussion and debate of racism? Intellectual dialog is avoided for fear that raising the subject in an impartial way will court exposure to accusation, much as discussion of blasphemy, heresy, and treason in times past. What is left, for example, when racism no longer means conscious prejudicial action but is applied—as it is by the Obama Administration—to mean manufactured statistical discrepancies among people who admittedly have no intention to act in a prejudicial manner?

For the wielders of the weapon, the meaning of racism must be kept general and undefined to maximize the number of potential targets. Feeding the outrage attached to it is a constant labor as is constantly finding new eruptions of racism where none exist. The recognition of racism (especially where it is absent) must be automatic and assumed proven when employed—addressed if at all only by the mea culpa of the accused, followed by public contrition and the ceding of wealth or advantage to the accusers.

Where, I wonder, does the real racism lie? Can racial distinction and prejudice wither when they are regularly conjured for personal advantage? What does that do to a society where laws and culture already universally hold racism in contempt? What is the appropriate term for the moguls of the racism industry who prosper by the preservation and promotion of racism? When will the public immolations for private gain end?

Of the Arrival of Christmas and the Return of the Christ

Christmas came this year. Nothing could stop it. People could and did choose to ignore it, with varying success, but their efforts made no difference to Christmas’ arrival. Neither poverty nor wealth could hold it back. Merchants lamented the shortened shopping season. Early wintry weather interfered with many transportation plans. Irreligionists of many stripes raised their usual objections to the public symbols of Christmas and in some places succeeded in suppressing those symbols. Wars and rumors of wars exerted their perennial presence to mock sentiments of peace on earth all the while proving its need. On personal levels, challenges at work, demanding academic schedules, unexpected as well as chronic illness, the death of loved ones, and many other matters and intrusions of varying importance fought for the precedence of our attention.

Many causes large and small could easily leave the feeling that there was no time for Christmas, this year or other years. The distractions of life can all too easily make the sources of lasting value appear as distractions.

I am again reminded of the words of Charles Dickens. He spoke through the mouth of young, idealistic Fred, in answer to his Uncle Ebenezer’s rodomontade against Christmas. The not yet but soon to be converted miser thought his daily work focused on important matters, all the while missing out on the sources of joy in life. Fred reminded his Uncle, as a prelude to a change of heart, how Christmas symbolized humanity’s worth in life’s lasting values, to which worldly wealth can serve as a facilitator but never a replacement.

There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say, . . . Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut up hearts freely, and to think of those people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it! (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol)

And so this year, in 2013 Christmas came, inevitably, inexorably, as it has for some two thousand years, and many blessings with it. The good and bad and indifferent that hitched along for the ride could not affect the driving core of Christmas, its fundamental, joyful message of hope of salvation for all, to one degree or another as each opens up—or not—to receive it.

It is in the driving arriving context of Christmas and the mission of Christ that it is appropriate to look to one of my favorite Christmas carols. I confess that this is difficult to do without the music, essential to the power of the carol’s message. I refer to the “Carol of the Bells,” a joyful Christmas message woven by Peter J. Wilhousky into the driving music of Mykola Leontovych’s Ukrainian song of Winter and the approaching Spring.

I love this carol for many reasons. One is that its origin of uniting Winter with Spring embodies the message that Christmas derives its meaning from Easter. Jesus was the Christ, the Anointed One, because of His ultimate sacrifice and victory over death and hell, a mission for which He was chosen before the world was created. Having fully accomplished His mission, as a resurrected God, Jesus declared, “I have drunk out of that bitter cup which the Father hath given me, and have glorified the Father in taking upon me the sins of the world” (3 Nephi 11:11). That is the reason for and fulfilment of our Christmas joy.

Here are the lyrics. Importantly, as you read the words, feel their rhythm, central to the message:

Carol of the Bells

Hark how the bells,
sweet silver bells,
all seem to say,
throw cares away.

Christmas is here,
bringing good cheer,
to young and old,
meek and the bold.

Ding dong ding dong,
that is their song
with joyful ring
all caroling.

One seems to hear
words of good cheer
from ev’rywhere
filling the air.

Oh how they pound,
raising the sound,
o’er hill and dale,
telling their tale,

gaily they ring
while people sing
songs of good cheer,
Christmas is here.

Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas,
Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas,

On, on they send,
on without end,
their joyful tone
to ev’ry home.

Ding dong ding dong. . . dong!

The lyrics, like the tune, are repetitive, incessant, and by that technique insistent in rhythm. On, on they come. They demand attention. Like bells, they are loud and piercing. As someone knocking at the door, their message—and presumably the messengers—will not be denied. The tune is joyful, but not light and airy. Rather announcing a joy that comes from the soul, heartfelt, it is not the celebration of a party, but the celebration of a triumph, lasting and permanent, ever reaching out to more people, to every home.

So each year, onward Christmas comes, no holding it back, even as Jesus came into the world, as prophesied for thousands of years. There was nothing to hold Him back or deter His mortal mission of redemption, not the jealousy of Herod “the Great,” the pusillanimity of Pilate, the hatred of the leaders of the Sanhedrin, nor the darkness of priestcraft and its traditions. All was turned by God to assist in achieving the mission of the Christ.

And since then, onward marches the calendar, each year Christmas arrives, symbolic that the day of the Savior’s return, as prophesied by Himself and His prophets, inexorably approaches. As Christ announced, only He and the Father know the precise day and time, but it is certain and each day closer. The arrival of Christmas each year is a reminder to me, that the time of rejoicing is coming, the hope and assurance of which justifies rejoicing today, and every day.

Christmas will come again next year. Ready or not, I am glad of it and will welcome it.

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