God's Politics

Diana Butler BassEvery year about this time, Bill O’Reilly opens his “war on Christmas” campaign — his annual attempt to rile up Christians over the “secularization” of the day celebrating Jesus’ birth. His targets typically include retailers who wish customers “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” and elementary schools with “holiday programs” instead of Christmas pageants.

I’m betting he won’t call attention to the Loma Linda Homeowners Association in Pagosa Springs, Colorado.

According to the Associated Press, this southwestern Colorado homeowners group is threatening to fine Lisa Jensen, one of its residents, $25 a day until she removes an offensive Christmas wreath. The offense? The lighted wreath, complete with a red velvet bow, is shaped like a peace symbol.

Ms. Jensen’s neighbors are upset because they believe that the wreath protests the Iraq war; others have complained that it symbolizes Satan. Ms. Jensen claims that it is not a war protest, saying, “Peace is way bigger than not being at war. This is a spiritual thing.”

She also says she will not take down the wreath, even though the fines will amount to more than $1,000 by Christmas day.

The peace symbol was designed in 1958 by Gerald Holtom, a Christian conscientious objector to World War II, as the logo for the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Holtom had originally designed the symbol as a cross inside a circle to be carried during a protest march against nuclear weapons to Canterbury Cathedral on Easter weekend.

Some Church of England clergy complained about the use of the cross in a protest rally, so Holtom slightly altered the sign, allowing the arms of the cross to dip in resignation. Later, he explained the design to a friend in this way: “I was in despair. Deep despair. I drew myself: the representative of an individual in despair, with hands palm outstretched outwards and downwards in the manner of Goya’s peasant before the firing squad.”

Only later, after the symbol proved popular in both the civil rights movement and in protests against the Vietnam War, did right-wing political and religious groups attempt to define the symbol as either Communist or Satanic. Such renderings are wrong. The peace symbol is Christian — as the designer himself described — a sign of despair that Christ’s peace might never be realized on this earth.

I don’t know about Ms. Jensen’s motives or politics, but I know that she has perfectly captured my mood as Christmas approaches. Like Holtom, I feel little but despair over the war in Iraq. This war isn’t about the glorious triumph of the Cross. No, the arms of the sacred tree have dropped in pain and sorrow. Palms downward facing out, all we can do about now is beg for mercy — as thousands of Iraqis die in a civil war that we unleashed. God help us.

You are right, Ms. Jensen. Peace is way bigger than war. Peace is a “spiritual thing.” And it is a Christmas thing. “For a child has been born to us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). Peace is the hope of the world that is promised to us through the birth of Jesus Christ. Peace is Christmas.

Forget Wal-Mart. This hapless homeowners association has attacked the real meaning of Christmas! At the very least, they do not appear to be reading the gospel of Luke. Maybe they are too busy denouncing angel figurines trumpeting “peace on earth” as traitorous to the war effort. Or perhaps they are contemplating what to do with those statues of the Virgin Mary. After all, she preached that radical sermon on casting rulers from thrones, filling the hungry with good things, and sending the rich away. I bet the mother of Jesus wouldn’t like this war much, either.

Oh, and Ms. Jensen: I’m planning on copying your wreath and hanging it on my house this Advent. Thank you for reminding us that peace is a spiritual thing.

Diana Butler Bass ( is the author of Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith (Harper San Francisco), recently named by Publishers Weekly as one of the best religion books of 2006.

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