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As immediate memories of the midterm elections fade in the face of the holiday season, the country’s cultural cold war will inevitably encompass battles over “Merry Christmas” versus “Happy Holidays,” the appropriate “inclusiveness” of workplace parties, and absurd debates over Starbucks coffee cups and the potential racism of “Jingle Bells.” As December unfolds and guides us towards a 2019 guaranteed to be plagued with political polarization, it is worth examining the deeper civilizational zeitgeist beneath the annual seasonal festivities. Underpinning our annual holiday dilemmas is an elemental divide in Western civilization, and one that juxtaposes Judeo-Christian meaning against materialism and nihilism.
Christmas and Hanukkah, the two premier holidays of December in America, both celebrate concepts that are an anathema to the Left. Hanukkah, with its celebration of religious liberty and military victory carries with it a commemoration of national sovereignty in the face of a godless and power-hungry government. The religious meaning of Christmas and its focus upon the advent of a historical incarnation of the Divine within a human being places inherent worth within the individual. In the case of the Christian tradition, a human incarnation of the Divine is predicated upon the notion that the human being is something more than a simple biological being. Instead, man is also a spiritual being that is transcendent and worthy enough of the Divinity’s attention to be saved at great sacrifice to Himself. To the Left, these notions are not only parochial, but also dangerous.
It is no secret that the Left loathes the concept of national sovereignty. President Trump triggered CNN in October by claiming to be a “nationalist” at a rally in Texas. For the Left, “nationalism” is synonymous with “racism.” Yet despite the Left’s manipulation of language, it forgets that nationalism is essentially limited in its aims and based upon shared identity and sovereignty. In his new book, The Virtue of Nationalism, Israeli scholar Yoram Hazony outlines nationalism in its historical terms. No stranger to leftist animosity, modern Israel epitomizes everything the Left hates in its strong national identity, a vibrant religiosity among much of its population, and a willingness to defend its borders.
Prior to the 1948 creation of the state of Israel, the last Jewish state was that of the Hasmonean dynasty. After the death of Alexander the Great, his successors in their scramble for power divided up territory spanning from Macedonia to the Indus River. Judea, the area encompassing what is modern-day Israel, came under the rule of the Seleucid Empire. In 175 B.C., Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes (“god made manifest”) kickstarted a Jewish revolt by mandating the worship of Zeus instead of the historic ancestral God of Israel. The ensuing Maccabean revolution led to Jewish independence in 143 B.C.
Against this backdrop, the classical Hanukkah story is one of both Divine intervention and political redemption. According to the story, when the Maccabean rebels managed to secure the Second Temple from its Hellenistic occupiers, there was only enough kosher oil for the menorah in the temple to last a day. The Hanukkah miracle recounts the oil burning continuously for eight days instead of one. The refusal of the Maccabean rebels to abandon faith and national identity in the face of the cosmopolitan (dare we say “global”?) culture of the Hellenists is a commitment to national sovereignty.
The modal form of political power through most of written history is not national so much as imperialistic. Hazony’s book highlights the difference between empire and nation by underscoring the universal claims of empire in juxtaposition to the limited claims of nationalism. As more nations tentatively reconsider commitments to “global governance” and the surrendering of sovereignty to international and supranational organizations, the Hanukkah story retains relevance despite its minor religious significance in Judaism. Indeed, it was the reorganization of Europe into nation-states that saved it from the universal religious combat of the Thirty Years’ War.
In Jewish history, it was the French nation-state under Napoleon that liberated the ghettos after the collapse of the Ancien Regime, and Allied nation-states that liberated concentration camps at the end of World War II. For all of its lofty idealism, international organizations like the United Nations and European Union have proven nothing but hostile to the modern Israeli successors to the Hasmoneans. Much to the chagrin of the Left, every day of Israel’s existence is a symbolic Hanukkah, or “rededication” to sovereignty.
The message of Christmas is similarly antithetical to the Left. Christmas, or Advent, celebrates nothing less than the theological notion that God incarnate was born into human form in the person of Jesus. Leaving aside the various debates about the historical Jesus and intra-Christian interpretations through the centuries of what Jesus was thought to be, the notion of a transcendent God being born in the form of a human being carries significant implications for notions of human worth and existence. First, the notion that a transcendent God would choose to take on the form of a human being, that is itself created in a Divine image, places incalculable transcendent worth within each individual. Second, the notion that humanity not only requires Divine assistance, but also is indeed worth assisting or “saving,” has implications for any purely earthly utopian political project.
One of the central tenets of the Judeo-Christian tradition is the understanding that humanity is created in God’s image. This transcendent connection of the human being to Divinity stands in sharp contrast to the utilitarian morality of the Left. If individuals have transcendent worth, it becomes impossible to calculate policies based upon “class” or “race.” Further, if human beings are transcendent and Divinely designed, it contradicts the Green-thinking logic of activists seeking to bestow political protections to the environment. For the Left, this is most inconvenient.
Perhaps the most antithetical idea to the Left is that of a fallen human condition that can only be remedied through reconnecting to transcendent Divinity.
The notion that humanity’s redemption must entail some sort of transcendent action places mankind’s ills beyond the capacities of social policy to definitively resolve. If human nature is fundamentally flawed at an elemental level, no amount of wealth redistribution, no environmental program, and no global governance can fix it. Indeed, utopian projects lead to authoritarianism despite their good intentions. Charity is an act of choice and goodwill, redistribution by the state is coercion. In short, the season of giving is antithetical to the Left. At its core, the Christmas story is perhaps best encapsulated in Athanasius of Alexandria’s notion that, “To make human beings gods, he was made man, who was God.” If human existence is cosmic, transcendent, and its redemption or improvement is connected to Divinity, the purely social justice goals of the Left pale in comparison.
Amid the hustle and bustle of Christmas shopping, mall Santa Clauses, and school breaks, wisps of messages that communicate Western virtues permeate the month. In various guises such as nativity scenes, St. Nicholas, and the Salvation Army, December’s underlying message is one of mercy and goodwill towards others. The notion that the human condition is not only fragile but also redeemable, underpins the annual lesson of the holiday season. As we seek to cultivate our better natures this month, it is worth examining the difference between Judeo-Christian charity and the false promises of the Left. In that spirit, I will forego the universal wish of “happy holidays.” Instead, I wish everyone a Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and wonderful New Year.
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