A Pluralism Carol: Burning Babe

18 12 2016

We will guard each [person’s] dignity and save each [person’s] pride/

And they will know we are Christians by our love.”

“They’ll Know We Are Christians” by Peter Scholtes, © 1966

“Burning Babe” has become one of my favorite Christmas songs because it’s about so much more than Christmas.

It’s also about the importance of cultural pluralism and the separation of church and state. It’s about resistance, hope and sacrifice.

The lyrics don’t tell the whole story on their own. A little more context is required to fully appreciate it.

Sting recorded this song for an unusually good holiday album he released in 2009 called “If On A Winter’s Night…” But the lyrics are from a poem written in 1595 by Robert Southwell. He wrote it in prison.
Southwell was a Jesuit priest who was arrested and executed for a very serious crime: He continued to celebrate mass after Queen Elizabeth I had outlawed the Catholic faith in England.


Saint Robert Southwell, S.J. (1561-1595). Line Engraving by Matthaus Greuter (Greuther) or Paul Maupin, published 1608. [Via Wikipedia.org]

Southwell knew what he did was dangerous, but defiantly expressed his faith anyway and ministered to others in the process. As a result, he was imprisoned for years, brutally tortured and eventually he was hung, drawn and quartered. All of this at the hands of other Christians. The lyrics of this song were probably written after the torture began. Southwell’s legacy as a writer lived on — some say he had a significant influence on his literary contemporary, William Shakespeare.

It’s important to remember that “Christian” governments like the one that ruled in Elizabethan England spent an awful lot of time persecuting Christians in addition to people of other faiths. That’s usually how theocracy works. It often starts with targeting “them” — the Muslims, the Jews, the atheists. That’s a form of cruelty that’s worth fighting against regardless of whatever else it does.

But who decides where to draw the line between “us” and “them?” Fundamentalists inevitably turn their attention toward enforcing conformity among their own. Theocracy tends to just be a way of hiding general tyranny with the trappings of religious “legitimacy.”

Western Christianity has already been there and done that. Why should we have to relearn what several bloody centuries of “Christian” government in Europe should have already taught us?

Before you suggest that a modern, American theocracy wouldn’t have such problems, let me tell you how to start a fight among American Christians — just ask a group of church members if Mormons count. See what they say. Are Jehovah’s Witnesses going to heaven? Or Unitarians? In a “Christian nation,” will meditation disqualify you from legal protection? What about yoga? How about psychics or horoscopes? Or “worldly” music and movies? Heck, some Protestants still have an axe to grind against Catholics. Fur would fly over the “Was Jesus white?” question, too.

Ugly, angry lines of attack would form. You might be surprised who ends up on which side. Before you know it, folks are getting drawn and quartered.

Which is the point, of course. The religious litmus tests are always a way to divide and control populations, not a sincere attempt to pursue spiritual truth.

Secular commentators often cite Thomas Jefferson’s unorthodox religious views (loosely akin to Deism) when discussing the separation of church and state. I have nothing against that argument, but we religious folks who also believe in pluralism like to cite something James Madison wrote: “Religion and government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together.”

It isn’t just to protect citizens from an authoritarian church — it’s also to protect the church from the temptations of unaccountable power and the use of state violence. When the church is linked closely with the state, it often leads spiritual people into moral corruption. Madison’s principles could have easily predicted what happened to churches in Franco’s Spain, the Jim Crow South or (you knew this was coming) Hitler’s Germany. If government is going to wage a bloodthirsty military campaign, steal from the poor or plunder our natural environment, it’s best to keep the church out of it. (Or, better yet, mobilize an independent group of faithful people to fight against it.)

We could use more songs like “Burning Babe” — Christmas-themed resistance against the repressive consequences of uniting church and state.

The imagery Southwell uses is also fascinating. The Christ Child burns to bring light that dispels darkness and to purify the souls of humanity. But on a less explicit level, perhaps that image came from the poet’s desire for literal heat. I imagine it gets pretty chilly when you’re a prisoner in a 16th century jail cell during an English winter.

Or a refugee fleeing Syria by boat

Or a Central American child shivering on concrete floors in immigrant detention…

Or a Standing Rock Water Protector, sheltering from the North Dakota snow in a teepee…

It’s an odd and unsettling reminder that winter is literally cold. Especially for the vulnerable and the marginalized. It reminds me that maybe Jesus cares about the material conditions of people’s lives.

Maybe Baby Jesus came to help us out with hypothermia and frostbite, too. To heal our sickness. To redeem us from hunger. To protect us from violence. Maybe he didn’t just come to liberate us from sin itself, but to also free us of all of the other damage that a hostile, fallen world brings our way.

One need not choose between a “social Gospel” and a spiritual Gospel — each is incomplete without the other. Jesus often expressed it this way himself. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Now let’s go feed these people some fish and bread.”

This can work together beautifully with a pluralistic political perspective, too. As with so many other things, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. modeled it well. He’d quote scripture while preaching against the three evils of poverty, racism and militarism. Then he’d leave church and march against segregation side by side with Jews, Muslims and atheists. They also spoke freely from their own perspective. He wasn’t shy about what he believed, but everyone’s religious expression (or lack thereof) was welcomed and respected.

It makes perfect sense. Faith is never properly expressed by how well we use government or wealth to coerce others into believing as we do. Not by how we stigmatize people who don’t live like we do. Not by retreating behind our rose-colored stained glass windows, either. They’ll know we are Christians by our love.

For some of us, faith motivates our desire to learn from history. It pushes us to respect others enough to bend over backwards for them — especially religious minorities. Faith leads us to refuse to use political or economic advantage to force our rituals and holidays on others.

My Christmas would be that much merrier knowing that no one was being forced to participate.





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