Thursday, October 23, 2008

A Theology of Halloween

For anyone interested, and for those who never knew there could be such a thing, I give you this Sunday's Halloween sermon:

Love vs. Fear
Well, does anyone know what Friday is? That’s right, it’s Halloween! As many of you know, Halloween is my very favorite holiday of all. I love seeing the costumes and decorations, I love watching scary movies, and I love hearing a really good ghost story. Most of this stuff doesn’t have much to do with working in the church, though. In fact, many Christians would find it strange that a pastor likes Halloween so much--and even more so, there are some who think a Christian embrace of such a holiday is inappropriate. The decorations and stories and many of the costumes of this festival have to do with images of fear, after all, and things of the darkness are not to be celebrated in the minds of many.
I can see that point. Many people respond to Halloween differently. In college, one of my friends thought it would be fun to go to a Halloween party as a ghost--not anything fancy, but your regular ole’ ghost. He took one of MY sheets, poked two holes in it for eyes and threw that thing right over his head. Yes, that ole costume. It was quite interesting what happened when we went to the party. He decided he wouldn’t speak to anyone, but kept going up to different groups at the party and just stood there. Here’s the crazy thing--instead of the people becoming uneasy at this non-speaking ghost, everyone assumed he was part of the group. He was one of the most popular guys at the party, and he didn’t even utter a word.
The following year, I decided I was going to try something like that. I had an all-black costume that was comprised mostly of a robe and a hood. But the hood included cloth that went over my face, so that I could see out, but no one could see who I was. The costume shrouded me in darkness, literally. Well, I thought, I’ll try what Keith did the year before and have some fun with this. So, I went to a party that year and also wouldn’t talk. I went up to various groups and just stood there. I did not get the same reaction. I got strange looks, groups actually moved away from me, and everyone’s unease showed in their eyes. Everyone assumed I was not part of their group, but a stranger.
After that night, I concluded that there are two possible explanations. Maybe I didn’t use enough deodorant. But I think more likely, the costumes themselves created different reactions. The sheet ghost costume is childlike, innocent, familiar, the same costume worn by several characters in the Charlie Brown Great Pumpkin cartoon. It was an image of comfort. The all black robe and hood, however, reminiscent of a grim reaper, was more disconcerting to people. Folks found it more threatening. It struck a note of fear.
Without stretching the analogy too far, I hope, I see in this story two images of God; or at least, two ways we as people of God imagine and respond to God. It’s a broad generalization I know, but often we see either a God of fear or a God of love. Sometimes, even the differences between the Old and New Testaments are unfairly described in this way, although I see both images of God present in both testaments. I think we know both these Gods. The God of fear is the one who harshly punishes even the slightest misdeed, who demands a blood sacrifice to atone for people’s sins, who will get you if you’re not good enough, and who might also condemn you to eternal hell when you die, for the same reason. The God of love, on the other hand, seems to be the God of our best hopes--the God of forgiveness and grace and peace. The God who promises a comforting presence, always, and who always offers another chance. While both are sides of God described in scripture, usually people and churches operate out of worshiping one or the other, even despite whichever God to whom they give lip service.
While we often think of God in one of these two categories--love or fear--it should come as no surprise that history shows human treatment of each other also reflecting one of these two mindsets. I believe that if we truly worship and celebrate a God of love, then we will tend to act toward others in a similar way, and if we worship and dread a God of fear, then we treat our neighbors likewise. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus--quoting verses from the Hebrew Scriptures--also makes this connection, and makes abundantly clear which God is his Father. “Jesus answered, ‘”Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and the most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like it: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” The whole Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments’” (Mt. 22:37-40). In Mark’s version of this event, Jesus begins his answer by quoting more of these Old Testament verses, “Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one…”’” (12:29). The God of judgment is one with the God of love, because the judgment of God always springs out of God’s love for the least and the last. But love, and not fear, is the basic element of what God is--that is what Jesus is reminding his listeners here.
Unfortunately, as clear as Jesus was, human history shows us time and time again worshiping the God of Fear. When the Pilgrims first landed, a mutual trust and respect for the local residents gave way to fearing “the heathen natives of this land” as the First Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1676 calls them. In 1692, fear of superstition combined with intentional manipulation by an elite group of community leaders led to the arrest of almost 150 people as witches in the Salem area of Massachusetts, and the execution of 20 of them. (Disturbingly, there are some historians who still contend there really was witchcraft going on in Salem.) In the 1950’s, fear of “un-American” political thought led to accusations, humiliations, and arrests, and a battering of the Revolution’s foundation of free thought and expression. These are all services of worship to the God of Fear.
These actions are not compatible with following Jesus and Jesus’ God. One commentator reminds us that “true religion springs from love of God,” and, “Its test is not what people feel but what they do. Genuine love of God inevitably leads to a second behavior: love of neighbor.” But we as a people continue to do otherwise, even in our own time. The purpose of terrorism, for instance, is to cause people to react with terror, to respond out of fear. Our actions as a nation since September 11 have shown that terrorism has won, so far. Our government’s entire agenda--whether foreign or domestic--has been borne out of fear or its perpetuation. We have seen warrant-less phone tapping, domestic spying, walls to protect us from foreigners, and political fear-mongering. The American people have responded with hate crimes against Muslims and Arabs, hate speech against Islam and immigrants, and yet more charges of ill-defined un-Americanism. Nevermind a prolonged war in a land that had nothing to do with the attacks on September 11. The God of Fear continues to demand--and receive--due tribute.
In a perfect example of the judgment of God based in love, the letter of 1 John reminds us again, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate [others] are liars” (1 Jn. 4:20). Another scholar asks about the bottom line, “How in real life, do we love? How, in the middle of a war, can we love our enemies? How do we illuminate the love of God and neighbor as a way of life?” This author goes on, “An oft-cited prophetic passage, Micah 6:8, tells us exactly how to love: struggle for justice; show mercy, kindness; walk humbly with God. Justice-making constitutes the how of God’s love whether we experience it between intimate lovers and friends or between ourselves and our enemies in contexts of conflict, including war.”
We are not following the God of Jesus, the God of Love, when we label others as outside the group. Whether it’s a “heathen native” of the mid-17th century, a “witch” in 1690’s Salem, a slave-lover in the antebellum South, a 1950’s communist on McCarthy’s list, or a Muslim who hates freedom or a filthy Arab or a dirty homosexual or an illegal or weak on terrorism; these labels are nothing more than slanders, demonizations, and continued tribute to that almighty God of Fear. In no uncertain terms, these reactions--springing from the fear of difference--are not Christian. That earlier scholar adds, “But we can be lovers of God and even of our enemies [remember that teaching from Jesus?] if we can loosen the grip of fear and its pathetic spawn, the demonization of enemies as unworthy of God’s love. The simple recognition of our enemy’s humanity, however distorted by violence it may have become, may crack open a door through which we can imagine meeting the enemy as a brother or sister.” In other words, one of the things Jesus makes clear in today’s gospel passage is that Christians have no business following a god of fear.

I got into a lively discussion at a dinner party once suggesting that Halloween is a more Christian holiday than Christmas. The way we celebrate Christmas is all about buying things for those who don’t need them and by over-indulging ourselves in the name of Jesus while the poor of the world continue to suffer. Halloween, besides serving as the only time many people bother to go up to their neighbors’ houses and actually interact with them, also holds deeper meaning. It is not about being afraid, believe it or not. It is rather about laughing in the face of fear and the things we fear: darkness, death, superstition, and monsters of every kind. Now, which sounds more Christian to you?
May we celebrate Halloween in its fullest sense, mocking the god of fear while meeting our neighbors face-to-face. Maybe we should even do those things year-round. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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