Pulling from my bag of religious education tricks, I danced through this holiday season in my elementary classroom teaching about Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Christmas (with a nod to the Solstice). My kids were pretty open but clueless as we talked about Hanukkah’s story of a weary battle and a wee bit of oil that spelled a miracle (they were most intrigued with the soldier coloring page). Again they were open but blank slates as we talked about Kwanzaa and the importance of honoring tradition (though they made beautiful Kinara). When we came to Christmas, every one of them had working knowledge from which to draw: Santa.
The beauty of Santa, of course, is that he comes not only with a bag of gifts but also with a list of naughty and nice. Though none of us would wish to be found on the naughty side, we all take comfort that our nemesis will ultimately be held accountable. This promise is a comfort to those who experience oppression and no child is without some taste of that vulnerability.
When reading about Christmas on the Arthur (pbskids.org) holiday site, however, it was the story of Jesus’ birth and not Santa that was noted and my kids were (without exception) confused. Who is Jesus? And why is his birth important? Without a second thought I shifted into storytelling mode and delighted in sharing with them the story of the first Christmas. We were all reveling in the sweetness of the story when one little boy made the connection between this celebratory baby’s birth and the dude that hangs on crosses around people’s necks. He checked for clarification. My kids, completely unchurched but wise in the world, were curious about the connection between the baby Jesus of Christmas and the dead Jesus on the cross. When I confirmed that the identity the kids were mortified. “But why?”
Removed from the confines of the church, aware that I was in private school teaching public school children, I was thinking fast on my feet about what would (and would not) be helpful to say. I noted that the Romans killed Jesus, that he was a political dissident. My little ones (ages 6-8) were clueless about the Romans, never mind dissidents political or otherwise. As I reached for familiar Sunday School teachings, I realized that all of them smack of God-ordained suffering which is not a helpful message for trauma-recovering children.
Much of my discomfort lies in our traditional whitewashing of the Jesus narrative, a practice that is both antithetical to the story and unhelpful for my children.
As we light nativity scenes on civic lawns across our nation today, the power and passion of that story has been lost. Set in context and viewed at least somewhat objectively, our Jesus narrative is a direct (if comical) affront to the stories of the day. In a land where it was not uncommon for gods to cavort with humans, creating heroes in their wake, the Jesus-birth narrative is a parody. Instead of golden nets we find a feeding trough; instead of adoring elephants, there are stupid sheep. Neither Buddha nor Hercules, our hero is born destitute and quickly finds himself on the run from the law. Thus our story unfolds, flaunting the dominant cultural narratives. In its earliest incarnations the story of Jesus’ birth was quite literally an “F@*# you!” message to Roman culture.
The answer to my children’s question lies in the upside down offense of the Jesus-birth story, not the sweet little baby version. Kissing Fish writes: “You don’t crucify people for telling others to be nice to one another, and to politely participate in the dominant culture.” The Jesus story, at least the pre-emasculated version, isn’t about being nice or polite. The Jesus story is a retelling of the more ancient story of the prophets in which the source of life dares to care about how it is that we do (and don’t) share justice with one another. The Jesus story is rich with the message of repentance that skips the worthless task of groveling and focuses on building lives of just compassion. The story dares to challenge the egocentric imperialism that gutted the Roman Empire and lays waste to our own.
And the cost to such truth telling is often life itself and so we edit the story to make it nice. This same domestication has happened with all of our hero stories and was profoundly evident as the world paused this month to honor a remarkably nice Nelson Mandela. Gone was the grit, missing was the prophecy, celebrated was the conciliatory spirit without the tough love that gave it power.
The bitter irony, of course, is that my little ones are with me precisely because they have not been nice. In the face of cruelty, they have raged. The gritty part of the hero stories that we hide are the chapters that would give a righteously angry child a toe hold with which to connect and grow.
When my little ones dare to rage against the injustice of their lives, they are often quite literally expelled from both homes and schools. In a culture where we place a high premium on nice, the insolence that my little ones spew is categorically unwelcome. In fairness, the rage is often misguided though well founded. Never have I even imagined a group of young children more traumatized by adults pledged to care for them. Add to the human failings a sprinkling of organic mental illness and it’s a pretty toxic mix. Unfortunately the rage comes out seemingly unbidden and often directed toward those attempting to be helpful. The language of nice is pretty lost in this context, for both student and teacher.
To be candid, I am grateful for the rage that bears witness to a spirit fighting back. Nevertheless, I spend my days trying to teach “nice” and the emasculated version of the story would better suit my purposes as a classroom teacher. Herein lies the dilemma: a cowed spirit is easier to manage in our American public education system but such a spirit cannot soar.
So which version of our heroes will we teach?