We Wish You a Merry Christmas? Interfaith perspectives on offering Christmas greetings.

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This festive season has seen another flare up of the debate surrounding a fatwa issued by the imam of Lakemba mosque directing his followers not to wish people a Merry Christmas. This debate prompts the question, should those of other faiths feel obliged to wish Christians a Merry Christmas? What statement is being made by a refusal to do so?

I’m an atheist who loves Christmas and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. For me, and for many people, Christmas is about holidays, family, food and a general festive vibe. But this year I’ve started to think twice before saying my routine “Merry Christmas” to shopkeepers, co-workers and neighbours. I don’t believe in the theology behind Christmas, so I’ve been subtly changing my vocabulary to “have a great holiday” or “enjoy the Christmas break.” I’m sure nobody has noticed this subtle change except me, but it has allowed me to express my goodwill towards others while remaining true to what I do (and don’t) believe.

The decision to wish people a Merry Christmas or not can be even more difficult for some of those who have strongly held religious beliefs that directly oppose the concept of celebrating the birth of Jesus as God’s son. In order to better understand this issue, we have compiled some interfaith perspectives on walking the delicate line between remaining true to one’s own beliefs and sharing goodwill and respect for others’. Below are summaries of a Jewish, a Muslim, a Christian and an Existentialist perspective, to read any of the responses in full, click the link at the bottom of their summary.

 

A Jewish Perspective – Rabbi Zalman Kastel

Rabbi Kastel’s response to this issue is to reflect on the need to balance two competing priorities when it comes to wishing people a Merry Christmas. One consideration in Jewish law is the importance of fostering positive interfaith relationships with ones neighbours, while a competing consideration is remaining true to one’s own faith and not endorsing religious beliefs that are counter to your own.

While Rabbi Kastel is in favour of prioritising building positive relations with others, he argues that having positive relations with others means accepting views which are different to ones own. Therefore he believes we need to respect or at least tolerate the views of those who prioritise remaining true to ones own faith and respect their decision not the say “Merry Christmas”.

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A Muslim Perspective- Sheikh Soner Coruhlu

Sheikh Soner sees no issue at all with Muslims wishing Christians a Merry Christmas. He explains that keeping good relations with people of other faiths is an extremely important aspect of Islam. He also argues that wishing somebody a Merry Christmas is not the same as celebrating Christmas oneself, it is simply respecting and acknowledging that this day is important to others.

Furthermore, he explains the importance of examining ones intentions when evaluating any action. He argues that when a Muslim wishes a Christian a Merry Christmas, the intention is not to imply that he believes that the divine was born on that day, but rather that a messenger was born. As Muslims believes that Jesus was a messenger of Allah, it is not contrary to Islam to acknowledge the birth of Jesus.

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A Christian Perspective – Father Patrick McInery

Father Patrick is disappointed in the fatwa issued by an Imam of the Lakemba mosque in 2012 forbidding Muslims from wishing Christians a Merry Christmas. He sees this fatwa as being indicative of a deeper underlying issue- that of exclusivism or supercessionism i.e claiming “my religion is right; all other religions are wrong!” He believes that in our multi-faith society we must respect others’ religions even if their beliefs directly contradict our own.

He has come to the conviction that all religions must have a role to play in God’s plan and thus they should all be respected. He strongly believes that for Muslims to wish Christians a Merry Christmas would not compromise their faith, it would simply show appreciation and respect to the many people within their community for whom this is a special time. He himself offers greetings to Muslims on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr and he does not see this as compromising his faith, but rather as a social and religious courtesy.

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An Existentialist perspective – Emma Bromley

Emma reflects on what Christmas means to her as an Existentialist. She explains that she sees this time of year as important because of the time spent with family. As a result, although she does not believe in the theology of Christmas, she believes in much of the sentiment and has no problem wishing people a Merry or Happy Christmas. As she says these words, her focus is not on the religious meaning of them, but rather on the positivity of the words Merry and Happy. She sees these greetings as a way to express her goodwill towards others at this time of year, without any religious connotations.

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Have your say

What do you think? Will you be wishing your friends and neighbors a Merry Christmas this year? We’d love to hear your opinions on this topic, so leave a reply under this post.

 

By Grace Smith

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Grace is a Communications Officer at Together for Humanity.

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We Wish You a Merry Christmas? An Existentialist Perspective

As a person who holds no religious beliefs, Christmas is nonetheless a time of joy for me and my family. At Christmas and New Year we reflect on the year that has been and anticipate the year to come. I use the term Festive Season more often than Christmas and I embrace everything about it – trees, decorations, lights, stockings, sending cards, presents and feasting. To a religious outsider it may look very materialistic, but to me it is about taking the time and care to spoil those I love. Spoil them with gifts and food and love and song.

Holding no religious beliefs doesn’t mean that I cannot wish people a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. I focus on the Merry and the Happy of that sentence and mean it when I say it. As I do not deny the existence of a Christ from an historical viewpoint, I do not feel that I must avoid the mention of the word at all. I am more inclined, however, to wish people Good Cheer for the Festive Season for this is more encompassing of my beliefs.

At Christmas time I talk with my children about the story of the birth of Jesus, not as religious instruction but just as we talk about other stories likeRomeo and Juliet or the Battle of Hastings. My children believe (or have believed) in Santa. I ask them to think about why they would believe in Santa (or the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny), but not in the notion of a God; and we take this opportunity to talk about belief. They know that I am an existentialist and that as adults they will develop their own beliefs. They also know that, no matter what they believe, they will be loved.

My children also know that we have family members who are religious: their grandfather, who they spent a lot of time with, was Jewish. My father-in-law embraced the Festive Season with us – especially enjoying the extra time he spent with his grandchildren. We would still place his presents under the tree and encourage him to wear a silly paper hat, but we would also ensure that the food we served was sensitive to his beliefs. This is the first Festive Season without him and we will share stories of him at lunch on Christmas Day.

I cry over the lyrics in Tim Minchin’s White Wine in the Sun when he sings of the seeing his dad, brother and sisters, gran and mum at Christmas; and that when his baby girl grows up although she may be far away they will all be waiting for her on Christmas to join them. I hold my children tight and look at my husband and family and know that this Festive Season is going to be a joyous one.

By Emma Bromley

We Wish You a Merry Christmas? A Christian Perspective

It seems to me that this fatwa forbidding Muslims from wishing Christians Merry Christmas is a topic that re-emerges every year. I have been told that the reason it is forbidden is because it is seen as condoning or endorsing a false religion. If this is the case, it seems to me that this represents a deeper underlying issue – that of supercessionism or exclusivism, that is claiming “my religion is rights; all other are wrong!”

I think in a multi-faith society, we have to move past supercessionist and exclusivist attitudes.  Yes, I have convictions about the role and identity of Jesus Christ that others do not share.  But that does not mean that I do not respect others and their religions.  I have come to the conviction that if religions have survived for hundreds of years without having been superseded, then in God’s providence they must have a continuing and future role to play in God’s plan for the unfolding of human history.

 

As you know, interfaith activists tend not to use the word “tolerance”.  It implies that one is merely putting up with something that is intrinsically “bad”, because the one doing the “putting up with” is inherently superior.  I believe we have to move beyond this negative approach towards a much more positive appreciation.  While we do not accept each other’s theological positions on key doctrinal matters, we can always respect the person from another religion who does not share them, who holds opposed positions.

 

Muslims already wrongly suffer a bad reputation in society due to the criminal behaviour of a tiny minority who act contrary to the Qur’an and tradition and commit terrorist violence.  The proponents of the fatwa might engender good will towards the Muslim community if they refrained from forbidding the offering of greetings to their majority fellow citizens on the occasion of Christmas.  To do so would not compromise their faith.  It would simply show appreciation and respect to the majority community.  I personally have received a number of such greetings from Muslims in recent days.  I offer greetings to Muslims on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr.  I do not see it as compromising my faith, I see it as a social and religious courtesy.

By Father Patrick McInery

 

We Wish You a Merry Christmas? A Muslim Perspective

The prophet (peace be upon him) said, “Do you know what is better than prayer and fasting and charity”? It is keeping peace and good relations between people as quarrels and bad feelings destroy mankind.” In another hadith, the prophet (pbuh) says; “What actions are most excellent? To gladden the heart of human beings, to feed the hungry, to help the afflicted, to lighten the sorrow of the sorrowful, and to remove the sufferings of the injured.”

There is no doubt that wishing someone a Merry Christmas brings joy to their heart and plays a role in keeping the peace and good relations. The only source that can be used to argue against wishing someone a Merry Christmas is the one that warns against imitating the followers of other religions (though, no one seems to have a problem with this when it comes to receivng social security and other worldly benefits). There are two issues with the application of this teaching in this instance;

1. One would not be following the Christian’s religious belief as the concept of Christ is different between Muslims and Christians. i.e. the Christian when stating Merry Christmas can conjure merriment at the birth of God or a portion of God. The Muslim is acknowledging the birth of Christ being an anointed apostle of God.

2. I would agree with the fatwa if it was in relation to the Muslim initiating the celebrations and following the customs i.e. putting up a Christmas tree, believing in Santa Claus as a youth, celebrating the birth or reincarnation of the divine with a feast, presents and thanks giving etc. This is an issue for the scholars who issue fatwa to debate. The intention behind a Muslim wishing somebody a Merry Christmas is certainly not to imply that he believes the divine was born, but that a messenger was born (at that alleged date).

As intentions hold the highest weight, in this regard, we are not imitating the Christians when we say Merry Christmas. On the contrary, the inward dimension of the well wishes is in fact completely contrary. Somebody can give charity to show off to the public and better their political career. Another can give charity to the same organisation,for the same amount of money but purely for the sake of earning God’s pleasure. Outwardly it appears the same but inwardly (which is most important) it is completely different.

By Sheikh Soner

We Wish You a Merry Christmas? A Jewish Perspective

In 2012, The Sydney Morning Herald  reported that a fatwa had been issued by one Imam against Christmas, warning that is it a sin to wish people a Merry Christmas. But this view was been rejected by the Mufti of Australia who asserted that “there is a difference between showing respect for someone’s beliefs and sharing those beliefs”.

There have been no sermons in the Australian Jewish community about Christmas greetings. Yet, this kind of thinking is evident in old Jewish texts including one published in Venice in 1565.  Rabbi Joseph Karo states that “It is forbidden to enter the home of an idol worshiper on the day of his celebration and wish him peace, however if he found him outside it is permitted but he should say it in a soft tone and a heave head”.

On the other hand, prioritising interfaith relationships is encouraged by an equally authoritative scholar know as the Rema who argues that “it can cause hatred if we (Jews) separate ourselves from them (our non-Jewish neighbours) on the day of their celebration…therefore if one enters the city and he finds them rejoicing on the day of their celebration he should rejoice with them”.  One Australian Rabbi I spoke to told me he has never been asked about Christmas greetings, and thought of it as being more about family and shopping than religion for most people.  I don’t see many Australian Jews seeking a ruling on this so I am not offering one.

Like the Rema, the Mufti is quoted in the article as stating “we are required to have good relations with all people, and to congratulate them on their joyous events is very important.” Yet I think a mature society should be, and in fact generally is, able to have good relations even with people who don’t feel right about the greetings.  I wonder if anyone would think it intolerable for a Tony Abbot supporter to refuse to congratulate a Turnbull supporter for the successful leadership challenge.  If a non-Christian sees Christmas as a celebration of Jesus and claims about his divinity that they don’t approve of, it should be met with tolerance.

In the same way, we should tolerate someone who disapproves of Islam or Judaism and does not wish to pretend otherwise. For example, I always feel uncomfortable when people who are not Jewish are requested to wear a religious hat when entering a Synagogue. The little cap is designed to make a statement that the individual in question might not feel like making.

Overall, I am inclined toward prioritising relationships and expressing goodwill between neighbours of different faiths. Many people would find it hard to accept an argument that “Merry Christmas” cannot simply mean “I like you and respect you” and I wish you well” rather than “I agree with your theology”. On the other hand, words don’t have one fixed meaning, they mean whatever it is that someone thinks they mean.

A commitment to relationships includes advocating tolerance for views and approaches that are different to one’s own.  If someone has a problem with saying Merry Christmas, we should be able to handle that as long as there is a more general attitude of goodwill and respect. We must agree without enmity. That is what tolerance is.

By Rabbi Zalman Kastel

 

What’s In A Name?

Sharing and discussing our names is a great starting point for a discussion about identity. We can think and talk about;

  • how we got them,
  • what they mean,
  • their history and etymology,
  • when and why people change their names
  • the stories they tell,
  • how others respond to them,
  • misunderstandings and worries arising from our names
  • feelings and memories associated with them,

and our changing connection to our names as we travel with them through our lives. Students can investigate how they were named and consider the significance their names have for them and others.

Lesson Idea

How Did I become Me?

This  teaching resource on the Making Multicultural Australia website uses two short videos as the basis for a discussion about the significance of names and naming to identity. This lesson could be adapted to include more up to date  videos .A case study and question sheet is included.

Food For Thought

Below are some images and videos which could be used as a starting point for discussing names and identity.

Femi Amogunla- “My Name My Identity”

 

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What’s your take?

I have been contemplating the significance of my own name while writing this post and soon realised that my name is deeply enmeshed with my identity and a wellspring of stories and memories.
How important is your name to your story?


 

By Barbara Schaffer