It’s pretty standard for right-wing politicians to play to their Christian supporters each December by invoking the religious roots of the Christmas tradition. The people who would object are usually considered an acceptable loss, not very likely to get on board with conservative policy priorities in the first place.
Consequently, when the United Conservative Party of Alberta (UCP) tweeted a “merry Christmas” message alongside a Nativity image emblazoned with a quote from the Book of Isaiah, they likely expected the usual objections from non-believers — it’s exclusionary, it’s hypocritical, it runs counter to key Canadian values like religious liberty and church-state separation.
Merry Christmas � pic.twitter.com/5WjXda4uGT
— United Conservative Party of Alberta (@Alberta_UCP) December 25, 2020
They probably never expected their message to receive so much vocal public criticism from the devout.
But the Reverend Anna Greenwood-Lee, a British Columbia priest and Bishop-Elect of the diocese of Islands and Inlets, objected strongly to the UCP’s choice of Scripture, and she took to Twitter to explain exactly why.
As a Priest and Bishop-Elect, I’d ask that the UCP send Christmas greetings without the wholly inappropriate inference of divine sanction for their government. There are so many things wrong with their use of these words from the Prophet Isaiah it’s hard to know where to start. https://t.co/rwOxVzvnI5
— Anna Greenwood-Lee (@AnnaGreenwoodL1) December 27, 2020
The controversial tweet contains an image highlighting nativity-scene figurines of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph alongside bold white text proclaiming the words of Isaiah 9:6 — “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” Below that, the words “Merry Christmas” appear in script.
The bedrock of Greenwood-Lee’s objection is the Bible quote’s implication that the UCP enjoys God’s approval. Use of any sacred text for crass political opportunism is a bad look at best. As Greenwood-Lee pointed out, other translations of the same verse use words like “authority” or “dominion” in place of “government,” giving this particular choice an uncomfortable subtext when cited by the current ruling party.
Greenwood-Lee went on to put the quoted verse in context with the rest of the text:
Support for any ruler or government is fleeting and conditional on care for the most vulnerable. If the UCP is reading Isaiah maybe they should start at the beginning? The first chapter starts with a prophet who is utterly fed up with corruption, and who speaks truth to power saying: “Stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” (Is. 1:17)
Her observation bolsters other critics’ claims that a government focused on withdrawing services from people in need really has no right to claim the approval of the biblical Jesus. (Sound familiar?)
The most significant issue with the tweet, however, is that of supersessionism or replacement theology: the anti-Semitic idea that Hebrew Scriptures are mere foreshadowing for the coming of Christ, which Jewish people failed to read correctly, leading to their rejection of Christ as Messiah. Therefore, Christians have taken over as God’s chosen people, leaving the Jews (in the words of Jewish Studies professor Jon D. Levenson) “properly disinherited and cast into the outer darkness for their faithlessness.”
To avoid those implications, Greenwood-Lee suggests, the UCP would have done well to select from Scriptures that are uniquely Christian:
They picked [a verse] that seems to give their government some legitimacy, and that they picked one that has a long history of creating tension between Jews and Christians, to me, smacks of the fact that they haven’t really thought this one through, or that they’re trying to appeal with this passage to a very particular base but not to Albertans in general.
A spokesperson from the UCP derided allegations of anti-Semitism as “something spurred on by the tin-foiled hat crowd on Twitter,” but dismissing them as the stuff of conspiracy theories isn’t fair. In all likelihood, this is a case of Hanlon’s Razor: Never ascribe to malice that which can be explained by ignorance.
But prejudice and Christian entitlement don’t have to be deliberate to represent a problematic strain in the dominant ideology, or to be worth calling to attention.
And the whole situation stands as another very good argument against using a surface-level knowledge of Scripture to score political points. It’s exclusionary, it’s hypocritical, sure… but it also carries the risk of somebody who knows more theology and history than you coming along to school you on the unintended implications of your choices.
(Thanks to Lorne for the link)