A Humanist Advent

For many Christians around the world, this Sunday was the first day of the Advent season which starts four Sundays leading up to Christmas. It’s a time when Christians “prepare their hearts” for the coming of Christmas, the day that the “Light of the World” entered a world of darkness. In my old Lutheran days, we would light a purple candle for each Sunday leading up to Christmas and sing “O Come O Come Emmanuel” as we waited for the day of Jesus’s arrival.

Ironically, even though I’m now an atheist, I still celebrate Advent in my own way. I don’t light candles and sing “O Come O Come Emmanuel” (except if it’s Sufjan Stevens’s version). When December rolls around, I wonder when we’ll finally have peace on earth. I know the Christmas story is a myth, but what about “peace on earth and goodwill toward men?” Is that a myth as well?

One of my favorite Christmas songs is Greg Lake’s “I Believe in Father Christmas.” The song perfectly captures the disillusionment I feel when everyone is singing about peace on earth, but I see nothing but violence:

They said there’ll be snow this Christmas
They said there’ll be peace on Earth
But instead it just kept on raining
A veil of tears for the virgin birth

And like St. Paul, I, too, groan with the world when I watch the news. Within the first month of 2015, we saw both the suicide of transgender teen Leelah Alcorn and the terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo. In April, my beloved Baltimore exploded in violence in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death at the hands of Baltimore police officers. In June, a white police officer tackled a black teenage girl to the ground during a pool party in McKinney, Texas. Shortly after that, a young white man walked into a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed nine people. To top it all off, in the last few weeks we saw the Chicago police shoot Jaquan McDonald sixteen times, and terrorists attack Paris and Beirut. The year began with despair, and the year ends with despair.

But unlike St. Paul, though, I know the heavens will never open and Jesus will never float down to make all things new. So what, then, can a humanist like me take away from Advent?

The answer is hope.

A friend of mine recently attended a lecture delivered by Christian theologian Jürgen Moltmann. When asked how he maintains hope in the midst of despair, he evidently answered, “As a protest.” While I had never previously conceptualized hope as an act of protest, it makes sense. When we’re surrounded by violence, hatred, and misery, we can either let the darkness win and live in total hopelessness or resist despair to maintain hope.

But to borrow a line from St. James, hope without deeds is fruitless. The tree of hope for tomorrow will never grow if we don’t plant the seeds today. As humanists, our help does not come from above, it comes from us. We need to openly criticize harmful ways of thinking like Islamism, Christian fundamentalism, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, and ableism. We need to provide platforms for marginalized voices, hear their stories, and rethink our own personal prejudices. We must let our elected officials know they need to base their legislations on science and reason, not superstition, religious dogma, and pseudoscience.

The Christmas Advent can be celebrated for inspiring hope and action. Another one of my favorite Christmas songs is “Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth” by David Bowie and Bing Crosby. The story goes both Bowie and Crosby were to sing “Little Drummer Boy” together, but Bowie wanted to sing something else, so the show producer wrote new lyrics for Bowie. The result is a humanist hymn of hope for the future.

Peace on Earth, can it be?
Years from now, perhaps we’ll see
See the day of glory
See the day when men of goodwill
Live in peace, live in peace again.
Peace on Earth, can it be?

Every child must be made aware
Every child must be made to care
Care enough for his fellow man
To give all the love that he can.

I pray my wish will come true
For my child and your child, too
He’ll see the day of glory
He’ll see the day when men of goodwill
Live in peace, live in peace again
Peace on Earth, can it be?

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