As we’ve seen, right-wing Christians have really thrown themselves into the Tantrum on Christmas. Every winter, they delight in trying to appropriate the entire holiday season for themselves, denying others the right to celebrate however they wish. When this attempt fails, they claim to be persecuted–that there is, in effect, a “war” on them and their religion waged by the evil forces of, I suppose, capitalism and secularism. Since nobody’s actually going to concede to them their own holiday celebrations, or allow them to dictate what the season means to everyone or how it’ll be remembered by anyone, one could say that they’re leaving absolutely nothing to chance here. They’re completely guaranteeing that someone’s going to push back against their overreach!
But there’s one part of their vision of Christmas that is particularly grating: the idea that their favored holiday, Christmas, represents some kind of “free gift” bestowed upon humankind by a generous, gracious god. I’ll show you that this “free gift” is anything but free, and certainly is not a gift in any way.
Not a Gift.
In Christian thought, Jesus represents the gift of a loving god to his flawed Creation. The man-god’s birth “is the most costly and bountiful gift God could give,” as Christianity Today puts it, and “the ultimate demonstration of God’s goodness and generosity.” Pentecostal weirdo and possible plagiarist Kenneth Hagin declares, “Jesus is the perfect Gift! Even though we don’t deserve and could never earn this Gift.” Megachurch pastor Joel Osteen, taking time off from enjoying his USD$10M parsonage, writes that Jesus is “God’s perfect, indescribable gift.” They don’t always agree on exactly what the gift itself might be–one source thinks it’s Jesus himself, while others think it’s the “salvation” offered by him–but they’re all 100% sure that the Christmas story represents a gift in some way.
They’re wrong, I’m afraid.
Gifts are one-sided, entailing no obligation on the part of the recipient.
Christians liken the gift of Jesus to all kinds of things; something about the Nativity story makes their imaginations run wild. What’s especially laughable about the situation is that the whole story is a myth anyway–a parable in and of itself–not something that actually happened. It’s already a metaphor. But Christians take that story and create all new metaphors and parables out of it.
At no point will you see their inability to make valid comparisons on better display than here, where they compare this gift to parachutes saving one from a plane crash, getting pushed out of the way of an oncoming bus, and lots of other stuff meant to induce a state of fear in the listener. The mildest (non-fundagelical) Christians might even reject the idea of eternal torture but still hold to the idea of Jesus being a “gift” from their god to a broken, aching humanity to accomplish some goal that we simply couldn’t ever manage on our own. But they all agree that humans really need this “gift.”
That’s the exact problem with the analogy.
Though a recipient might feel obligated to reciprocate in some way when given a gift, a gift is supposed to be totally free. And though Christians imagine that the gift of Jesus/salvation/etc is free, this is one gift that is anything but. In this case, if the recipient doesn’t accept the gift and then do something in response, a reciprocation that varies wildly by Christian denominational doctrines, then that recipient will be, according to most of them, tortured forever and ever after death.
Gifts are tangible, leaving evidence of their existence in some way.
Let’s face facts: there is absolutely nothing that this particular “gift” gives us that we’d intuitively know we needed without Christian marketing to tell us we needed it. One of the scariest parts about deconverting, for me at least, was seeing just how superfluous the religion really was. Once I stopped doing all that Christian stuff, I quickly saw that life without Jesus looked a hell of a lot like life with Jesus. Considering that Jesus is supposed to be this huge, life-altering gift to every Christian (and really, every human who’s ever lived, though most people in the history of our species will never even have heard of him, much less have “accepted” this gift through belief or coercion), it doesn’t change much at all about a person’s life without considerable effort on their own part.
Of course, when we say “accepting the gift,” we really mean performing the reciprocal actions required of a recipient in order to gain the benefits of the promise embodied in the gift. There’s a lot more involved than simply taking delivery of the gift. In reality-land, when we accept a gift, we allow it into our homes, tear open the wrapping (whatever it might be), open the container if there is one, remove the present itself, and keep it. It’s a pretty simple process.
In Christian-land, by contrast, the present is completely intangible. Christians can’t even agree on exactly what it is! Whatever it is, it is embodied in a series of emotional appeals and psychological manipulations meant to induce belief that it exists at all. You’ll never see Jesus with your eyes, hear him with your ears, or touch him with your hands. You’ll never even see any actual objective and credible evidence that he existed in reality or that he’s active in the world today.
Nor will you see any difference at all between those who have accepted this “free gift” and those who have not. As a group, Christians are marked more by hypocrisy than by their adherence to the demands of their group. For sheer pettiness, arrogance, grabbiness, perversion, stinginess, greed, cruelty, viciousness, control-lust, and downright inhumanity, you cannot beat the average church full of Christians. Communities dominated by Christians–particularly the most fervent right-wing sort–are marked by misery and dysfunction of every single kind.
For all their insistence that this gift makes them happier than non-Christians could ever be, as well, Christians tend to find out very, very quickly that no, actually, the majority of them will never be nearly as happy as the religion’s advertising campaign would have anyone believe. (But should a regretful buyer mention this fact, the rest of them will be right along to chastise that unfortunate believer for taking the advertising seriously.)
Gifts can be refused with no repercussions to the recipient.
As Christians themselves are fond of reminding us through their shitty parables, this “gift” is something that humanity desperately needs in order to escape a terrible afterlife. Without it, a person is totally doomed. The exact nature of the doom varies, but most often it involves torture eternally, with no chance of redemption, reprieve, or escape.
“Accept what I’m giving you, or else you’ll suffer” doesn’t sound like a gift in any way to me. Christians can keep saying it’s a gift as much as they like, but it sounds more like a demand–even like an extortion attempt. When one remembers that this whole cosmology was actually set in motion by the same god now offering the extortionary terms, that god starts sounding more like a really shitty landlord or a tin-pot dictator than a generous master. If the only way he could think of to save humans from his own system was to sacrifice himself as an incarnated human, then that just makes him sound like an idiot as well. I’m not even a god, and I can think of half-a-dozen ways of handling it that don’t involve torturing innocent people. (Hell, I’ve probably invented better ways of handling the supernatural through roleplaying games than Christians have imagination to consider.)
A god “saving” us from a nasty afterlife that he himself created isn’t a gift. It’s something we should be getting anyway. We never asked to be born into his cosmology, did nothing to deserve it, and could never do anything to deserve something so obscene and mind-blowingly evil to be done to us. The idea that a “gift” would save a few lucky people from something gibberingly horrific and ghastly is, itself, obscene and mind-blowingly evil. Anybody buying into that “gift” is only perpetuating that system and implicitly condoning that cruelty and evil–grabbing whatever they can at the expense of every other human being on the planet, then glorifying the being responsible for torturing all the others who weren’t lucky (or gullible) enough to buy into the correct religion before they died. What’s required is not a “gift” that preserves a vanishing few, but rather a repair of the entire broken system.
When Christians talk about this salvation of theirs, it makes me think of a schoolyard bully who offers victims a reprieve from his violence if they give him their lunch money–and then calls that reprieve his birthday present to them!
The incarnation of Jesus in the Nativity myth did nothing but extend forward the broken system without repairing it. Really, the only reason I can see for Christians’ insistence that what they offer is a “free gift” is that they have already bought into the idea that it’s a free gift. If they hadn’t already bought into the idea and it wasn’t marketed heavily as one, I don’t see what about it would make anyone think that it is.
As mentioned, this “free gift” isn’t actually free in the very least. Once a believer has signed on to the religion and done all the magical spells and ablutions required of their chosen sect of the religion out of the many tens of thousands that exist, that unfortunate person will discover all kinds of strings attached to their “free gift.”
Depending on the denomination, the requirements can be quite stringent, but range from expectations of tithing and church attendance to the logging of many hours’ proselytization going door-to-door bothering total strangers in their private hours. Other groups, like the Pentecostals I myself once belonged to, require women to adhere to a strict dress code. Most groups have behavioral expectations that forbid members from various fun activities like drinking, dancing, cussing, and of course having sex in unapproved ways. Though these rules are more often honored “in the breach than the observance,” they exist for a reason: the group exerts considerable control over individual adherents.
Should a believer break away from the group, then their “free gift” is ripped away from them as well. A few Christians go in for the doctrine of once saved, always saved, meaning that once a person has signed on to Christianity they will always be safe from Hell, but most do not. Salvation is a tenuous thing to most Christians, and it can be lost very easily if someone isn’t very scrupulous in obeying the group’s demands. The threat of eternal torture is a potent one to Christians–potent enough to keep them in the pews long after many of them would ordinarily have left.
You know what some folks call someone in reality-land who takes away a gift they gave someone? It’s not polite. But if it’s a god, apparently that behavior is okay. Of course, since only Christians have the faintest idea what the gift even is, or if someone has it or not, one could say that maybe they’re the ones who’ve gotten this whole gift idea totally wrong. Remember, nobody actually has a single shred of evidence about any aspect whatsoever of this god, or knows a single thing about what he wants out of anybody.
Here’s What a Free Gift Looks Like.
If an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, omni-benevolent supernatural being wanted to help people escape the bad afterlife that he’d created in the first place, surely he’d be powerful and creative enough to make it happen.
First, he could easily make himself obviously real to anybody he wants, rather than having belief in him be completely dependent on the manipulation and persuasion skills of his existing adherents. He could offer convincing evidence that the supernatural world exists at all, that there is actually an afterlife at all for humans, and that there are two versions of the afterlife possible for us that depend completely on our choices and behavior in this life. Or he could create a cosmology that doesn’t involve two versions of the afterlife at all, or he could make it be more just and fair by making it depend less on belief and limitless subservience to himself and more on how good we are to others, but at that point we’re entering really uncomfortable territory for a lot of Christians, I know!
Then this being could decide if what he wants to give is something everyone absolutely needs, or if it’s just a nice optional thing. If it’s something we actually need, like air or food, then it shouldn’t matter if we know to ask him for it or not. It’s immoral to withhold something someone genuinely needs if we have the power and means to give it. And it’s no more suitable to give as a gift as a plate of food would be to one’s own children. Especially if it’s something that saves us from a horrific fate, it’s downright grotesque to phrase it as a “gift.”
If he really wanted to bestow gifts on humanity, he could make the gift something that’s actually tangible and desirable–like a shower of gemstones or a Breyer horse statuette. Refusing it doesn’t actually hurt anybody; you just don’t get whatever it is. You’re under no obligation to do anything as a result of accepting it, and if you later decide you don’t like the gift-giver, he certainly isn’t going to take away his gift at that point. You can do whatever you want with the gift, because it belongs to you–just like any other gift you get from anybody else. Spray-paint it purple, eat it, pitch it into the trashcan, whatever! It’s yours to do with as you please. If you want to reciprocate somehow, then feel free–but if you don’t, or can’t, then that’s just how it goes.
But that idea enters territory that’s just as uncomfortable. A Christianity that lacks coercion, that lacks a product to sell, that doesn’t make intrusive demands of its followers? It’s completely unthinkable. But we’re going to think about it next time–see you then!