Edward Gibbon famously remarked: “The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.” I do not think the Roman Empire owned the copyright on this view of religion. It has triumphed in many eras. However, dissenting views have arisen throughout history. Take, for example, the story of the Maccabees and their Judean followers whose courage and conviction serve as inspiration for the eight-day Jewish holiday known as Hanukkah, which is celebrated in December every year. The Maccabees refused to succumb to the tyrannical demands of the Syrian king Antiochus IV, who sought to force them to worship the Greek God Zeus and partake in pagan sacrifices. Beginning in 167 BCE and culminating in 164 BCE with the capture, cleansing and rededication of the second Temple in Jerusalem, the Maccabees and their small band of soldiers fought for religious liberty and against what we might call today the commodification of their religion. The chief symbol of Hanukkah is the menorah, which is an eight branched candelabra. The eight branches signify the miraculous intervention of God: the one drop of oil remaining in a jar at the Temple’s reclamation burned for eight days in the menorah, when it should have burned only for one.
It has been argued that Antiochus IV or Antiochus Epiphanies was surprised that the Jewish people should take such offense at his attempts of adapting and syncretizing religious traditions in service to his rule, in keeping with Gibbon’s claim noted at the outset of this piece. According to R. Kendall Soulen, Antiochus likely maintained that Israel’s God was simply a tribal name for the transcendent and all-encompassing nameless deity of imperial rule. Little did Antiochus truly grasp that for the monotheistic Maccabees the God whom the Jewish people knew and worshiped as the LORD—the name for the God of the Covenant made with the Patriarchs and revealed to Moses at the burning bush—was the Almighty God above Heaven and Earth, who would not allow his name or his named people to be commodified by tyrants. As with Moses and Pharaoh, the Maccabees declared that Antiochus should cease and desist.
Throughout much of their history, the Jewish people have sought to navigate those religious, cultural and political forces that would deprive them of their religious liberty. Some have claimed that Christmas in the United States has posed a threat to Judaism, and thus Hanukkah has been elevated to greater prominence as a Jewish religious holiday than would be historically warranted given that it is relatively late and extrabiblical in its origin, unlike Passover or Succoth. Regardless of the historical triggers for its emergence as a cherished holiday, it serves to counter forces that would weaken the Jewish heritage:
Since Hanukkah is not biblically ordained, the liturgy for the holiday is not well developed. It is actually a quite minor festival. However, it has become one of the most beloved of Jewish holidays. In an act of defiance against those in the past and in the present who would root out Jewish practice, the observance of Hanukkah has assumed a visible community aspect. Jews will often gather for communal celebrations and public candle lighting. At such celebrations, Hanukkah songs are sung and traditional games such as dreidel are played.
Hanukkah, like many religious holidays, serves to mold a people according to the substance and form of a given spiritual tradition and story so that they and their tradition do not become eclipsed by competing narratives, whether secular or religious. In particular, Hanukkah addresses the vital concerns of religious liberty and freedom of worship. One analysis claims that the theology and themes behind Hanukkah entail the following: “Like Passover, Hanukkah is a holiday that celebrates the liberation from oppression. It also provides a strong argument in favor of freedom of worship and religion. In spite of the human action that is commemorated, never far from the surface is the theology that the liberation was possible only thanks to the miraculous support of the Divine.”
Going beyond singular reflection on Hanukkah, there are many reasons why people celebrate religious holidays, including Christmas and Hanukkah. Some of those reasons include ethnic, nationalist, and consumerist agendas. The following point on Hanukkah made in The Atlantic piece noted earlier could be extended to other holidays, including in the Christian tradition: “It’s so simple, so conveniently vague, that it has been used by rabbis, advertisers, Zionists, Hebrew school teachers, and parents to promote everything from ethnic pride and nationalism to engagement in Jewish life and buying stuff.”
Speaking of ethnic pride and nationalism, from my vantage point, we need to guard against those forces that bind and rebind societies in ways that favor one people group to the detriment of others. The call for religious liberty, for example, should not be taken by Christians as a rallying cry to enforce Christian hegemony in the U.S. to the detriment of Jews, Muslims, Atheists, and others. However, the solution is not the privatization and subjectification of religion, whereby it becomes merely the object of sentimental attraction of religious individuals, who should keep their convictions to themselves. On this view, the only time religion is given public credence is when it serves the GNP with the purchase of goods and services in the marketplace of commodified desire during holiday seasons.
The dominant mindset in the U.S. favors the democratization of religion. For one, it is seen to safeguard against religious hegemony. Against this backdrop, religious holidays like Hanukkah and Christmas are like consumer products. Celebrate them, if you wish. Pick and choose and mix them together, if you like. They merely exist for fostering holiday cheer and a sense of mystery, nostalgia, or novelty. Contrary to what many Americans think, such democratization is a form of tyranny.
Today in our free market society, tyranny often takes the shape of consumer demand. This demand transforms, reshapes, and co-opts the great religious traditions so that they no longer serve to bind societies, but rather cater to other forces’ agendas. Lesslie Newbigin puts the matter this way:
Different religious traditions lose their capacity to be the binding element of societies and become instead mere options for religious consumers to select for their own private reasons, reasons which are not to be argued about. Thus “democratized,” religions enter the marketplace as objects of subjective choices in much the same way as brands of toothpaste and laundry soap.
As Newbigin suggests, religious traditions are better and rightly conceived as metaphysical underpinnings that serve to bind and rebind societies. The remembrance of Hanukkah with its historic claim to honor the LORD, whose name is not to be discarded and replaced by the leading brand deity of the month, whether Egyptian or Greek or Roman, German, American, or other, should inspire us to safeguard space for the religious and cultural minority voices whether they be Jewish, Palestinian, African American, Mexican, or other, whatever their tradition, rather than oppress them. We who are Christians should remember and show respect for Hanukkah during Advent and Christmastide and cherish the biblical Jewish holidays that support and give rise to our own holy days like Passover and Pentecost. May we also safeguard against religious hegemony and its consumerized counterpart that for all its supposed merits can never rebind society in a manner that protects the rights of religious and non-religious minorities and the people generally from magistrates and rulers who would use religion for their own ends to commodify the masses.
The Institute for Cultural Engagement: New Wine, New Wineskins will host a conference titled “Religious Liberty—For All” on Saturday, March 14, 2020 at Multnomah University and Seminary in Portland, Oregon. Refer here to the post introducing the conference.
Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 3 vols. (New York: The Modern Library, 1995), 1:22.
See R. Kendall Soulen, “‘Go Tell Pharaoh,’ Or, Why Empires Prefer a Nameless God,” Cultural Encounters: A Journal for the Theology of Culture 1, no. 2 (Summer 2005): 51-52.
See Soulen’s entire essay, “‘Go Tell Pharaoh,’ Or, Why Empires Prefer a Nameless God,” pages 49-59.
For critical reflection on this argument and Hanukkah’s significance in the Jewish community in the United States, see Emma Green, “Hanukkah, Why? Cultural critics often blame Christmas for the festival’s commercialized kitsch. The real story is much more complicated,” The Atlantic, December 9, 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/12/hanukkah-sucks-amirite/419649/ (accessed on 12/27/2019). Green writes: “So why, in America, has Hanukkah taken on outsized significance? Because it serves a particular purpose: an opportunity to negotiate the twin, competing pressures of ethnic tension and assimilation. As the Rowan University historian Dianne Ashton writes in her book, Hanukkah in America, ‘Hanukkah’s strongest American advocates seem to have been those who felt the complexities of American Jewish life most acutely.’” For a treatment of Hanukkah in more general terms, refer here: “Hanukkah,” Encyclopaedia Britannica; https://www.britannica.com/topic/Hanukkah (accessed on 12/27/2019).
“Hanukkah 101: From candle-lighting to Maccabees and latkes to dreidels,” My Jewish Learning; https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/hanukkah-101/ (accessed on 12/27/2019).
“Hanukkah 101: From candle-lighting to Maccabees and latkes to dreidels,” My Jewish Learning; https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/hanukkah-101/ (accessed on 12/27/2019). See also the discussion of Hanukkah in Malka Drucker, The Family Treasury of Jewish Holidays, with illustrations by Nancy Patz (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1994), page 46.
Green, “Hanukkah, Why?”; https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/12/hanukkah-sucks-amirite/419649/ (accessed on 12/27/2019).
Lesslie Newbigin, “Religion for the Marketplace,” Christian Uniqueness Reconsidered: The Myth of a Pluralistic Theology of Religions, ed. Gavin D’Costa, Faith Meets Faith Series in interreligious Dialogue (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990), page 152.