Peace on earth, goodwill to allTry as I might, how can I ignore the season? I am writing this on Christmas Eve. My deadline is December 26, and I don’t want to be working — not even work as enjoyable as this column — on Christmas Day. The season is overwhelming. It cries out to be my subject this time.
Granted, I am in England where this is our main festive season. Both Christmas Day and the day after (we call it Boxing Day; strictly, St Stephen’s day) are public holidays. New Year’s Day is another holiday, so nowadays many firms close down for the week in between as well.
Hard-working Koreans are less lucky, getting just a day each off at Christmas and New Year. But then, you have Chuseok as the main occasion when families come home and get together.
Is it presumptuous to talk of Christmas? Not in Korea, I trust. Elsewhere in Asia, except for the Philippines, this would be a minority or expatriate concern. But in Asia’s second most Christian (and most Protestant) nation, I can be confident of this reference being understood.
Or maybe misunderstood? We live in sensitive times. In the U.S., some now take offence at the greeting Merry Christmas. How dare you assume I am a Christian, forcing your creed on me? So Americans in recent years have played safe, blandly wishing each other ‘Happy holidays’.
I find that sad and silly, on several counts. No one is trying to force anything on anyone: the U.S. Constitution rightly ensures that. But in countries where Christianity is the main tradition or affiliation, why exactly should this specificity be silenced? Self-effacement can go too far.
Also, in practice Christmas (to the chagrin of some Christians) has become a big commercial event and a holiday whose symbols are shared by all. One December in Tokyo I saw in a shop a model Santa Claus, waggling his bottom. That too is Christmas, if not remotely Christian.
The timing of Christmas too is wider, or rather older. Wisely, the early church grafted its new celebration onto the ancient pagan winter solstice: the shortest day, after which light starts to return. In the depths of winter, whether in UK or Korea, we can all look forward to spring.
If I say Merry Christmas, this is not imposing but sharing. It gladdens my heart to be wished a happy Hannukah, or Eid-al-Fitr, or Diwali by Jewish, Muslim or Hindu friends. (Or indeed a happy Buddha’s Birthday, but we have sadly few Buddhists in the UK.) They are including me in what is special to them. I am grateful for that, and seek only to do the same in return.
Diversity of belief is a fact of life and a cause for celebration. Those truths have long seemed to me self-evident. The idea that there could be only one right way or true path to wisdom, let alone salvation, is absurd. We all have much to learn from each other, in a spirit of humility.
Not everyone agrees. Today, liberalism and tolerance are in real peril. The most extreme case is the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). How could anyone motivated by faith sincerely conclude that God commands them to kill, torture, enslave and rape? Yet this devilish dystopia attracts followers worldwide. Why does such poison grip young hearts and minds? It makes no sense.
Well armed and funded, ISIS is a real danger. But it is not alone. In a grim dialectic which we seem powerless to prevent, action breeds reaction. The deeply alarming Donald Trump (how can this buffoon be the Republican front-runner?) calls for the U.S. keep all Muslims out. All!
In a tragic but longstanding paradox, although most religions preach peace and love they also spawn and harbor those whose message and practice is hatred. Just as ISIS claims to be the real Islam — what an insult to true Muslims — we also see the ominous rise of what can only be called fascist strands within other faiths. From Israel to India, and even in Buddhist Myanmar, newly rampant chauvinisms preach hatred and persecution of minorities by the local majority.
In this grim world Korea is an oasis of calm, a beacon of hope and an example to all. So many faiths exist here, and in large measure co-exist. It was not always thus, of course. Korea’s first Catholics were horrifically persecuted since the Joseon dynasty saw them as undermining the Confucian order. More recently Buddhists were suspicious of a Presbyterian president, Lee Myung-bak; and a few Protestant extremists have desecrated Buddhist shrines, to their shame. But this is exceptional. Overall, South Korea can congratulate itself on its religious tolerance.
In that spirit I hope all readers, of whatever religion or none, had a Merry Christmas, and wish you a very Happy New Year. Peace on earth, goodwill to all is the Christian message and that of most other faiths. Alas, it rings hollow: 2015 saw peace and goodwill in sadly short supply in much of the world. Let us strive harder and hope, against hope, that 2016 will be different.
*The author is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University in the UK.
by Aidan Foster-Carter