Enchantment vs. Compassionate Justice?
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion

FROM Gracia Faye Ellwood, VegetarianFriends.net
January 2020

The display was obviously comparing the biblical story of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt in order to escape the massacre being perpetrated by Herod “the Great” to the Trump-era family separations at the US/Mexico border. The message is hard to miss: the infant Jesus is present now in childrent is not a matter of the Nativity story being treated either as Enchanted, or as calling us to compassionate justice for the oppressed here and now. It must be both.

nativity cages

. . . . Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planet strikes,
Nor fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time. . . .

--Wm. Shakespeare

During Advent 2019, a church in Claremont, California created a very non-traditional Nativity scene on its property. The figures of Mary, Joseph, and the Divine Child were presented as separated in three large cages, topped with barbed wire. The display was obviously comparing the biblical story of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt in order to escape the massacre being perpetrated by Herod “the Great” to the Trump-era family separations at the US/Mexico border, at their worst in 2018. The message is hard to miss: the infant Jesus is present now in children threatened by murderous gangs in Honduras or Guatemala. He and his parents are seeking refuge in the US: in imprisoning present-day asylum-seekers and tearing children from their parents’ arms (it is still going on, though not as overtly as in the late spring of last year), we are tearing up the Holy Family. Christian activists often quote “When you did it to one of the least of these members of my family, you did it to Me” to express how urgently relevant the Bible is to current situations.

The story of the display went viral, and the responses were largely divided between enthusiastic praise and angry blame. Some writers, finding the image very powerful and insightful, said they had been deeply moved, even to tears. Others resented what they perceived to be a violation of the holiness of the Christmas story, and/or a politicization of what should be sacred. Some found it incompatible with the separation of church and state in the US.

It is hard for the two sides to understand one another, and it seems likely that few if any of the many impassioned letter-writers convinced members of the other camp. Just another example of the seemingly unbridgeable Grand Canyon that divides us politically and socially in the US today?

Yes, it is, but the two sides of the divide have roots going back hundreds, even thousands of years to the days of primal religions.


For centuries, people have sensed a special, powerful spiritual atmosphere in certain places and at certain times of the year, as illustrated by the lines of Shakespeare’s character Marcellus in Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 1, quoted above. Some people, he says, claim there is a sacred power prevailing during Christmastide (December 25 to January 6) that can check disturbing and even malevolent spiritual forces such as ghosts and witches, who operate chiefly at night. Even the rationalistic Horatio remarks that he “in part” believes it.

Jacob Marley
Frank Finlay as Marley from the 1984 TV movie of A Christmas Carol (starring George C. Scott)

It is interesting to compare these ideas of a sacred Christmas time with the worldview implied in A Christmas Carol about two and a half centuries later. Ostensibly, rather than no spirit daring to stir, more unhappy spirits than usual are abroad, represented by Marley and all the ghosts of mournful bankers and businessmen floating around in the night air, in anguish that they cannot help a homeless woman and her baby on Scrooge’s doorstep. (Scrooge sees them briefly as he looks out his open window after Marley’s departure, but misses the significance of the suffering mother and child on Christmas Eve; he closes his window, closing them out.)

Marley says he is often present unseen in Scrooge’s house, but in fact he is visible to his ex-partner only on Christmas Eve. But--neither Marley nor his fellow ghosts are malevolent. They are victims of their own past greed, and they long to undo their past and relieve the suffering of the vulnerable they once ignored-. And the three most powerful Spirits, of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come, appear to Scrooge with the compassionate purpose of enabling him to change his stunted and twisted life to one of active compassion. So the spiritual atmosphere is, after all, not so different as that which Marcellus describes; Christmas time in the Carol is essentially both “hallow’d” and “gracious.”

Both Hamlet and the Carol inherit ideas of a pre-Christian Celtic worldview in which the year is divided into quarters, one turning into the next at the solstices and equinoxes, and even into eighths. At these turns, otherworldly beings are particularly active in our world, either for good or for ill. The ghosts of Christmas are heirs of the ghosts, nature spirits, and other unseen beings who may ordinarily have had only limited access to the visible world, but can emerge during Yuletide.

Enchanted events often bring joy and enrichment. Children are particularly open to it; their excited anticipation of Christmas is not just a matter of eagerness for presents. Having grown up in a financially struggling farm family, my siblings and I received only unexciting, useful gifts. Yet I can remember looking at little black-and-white drawings of Christmas scenes in a book of carols, with a rapturous feeling that I was gazing into Paradise. This memory suggests to me that the persons who protested against the cages in the Nativity scene may have been afraid that they were in danger of losing that contact with something divine.

Another example: many Near-Death Experiences are overwhelmingly Enchanted, even including mystical union with God, and result in a wonderful transformations of life. Shallow and frivolous lives can become so enriched as to be lifegiving to others; selfishness and fear of death often vanish, to be replaced with lives of loving service.

The Night Side of Enchantment

But feelings about the world of spirit are mixed, throughout history and today. Many people are fascinated by any manifestations of it, whether they be only a sense of something uncanny, of accounts of visits of angels, of healings and answers to prayers, precognitive visions, apparitions of the dead or of the living. But others fear and dislike any claims that Enchantment is real, whether they believe them to be genuine or believe otherwise. One big reason for hatred of it today, especially among people who believe it is unreal, is that for centuries ideas of spirit- or spiritual causation have delayed the advancement of science, especially medicine. and justified horrible violence against scapegoats. And many still hold that a scientific worldview and a world of spirit are totally incompatible.

King Richard
Model of Richard III made by extrapolating from his skull... The excavation, diagnosis, and DNA identification of the remains as Richard’s, all products of a disenchanted worldview, were ironically made possible by a very Enchanted event in 2004, repeated in 2005: Philippa Langley, an officer of the Richard III Society who was doing research for a play about his life, was exploring areas in the city of Leicester considered likely to contain his lost burial place. Suddenly she felt a compulsion to enter a municipal parking lot. As she walked over a particular spot, she got strong chills and felt an unshakeable conviction that his bones were immediately below. And they were.

It is easy to find historical movements that give support to this conclusion. When many members of a society are in the grip of fear as a result of looming threats--epidemics, hunger, political and/or religious instability--they want someone to blame. They engage in witch-hunts, literal or metaphorical, almost always of members of a vulnerable minority. Literal witch-hunts in Europe were at their worst in the 1500s and 1600s, no doubt fed (so to speak) by hunger caused by the poor crops during the Little Ice Age, and by religious uncertainties and political instability triggered by the Reformation. There is nothing like widespread fear to turn Enchantment bad.

A particular example of this can be seen in Shakespeare’s depiction of King Richard III in the play of that name. Historically, after Richard was killed at the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 and his body stripped naked, it became apparent to all that his spine was deformed, a fact that probably was not known earlier to more than a few intimates because the curvature was essentially side-to-side rather than front-to-back. It would not have hindered him from ordinary activities, or from fighting in plate armor, as was learned from the excavation in 2012. The only publicly visible evidence during his lifetime would have been that one shoulder was slightly higher than the other, something easy to mask with padding. And he seems to have been a rather handsome young man.

Henry Tudor and his successors were eager to make Richard into a villain and thus present their own dubious claim to the throne as the coming of justice. In their propaganda, his physical deformity became a visible sign of an evil nature. Shakespeare makes the most of it in his artistically powerful but historically dishonest play. (Shakespeare himself did not make up all its falsehoods; some of them were already present in his sources.) He depicts Richard as so ugly that people kept their distance from him, and so resenting this bad treatment that he resolves to become as evil as people think he is. In sharp contrast to this dark Enchanted view, medical scientists have now diagnosed Richard’s condition as scoliosis. This conclusion emerges from the present day’s disenchanted worldview, in which the condition has no inherent meaning, for good or evil, aside from whatever distress or inconvenience it causes the person who has it. In the case of Richard Plantagenet, this disenchanted view is liberating. And many in our culture are convinced that disenchantment is always a relief from the destructive grip of superstition and oppression.

The danger of a disenchanted worldview is that when we take it to its logical conclusion, everything in the world finally becomes drained of real meaningfulness, or has only such meaning as the individual chooses to assign to it. Then one person’s opinion is just as valid as another’s, even if the opinion of one of them is that the strong, like Herod, have the right to rob, cage, and trample the weak, like the infant Jesus and his peasant parents. We need sources of Enchantment.

Compassionate Justice

We are back looking at that Claremont Nativity display, and listening to the controversy over it; we explored a little of the sense of Enchantment that caused some readers to protest that the story is sacred and must not be touched. But those who approved the depiction of today’s refugee immigrants as Jesus and his parents also stand in an ancient tradition.

burning bush

The tradition stands at the core of Judaism (and is reaffirmed in the Matthew nativity account, which alludes to the story of Moses’ birth). Founded in the account of the Exodus, the tradition’s message is that God cares about the weak and the downtrodden, and calls human beings to take action that will free them and raise them up. This was radical because the Exodus takes place in an ancient culture where the sacred is typically situated at the top of the power structure, the king and his retainers, and the priests. It would have been unheard-of for a people’s God to identify first with those at the bottom of society, the oppressed and disregarded.

It is true that Moses’ calling to this work of compassionate justice is unmistakably a sacred event in a sacred place, the epitome of Enchantment. Born in a community of enslaved people but raised as a prince, he encounters God, “I am who I am,” in the fire of a desert bush that won’t stop burning. He is told “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring forth my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” The story includes signs and wonders, but God does not work like a bolt of lightning out of the sky while people watch passively; he works essentially through human action.

As time goes on through biblical history, the radicality of the message is lost again and again, as those at the top of society claim divine authorization for themselves, and oppress the powerless. The message is renewed by the word of the great (writing) prophets, who come with the word of God for their own times. They are usually from outside the power structure; they denounce evils being committed against the vulnerable by the Israelite Pharaoh and other rulers of their day, and predict catastrophes as a result. Thus Amos, a lowly herder:

“For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not will not revoke the punishment;
Because they sell the righteous for silver,
And the needy for a pair of shoes;
They . . . trample the poor into the dust of the earth. . . . .” (Amos 2:6-7)

The prophets call upon their hearers to turn back (t’shuvah) from their evil works, and promise that divine forgiveness and renewal will follow.

Unsurprisingly, most of the prophets commanded little respect among the powerful to whom they spoke; seldom do the rich listen to nobodies, and share out their loot. Amos, for example, was kicked out of the Northern Kingdom after his prophetic sermon, and the disasters he predicted did indeed take place. By that time it was easier to see that his word came from God.

Prophet Amos

Of course the prophets had other things to say as well, not all of them as admirable as this. They were human; they shared some of the misconceptions and prejudices of their times. Highly sensitive to the oppression of the poor, they failed, for example, to notice the oppression of women implicit in patriarchy. A number of the prophets in fact reinforced that oppression by representing Israel’s worship of other Gods via the image of a wife’s unfaithfulness to her husband (but not vice versa).

In the Exodus story itself, animals appear twice, but are not liberated. God commands the Israelites to kill lambs for the Passover meal, and smear some of their blood on their doorposts and lintels of their houses to ward off the destroying angel. Thus the killing is sacrificial. The Egyptians’ innocent horses are drowned together with their riders who were set on recapturing the escaping slaves. However, as we pointed out in “We Were Slaves to Pharaoh,” Exodus provides a core principle, in which we are called to be the daughters and sons of the great prophets, and to draw out and proclaim implications of their work. Neither Exodus nor Christmas can be locked in the past, untouched; they must always be renewed and opened up for the benefit of today’s victims.

The prophet Hosea exemplifies the beginnings of this process regarding animals when he depicts God as saying “I desire kindness, not sacrifice; / The knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings.” Jesus quoted and affirmed this passage. He also, as a prophet engaged in a street-theater-type action, commanded an end to the sale of sacrificial animals in the temple courtyard.

Jesus in Temple

We can’t be sure whether Hosea, and/or Jesus, intended kindness to animals as well as to humans; but the passages lay the foundation for such kindness. Thus the ancient story, understood as the Exodus Principle, is good news for our animal cousins today. God is saying “I shall send you to _____, (the Pharaoh of our times), that you may tell him ‘Let my people go.’”

With these things in mind, we can answer the question in our title. It is not a matter of the Nativity story being treated either as Enchanted, or as calling us to compassionate justice for the oppressed here and now. It must be both.

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