Fr. Deo Debono is a young Maltese priest who recently had angst because of a Hanukkah Menorah set up at the entrance to the Maltese capital of Valletta. His beef was that the menorah with Happy Hanukkah lit up in blue light was placed adjacent and too close to the traditional nativity. Some of us found it awesome that such acceptance of religious diversity, and tolerance is possible on such a small Mediterranean Island. But to some Maltese, including Fr. Debono, it was a disconcerting nudge against their faith. In a back-and-forth Facebook intellectual debate, I tried to explain the meaning of Hanukkah while fervently pointing out that one cannot be Christian without being a Jew; after all Christ was born and died as a Jew. Having both symbols next to each other seemed more appropriate to me than not. I was in the minority. One gentleman went as far as to set me straight in Maltese constitutionality and in having more than one religion represented on the island; apparently the Maltese constitution only recognizes Roman Catholicism as the “state” religion. I must admit that “state religion” did not bode well with me.
I do not believe in or want a government that has a “state” religion. The Maltese constitution might have Roman Catholicism as the state religion, but the island embraces one and all. As a former British Colony, Malta has a myriad of faiths worshiping side by side to the 365 Catholic Churches. The Anglican Church is well represented to the extent that the island has an Anglican Cathedral in Floriana, on the outskirts of Valletta. Here the British Empire built a replica of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. A beautiful Anglican Cathedral rises high against the Valletta skyline. The Church of Scotland and Wales are simultaneously represented through the various churches and vicars spread across the island; where British service members and their families lived and worshiped many years ago. The island is also host to a beautiful Greek Orthodox Church in Valletta, a mosque in Marsa, and a synagogue in Tigne. The Jewish congregation in Malta has now increased to approximately 200 Jews; a number large enough that warranted the opening of a kosher restaurant. Nowhere except for Israel, can one find more religious tolerance and diversity than the Maltese islands. Then why the “state” religion?
Digressing for a while; all this Menorah brouhaha set me thinking on the current “war on Christmas” movement currently afoot in the United States. Many Christian groups feel that the secular left hijacked Christmas to the inclusive “Holiday” season not to offend those outside the Christian faith. A political correct ideal that is so moronic it is beyond explaining. Christmas is exclusive to Christians by virtue of the word “Christ” in the word. Are Christians offended for the exclusiveness of Ramadan? Christmas commemorates the birth of Christ. Not of Buddha, Mohammed, Mother Earth, or any other deity worshiped or followed by other faiths. Christmas Day and Merry Christmas are directly associated with the day, the event, and the spirit of this Christian season. The only other religious affiliation to December is Hanukkah. Whether in the beginning or the middle, or the end; Hanukkah always falls during the Christmas season and normally in December. So is Happy Holidays appropriate? Is the Menorah next door to the Nativity okay?
Going back to Fr. Debono and his argument over the Menorah; one must realize the implications that religious symbols have on a people. The current controversy of Jerusalem being the capital of Israel, and the Western Wall being Jewish, is not far from the priest’s argument on history, heritage, and tradition. Fr. Debono based his argument on the premise that in Malta, Roman Catholicism is more than a state religion; it embodies all the traditions and heritage that make one Maltese. The essence of his argument is sound. Our faiths are often intertwined with our historical, cultural, and ethnic upbringing. These are defining characteristics. They also define our ancestors and where we come from. They define our homes, cities, and countries. Just like the Temple Mount defines Judaism and Israel; Valletta defines the capital of Roman Catholic Malta. The Kotel defines the soul of Judaism, Jerusalem, and Israel. Every nuance of who we are or where we come from is gathered in our faiths and our heritage. Was Fr. Debono off his mark or was he on point?
Religion can be simultaneously unifying and divisive. A paradox wrapped in spiritual and personal emotion that often defies reason. Each of us wants to believe that our faith is the right and just one. We tolerate other faiths with a dose of skepticism and often suspicion because we are afraid that our faith may be challenged. Tolerance and acceptance are not always easy to attain. Some faiths have been conveniently misinterpreted to control religious, social, academic, and political freedoms. God has been hijacked to justify power, hatred, and fear. Radical Islamists take elements from their faith as an excuse to commit acts of terror and murder. White supremacists justify their warped bigotry and racism by purposely misinterpreting the Bible. Should we tolerate their faith-based argument? We all make the mistake of thinking and believing that religion is peace driven. It is not. It has never been. It is as territorial and controlling as any empire known to man. Religion has always been rebellious. Faith is only as strong as our willingness to fight for it and in some cases; die for it. That is the rebel in us. That’s what sets up apart from non-believers.
The beginning of Christianity was fraught with violence and death. Although Christ died as a Jew, his death brought more strife than peace. From the mid sixth to the seventh century: a fracturing off from what is controversial known as the “previous scriptures” gave birth to Islam. The “previous scriptures” referred to the Torah, the psalms, and the gospels. The fracture is believed to have been born out of perceived prolific Judaism and Arab conflicts that eventually resulted in a faith that seems to purposely contradict everything the scriptures contained. I will not even attempt to tackle Buddhism, Hinduism, or even Scientology. Yet everything started from the desire to worship something bigger than us. But are any of these religions or faiths exclusive? They all are. Their beliefs are relevant to those who follow that particular religion or faith. Would we argue for inclusion during Ramadan or Haj? Would we insist that a Hindu includes us in the annual river cleansing ritual? So why does the western secular world expect and demand that Christians be inclusive of Christmas? Why say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas? Who exactly should be offended? The non-Christians, because they do not get to celebrate a Christian event? The atheists who abhor any form of organized religion? Why would anyone be offended of non-participation if one chooses not to be a Christian? Questions the secular loony left and uber tolerant Christian bashers never seem to answer. Wonder why.
Digressing back to the Menorah and the Nativity at the city gate in Valletta, Malta: what should have taken center stage? Malta is Roman Catholic and Christmas is a Catholic Christian religious holiday. The Nativity represents what has always been Malta’s bastion of Christian faith. The Maltese are accommodating to other faiths, but Christianity is the essence of who they are. Therefore; it was logically inappropriate to place the Menorah at the entrance to the capital while giving the Nativity a sideline. That was like placing a crucifix at the entrance to the Kotel and hoping that no one would notice. Equally inappropriate; and not because for lack of religious freedom in Israel, but because the Kotel personifies Jerusalem, Israel, and being Jewish. The Jewish community in Malta should have coordinated better in finding a suitable location for the Menorah. The Menorah could have stood outside the synagogue or located at any Chabad Malta run establishments. Freedom of religion does not mean freedom to offend. Freedoms come with responsibilities. Christmas is a Christian holy day, and other faiths need to recognize it with the same dignity and logic they demand of their own faith. Ultimately: I doubt that the small Jewish community in Malta meant any offense; but if all faiths would give each other thoughtful considerations maybe, just maybe, we would live in a more cordial world, and it would not be necessary to have this conversation.