When I moved to America in 2005, I was familiar with the phrase ‘culture wars,’ but I was yet to experience it first-hand. Around the end of the Cold War in 1991, conservative forces in the US, who’d hitherto been able to unite around resistance to the threat of communism, had to find a new enemy. They settled upon a collection of issues, including abortion, gun control, sexuality, prayer in schools and drug use, that portrayed American culture as under threat from within. On a university campus these translated into the ubiquitous phrase ‘gender, race and class’ – so familiar that the three words almost fused into one: genderaceclass.
As a Brit, I had to tread carefully. For example, I came to realise in the race debates, an English accent made me ‘double white’ – i.e. I didn’t just benefit from white privilege, I was from a country that had transported most of the slaves across the Atlantic in the first place. Yet I felt I had to challenge the portrayal of Christianity common in the culture wars. I felt the best place to start was with the Christmas story: because everyone knew it – or thought they did.
I talked about Mary’s vulnerability, and how that highlighted gender inequality. I spoke of the wise men, and how their journey anticipated the gathering of diverse races around one Lord. And I pointed to the shepherds, and how their outdoor life precluded their keeping dietary laws, rendering them the underclass. Here was Christianity’s statement about gender, race and class – right at the start of the New Testament. And a story about ecology too – just look at the animals.
At St Martin’s, we love our crib in Trafalgar Square, because its figures were modelled on people from our community. The crib, which is blessed this weekend, inspires us to find a way through controversies of gender, race and class by inscribing our lives within the nativity story. This really is a story for everybody. It even has a place for us.
Revd Dr Sam Wells