Tuesday, October 23, 2007

By the Pricking of My Thumbs...

Why Christians Should Celebrate Halloween,
Part 3: Racism & Incarnational Ministry

It's hard to believe in 2007, but there once was in the United States a tremendous amount of racist energy directed at people of Scottish and, especially, Irish descent. Today, it seems that these British subcultures are so much a part of the fabric of America that we may not remember what it was like for those first poor immigrant farmers who came to a new world after severe famine (in the case of the Irish) or after being cleared off their land for political and racial reasons (in the case of my own Scottish ancestors). Those of us more historically minded might recall the "Nativist" movement of the 19th century and political drives such as the so-called "Know Nothing" Party. Racism remains an ugly aspect of our society, a grave sin which permeates so much of Church and culture; it has been so for many, many years.

It bothers me, therefore, when Christians are able to look at German pagan traditions, such as what we now call "Christmas trees", and adapt them for our own use. The claim is that these are harmless practices which are worthy of salvific grace, and can be transformed into something positive. Most churches will happily include a tree in their holidat celebrations; the Advent wreath, too, has its roots in pagan practice, but most congregations will use them come December.

Many are willing to transform German pagan traditions, or English, or Italian, into proper Christian practices, but refuse to do the same for the traditions of my own ancestors. The Scottish and Irish traditions are, for many, not worthy of salvation or transformation, and ought to be damned. Apparently, for many, the Irish are worth just that...damnation.

This is racism. Why are German, English, or Italian traditions viewed as superior in some way? Racism. Some sins die hard.

In our family, I insist that we mark Halloween, out of respect for our heritage. True, it is now, for us, a celebration of Christ's victory over the powers of darkness, but we mark it as a part of our own family tradition, as my ancestors did years and years ago, in their own way.

My prayer is that the racism inherent in rejecting Halloween while embracing the pagan pasts of other racial groups will soon fade away and be fogotten.

The final reason Christians shoudl celebrate Halloween may be, from a ministry perspective, the most important. Children in most American communities will be trick-or-treating on or near Halloween. This is a wonderful time for the young, as they dress up in fantastic outfits, walk throughout the community, and gather candy. What memories I have of Halloween nights past!

As God became incarnate in human flesh in order to save, so we as Christians must become incarnate in our communities if we are to assist in the divine mission. The Amish have a wonderful witness, but, in my view, we are called to be in the world...though, truly, not of it. Far too many congregations view themselves as so separate from a sinful community that they are unable to truly incarnate the grace and love of the Almighty.

Halloween offers a great opportunity to practice our calling to incarnational ministry...to truly be a part of our community. An act as simple as smilingly handing out candy to children can demonstrate the awesome love of God in exceedingly powerful ways. This can be prevenient grace in action. The Christians who offer safe candy to children are doing a wonderful thing, for we all need to be conscious of safety on Halloween night, as on every other night of the year.

Or...we can fail to take advantage of this opportunity. We can even encourage our sisters and brothers to boycott this "night of darkness". I've known Christians who have done this. This is certainly an option, but, in my opinion, we're sending a truly wicked message if we do so. If we do so, we are saying to the children of our communities, "This is not a safe house. Look elsewhere for someone to offer a smile and candy." God forgive us.

I have endeavored to show that celebrating the once pagan Halloween is no different in many ways from celebrating the once pagan Christmas and Easter...that we have strong Biblical and theological reasons for embracing Halloween...that we should oppose the historic racism which still permeates our culture...that we have a holy obligation to minister to the children of our communities. It is my prayer that thosewho might reject Halloween would prayerfully ponder these points and come to a change of heart, and that my pastoral brethren who are approached about Halloween might have some information and starting points for discussion.

It is my sincere prayer that every person who reads this post has a wonderfully blessed Halloween. God bless us, every one!


Unknown said...

Keith, I have a question regarding one point you are making. You say that racism is at the root of modern bigotry against Halloween. You bolster this with the mention of the "Know Nothing Party." I am not real familiar with them, so I took a look at Wikipedia. One part says this,

"The immigration of large numbers of Irish and German Catholics to the U.S. in the 1830–60 period made religious differences between Catholics and Protestants a political issue. The tensions reflected European battles between Catholics and Protestants, but were much less intense. Violence occasionally erupted over elections.
Although Catholics asserted they were politically independent of priests, Protestants alleged that Pope Pius IX had put down the failed liberal Revolutions of 1848 and was an opponent of liberty, democracy and Protestantism. These concerns encouraged conspiracy theories regarding the Pope's purported plans to subjugate the United States through a continuing influx of Catholics controlled by Irish bishops obedient to and personally selected by the Pope. In 1849, an oath-bound secret society, The Order of the Star Spangled Banner, was created by Charles Allen in New York City. It became the nucleus of some units of the American Party."

So it seems from this summary, that the issue was anti-Catholic against Irish and Germans. This, on its surface, does not seem to support the assertion of purely anti-Irish racism. Can you give some further explanation?

Also... even if there is historic prejudice, I am not clear on what that has to do with the idea that Halloween has been snubbed in favor of other pagan influences. Isn't it much more likely that since Roman Catholicism was born and bred in the Roman/Grecian world, that these pagan traditions had more opportunity to influence the Christian faith? If Halloween had been a Roman or Greek pagan festival, chances are we would have some sort of spiritualize version of it... right? Why the effort to make it a racial issue, when it seems more likely it is one of geography and history?

I look forward to your thoughts.

Keith H. McIlwain said...

Thanks, Joe. Certainly, anti-Catholic sentiment was a HUGE part of the Nativist movement of the 19th century (and well into the 20th). Coupled with that, however, as it so often is, was a racist vibe. Simply put, folks hated the poor Irish farmers who were coming to the United States. Here is another Wikipedia article to peruse, though I generally hate using Wikipedia as a reliable source. You could also look at the recent film Gangs of New York, which showed the Irish, unable to fully function in America because of prejudice and racism, forming their own subculture (not unlike the ones portrayed in The Godfather and GoodFellas). The movie isn't Scorsese's best, but it's worth a look.

Yes, I feel that this lingering racism still exists (which is one reason I am bothered when others paint the issue of racism as strictly "black" and "white"). To embrace and Christianize pagan traditions of some nations but reject those of others is a bad sign. It might seem like a stretch, but I've heard one too many jokes about cheap Scotsmen and drunken Irishmen (or stupid Poles, dirty Italians, effete Frenchmen, etc.) to believe that we're completely over this particular prejudice.

Your other point is, I think, valid...that the Christmas and Easter traditions simply entered our history at an earlier date, and were already syncretized and "transformed" by the time we were born, whereas Halloween is still in process. That's true. And certainly patience is required. But, when folks call it the "Devil's Day", question the faith of those who celebrate, etc., we've got a problem that can be addressed right now, rather than waiting for another hundred years. Fair?

Anonymous said...

Keith, this has been a fascinating and educational series of posts. Thank you.

It has also inspired me to advocate for my own ancestry.

I am going to push for American acceptance of an ancient and revered Belgian tradition.

I propose that every 30 years or so we get invaded by Germany on its way to attack France.

Unknown said...

Hi Keith, thanks for the other link. I agree, by the way, that Wikipedia can be an academically dangerous resource. I also agree that there was an historical bias against the Irish immigrants (it has been that way with every new immigrant group.. Chinese, Scottish, German, Swedish, Mexican, etc...), but I am still not totally convinced that this is a direct connection to the rejection of Halloween. I am not saying you are wrong, I am just not seeing it... yet.

Now one comment on the overall thrust of your series. Your view from the first post on, I think, is summed up in this comment you made "To embrace and Christianize pagan traditions of some nations but reject those of others is a bad sign."

I think this is where we have a different viewpoint. I think it is a bad sign to embrace and "christianize" the paganism from any culture. Recognizing the pagan influence of one culture does not lead me to embrace the paganism of another culture.

For me, to be in the world but not of it means living in in a way that embraces the culture of God's Kingdom, not the culture of the lowest common denominator. My goal is not to redeem Halloween or other pagan festivals, but to redeem people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

That difference being said, I do not judge you or anyone else for celebrating Halloween. If you, in good conscience, can do it, that is cool. However, there is a difference between enjoying Halloween and trying to spiritualize it. Said another way, I agree that it is wrong to create a Pharisaical law that condemns people for enjoying halloween, but I would also consider it an error to try and enshrine Halloween as a "Christian": festival.

I hope that makes some sense my brother.

Keith H. McIlwain said...

Joe - Well said, and I understand.

John - Good luck with that!

Jeff Kahl said...

Great thoughts, Keith, and I do enjoy celebrating Halloween every year. I never would have thought to put a racist spin on the church's failure to sacralize Halloween...definitely a unique perspective on that.

My only question is: The actual date of Samhain is after midnight on November 1.

Wouldn't you say that the Church has already taken the essence of Samhain and sanctified it in "The Feast of All Saints" which is celebrated on November 1?

In some ways, I'd say that actually is more in keeping with the Gospel because--rather than laughing at the power of death and evil--it puts a positive spin by celebrating all the dead who died in Christ and who, therefore, are still in fellowship with us in the mystical body of the Church.

Just my two cents worth....


Keith H. McIlwain said...

Jeff - As one of my seminary profs loved to say, "Yes and."

Jeff Kahl said...

Keith -
Uhm...I don't get it.

Keith H. McIlwain said...

It just means that I agree with you, but also maintain my OWN perspective. Best of both worlds, brother.

Jeff Kahl said...

Sounds good to me............

Unknown said...

Keith, Jeff has brought something up that I had not thought about in some time.

Keith, the premise of your series is that the "church" has ignored Halloween because of a racial prejudice against the Irish. But as Jeff points out, the Roman Catholic church did make an attempt to syncretize the pagan festival of Halloween--All Saints Day. I found this short description on the web.

"The Christian holiday of All Saint's Day honors and recognizes all of the saints of the christian church, many of which were martyrs. The church sets this day aside to celebrate over 10,000 recognized saints. Historically, All Saints Day was known as Hallomas.

Did you know? All Saints Day and All Souls Day was originally in May. They were moved to November 1st and 2and to downplay the Pagan holidays of Halloween (All Hallow's Eve) and Dia De Loss Muertos. Religious leaders felt these holidays were too popular at the time to ban outright. But, if moved the christian holidays to this time periods, the pagan holidays would slowly die away......."

So does this not vitiate your working premise? Would it not be more accurate to say that the Roman Catholic Church has attempted to adopt Halloween, as it has Christmas and Easter, with its own set of alternative practices. BUT, that you are not satisfied with the celebration of the "saints" and martyrs, and want to go further and adopt the American traditions of Trick-O-Treating, etc..?

Again, I am just working to wrap my head around your perspective, so please if I am missing something, fill in the blanks for me brother.

Keith H. McIlwain said...

Thanks, Joe; I'm aware of the All Saints stuff, which was an attempt to syncretize some of the Celtic traditions, or at least sanitize them.

First, though, the RCC isn't all of Christianity, of course...just a heckuva big denomination. I've found that most RCs couldn't care less about Halloween; it's fundamentalists and fundamentalist-oriented evangelicals who are primarily anti-Halloween. That said, I'm pleased, of course, with All Saints, and DO believe it's a great tie-in with Halloween.

Second, the racism thing isn't my ONLY premise...just one of several. It's important, obviously, because racism itself is so ugly. But the Biblical/theological rationale would actually, I think, be even more important in my argument. As would the incarnational ministry bit.

I guess I would agree with your last statement, that "I'm not satisfied", primarily because I haven't yet figured out - given the Lordship of Christ - what it is that Halloween opponents are afraid of (forgive the poor grammar).

Unknown said...

Okay, maybe I am chasing rabbit trails here, so be patient with me. Your original blog said "Christians" were prejudiced against the Irish which led to the rejection of halloween. You mention the "Know Nothing" movement (which was also anti-Catholic). But in the last comment you mention that it is really "Fundamentalists" you see rejecting Halloween. But the Fundamentalist movement did not arise until the early 1900's and the Know Nothing and anti-Irish movements were in the mid to late 1800's. So how could the "racism" you see in Fundamentalism (assuming there is some) impact something that took place decades before its beginning?

Keith H. McIlwain said...

Today, it seems that the fundys are the primary culprits re: Halloween. There may indeed be hidden racist tendencies among many fundys (in the case of the Bob Jones folks, of course, it's not so hidden). The racial prejudices of the mid/late 19th century, anti-Catholic and anti-Irish, may well be embedded in the fundamentalist movement which arose afew decades later, in the late 19th/early 20th century. Either way, that prejudice may well be deep in the psyche of many groups in America. The racism in America infected fundamentalism and, again, still exists for many (like BJ).

This isn't to say that all fundys are racist. But racism exists, and there are fundy racists, as there are Roman Catholic racists, Baptist racists, Atheist racists, and even United Methodist racists.

So, were there Christians in America who were anti-Irish? Yes. Is that sentiment still in existence, even though it is far less public? Yes, and I think the rejection of Halloween is evidence.

BruceA said...

J.R. wrote -
Did you know? All Saints Day and All Souls Day was originally in May. They were moved to November 1st and 2and to downplay the Pagan holidays of Halloween (All Hallow's Eve) and Dia De Loss Muertos...
So does this not vitiate your working premise?

Christmas was also originally in the spring, and was moved to December to downplay the Pagan celebration of the birthday of Sol Invictus. The fact that some Christian groups keep Christmas but reject Halloween indicates that something other than just anti-Catholicism (or anti-Paganism or anti-syncretism) is at play here.

Unknown said...

So here is what I am seeing then. By tradition...

Christmas replaced Sol Invictus
All Saints Day replaced Halloween

...most Christians do not, by tradition, celebrate Sol Invictus or Halloween...

so can it not be said then that both pagan holidays are treated the same? Tradition has sought to supplant both pagan festivals with alternative festivals?

Jeff Kahl said...

J. R. -

I agree.

I see Keith's point, and certainly don't want to be legalistic about Halloween. I think it's mostly a fun, harmless night for kids, although I base that on my own childhood memories and not on any advanced theological reasoning. Still, Keith's posts (especially his first two) were very instructive and I thought he put a lot of good reasoning into his positions.

On the other hand, I do agree with you that I don't see any racist motivation behind the church's failure to fully implement all aspects of Samhaim. As you and I both argue, All Saints Day is the Christianized version of Samhain.

Unknown said...

Keith, your blogs have promted me to think more on how we can use this season to be the incarnation of Jesus,. Here is me blog entitled, "Halloween And The End Of Death".

lou†ise said...

I had been discussing the opportunities for witness surrounding the celebration of Halloween, and a relative of mine referred me to your blog. It has become somewhat of a tradition for me to carve a cross in a pumpkin for Halloween. If asked "Why?" I can respond, "My God is greater than the evil of the holiday!" Thanks!!