The Rev. Steve Josoma had no intention of his church becoming known for politics.
The 64-year-old pastor at St. Susanna, a Catholic Parish in Dedham, Massachusetts, located just outside Boston, wasn’t trying to make waves or cause controversy last Christmas when he decided to put a cage around the Baby Jesus in the St. Susanna’s nativity scene, and wall off the Three Wise Men — he was merely trying to start a conversation.
He’s far from the only one. Churches across the country are using Christmas nativity scenes to make political statements and protests, from putting the Holy Family in cages, in a nod to the Southern border crisis, to depicting animals in the manger underwater and a creeping tide about to overtake Jesus, Mary and Joseph, in a nod to climate change.
The displays have drawn both support and outrage from churchgoers and passers-by. Pastors agree that churches shouldn’t be partisan. But the Gospel is inherently political, they say, and it’s their job to facilitate conversations about morals and values, regardless of which party their congregants belong too.
In Dedham, the display last year was anchored by a large banner that read “Peace on Earth?” It wasn’t the parish’s first time wading into social issues. In December 2017, St. Susanna had set up its regular nativity scene in front of large signs that listed some of the biggest mass shootings in U.S. history, and the number of people who died in those slayings.
“People have this weird notion that nativity scenes are more like a scene from a child’s Charles Dickinson story,” Josoma says. “But St. Francis originally put out the nativity scene in Italy to show what dire circumstances Jesus was born into. We romanticize it as cute and cuddly and warm, but who wants to be born in an animal trough?”
The 2017 idea came after the country had suffered through another mass shooting — Josoma can’t remember which one, he says, because there’s too many to keep track of — and politicians were tweeting out the usual messages of “thoughts and prayers.”
“The response of ‘thoughts and prayers’ felt like the new normal and we were having conversations about how this is not normal — and how could we get people to think about it more?” Josoma recalls.
He’s guessing that in Southern California, the leadership at Claremont United Methodist had a similar motivation when it revealed its nativity scene earlier this month with each member of the Holy Family in its own separate cage. On Facebook, the Rev. Karen Clark Ristine, the church’s lead pastor, explained, “in a time in our country when refugee families seek asylum at the borders and are unwillingly separated from one another, we consider the most well-known refugee family in the world.”
In the Bible, the Holy Family seeks asylum in Egypt shortly after Jesus is born.
As of Friday morning, there were nearly 3,500 comments on the Facebook photo, and the reaction was mixed.
“A woman being pastor is not biblical,” reads one of the first comments. “Breaking the laws is also not biblical — stop being an activist and let someone else preach truth in that church.”
“Thank you ma’am for having the courage to state what most Christian organizations and most Christians don’t!” reads the comment right under it.
Click here to read more.
SOURCE: USA Today, Lindsay Schnell