Holidays ads have really gotten under my skin this year.
Aside from flaunting consumer capitalism’s hold on what should be a simple, joyous holiday, the ads remind me that “traditional family values” are the values that get centered this time of year.
Endless commercials show white, straight, cis married couples with their 2.5 kids, dog and picket fence that surrounds a snow-laden house.
There are some brands that have made a real, conscious efforts in centering non-white, non-straight cis voices in their advertising as well as diversifying their products to serve more people – that is good progress.
But the jewelry companies have some catching up to do. Every jewelry commercial I’ve seen this year centers straight couples. The one or two ads I’ve seen with a queer couple only showed the queer couple for maybe half a second before cutting back to one of the 17 straight couples (seriously, if you blink, you’ll miss it).
The intimacy between the queer people was so subtle that most folks could read it as two “just friends” exchanging Christmas presents – never mind the fact that none of my platonic friends have ever gifted me diamonds.
So, the commercial isn’t obvious enough to anger their main client base but includes enough of a table scrap of diversity that the company executives can pat themselves on the back for being “such an inclusive place.”
There’s a word for using a person or group of people in a way that showboats your own “morality”: tokenism. If you’re not familiar with tokenism, let me give you some examples of what tokenism is.
If you’re a white person and you say, “I can’t be racist; my best friend’s Black,” you’re using your friend as a token to buy your way out of the hard work of confronting your own implicit racial bias.
If you’re a straight person and you say, “I’m not homophobic; I have a gay cousin,” you’re using your family as a token to buy your way out of confronting homophobic rhetoric that your friends say, that you see online, that eventually end up in front of the radicalized young men who commit crimes like the shooting at Club Q.
In a world where the Department of Homeland Security releases a report cautioning LGBTQ+ people, Jewish people and other marginalized communities in America to be watchful because we’re more likely to be targets of domestic terrorism – in the year 2022 – we don’t have time for you to spend us like tokens for your arcade games.
You may be thinking, “Kali, this is all important stuff. But what does this have to do with Christmas?” Tokenism has everything to do with Christmas because we do the same thing with Jesus.
We’ve turned Jesus into a token of every metaphor we use to describe him: shepherd, servant, teacher. We can elevate the idea of Jesus as these titles without doing anything to improve the quality of life that real shepherds, servants and others have.
While we could examine all the metaphors, today we’ll stick with the shepherds because they’re who we see in Luke 2:8-20.
In the time that Jesus was born, being a shepherd wasn’t just a hard job – it was a lowly job. It was a job that made you ritually unclean, which meant you were unfit to enter the temple for worship. But even as the early Church referred to Jesus as the “Good Shepherd,” they didn’t do a thing to improve the quality of life real shepherds have.
Because when you have a token, you don’t have real change. Tokens are fake money you spend to advance your own privilege at the expense of the people you tokenize.
Thank goodness that’s not what Jesus is about. Jesus came to build relationships – not metaphorical ones, but authentic relationships. Why else would he have come into the world as a baby, where his very life depended on the relationships he had with Mary and Joseph?
So, then we get to the story in Luke 2:8-20, where the angels appear to the shepherds –not metaphorical shepherds, but real, marginalized, outcast shepherds. When the shepherds can’t go to the temple because they’ll be cast out, God brings the temple to them.
To these shepherds, a host of angels gives a private concert. They sing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors.” The implication here is that God favors them – the shepherd, the outcast, the unclean.
Then, my favorite part happens: they find Mary to tell her what they saw. The scripture says that when she heard the message of the marginalized, she treasured their words and pondered them in her heart.
She didn’t say that they were wrong, she didn’t pick a fight, she didn’t counter their lived experience with “not all white people” or “not all men,” she didn’t respond to their humanity with, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” The scripture says she treasured their testimony and pondered it in her heart.
What would our world look like if we treasured each other’s lived experience and pondered it in our hearts?
Would we hear each other across picket lines? Could we continue to justify voting for folks who actively seek to cause our neighbor harm if we had our neighbors’ stories treasured in our hearts?
What kind of love would permeate the world if we treasured each other’s stories and kept them in our hearts? With that kind of love, we could really, truly join Jesus in his ministry as he himself describes it in Luke 4.
In the midst of the franticness of this season, the Christmas story gives us an important invitation to remember. If we treasure each other’s stories in our hearts and let them change us into more compassionate followers of Jesus, perhaps we really could have peace on earth and good will toward our fellow human.
Until then, keep sharing. Keep listening. And be sure to tell Santa, “I don’t want tokens for Christmas.”
A bivocational pastor, writer and spiritual director based in Atlanta, Georgia, she currently works as a Spiritual Director at Reclamation Theology. Cawthon-Freels is the author of Reclamation: A Queer Pastor’s Guide to Finding Spiritual Growth in the Passages Used to Harm Us (Nurturing Faith Books), and a contributing correspondent at Good Faith Media.