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Joseph in a cage, Mary on a raft: Should churches make political statements with Nativity scenes?

The traditional creche doesn’t represent what religious scholars believe happened in Bethlehem, but some churches are taking even more liberties with the story of Christ’s birth.

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A traditional Nativity scene depicts the birth of Jesus, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017, in front of St. Susanna’s Catholic Parish, in Dedham, Mass., but also includes signs listing U.S. mass shootings and the number of people killed at each. The Catholic church is using its Nativity scene to call attention to gun violence.

Steven Senne, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — In California, a depiction of the baby Jesus lies in a cage topped with a strand of barbed wire. In Massachusetts, the holy infant bobs in what appears to be seawater, while a shepherd and lamb struggle to stay afloat.

Dubbed “protest Nativities,” these and other unsettling creches are set up not just to celebrate Christmas, but to make a point. At Claremont United Methodist Church near Los Angeles, the message is a lament of the nation’s treatment of immigrants; at St. Susanna Parish in the suburbs of Boston, it’s a warning about the hazards of climate change.

To some, the displays seem dangerously political in a country where the majority of Americans say churches should stay away from politics and where endorsing a candidate can cost a church its tax-exempt status.

But proponents of the unconventional displays say they are a powerful way to make a statement that they believe is in keeping with the holiday. “For over a decade, our church has attempted to make the connection between the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth and the current human condition,” Claremont United Methodist Church said in a statement, adding, “This is Christianity in action.”

The pastor of St. Susanna Parish, where past Nativity scenes have also taken on gun violence and immigration, was more blunt.

“Our goal was never to fill the pews. It is to live out the Gospel,” the Rev. Stephen Josoma said.

With many Americans bitterly divided across party lines, are some churches contributing to polarization by making statements with a creche on their front lawns? And can they afford to risk alienating some Americans at a time when church membership is dwindling?

Horses, not camels

The creche is one of the most iconic images of Christianity: the shape of a woman, a man and a child with a star overhead. While it has been depicted by some of the world’s greatest painters, its elements are so simple that people can recognize Jesus, Mary and Joseph even in renditions made out of geometric shapes or Peanuts.

So when somebody alters the image, whether for comedy or political commentary, people of faith can get upset, as Pope Francis found out in 2017.

That year, the Nativity scene at the Vatican added an array of characters, including a naked man, meant to represent acts of mercy that Christians should perform. The baby Jesus was there, as well as an angel and a star, but some observers said the Nativity itself was eclipsed by the surrounding activity, which one Twitter user said looked like “a medieval ER.”

Others say that altered Nativities are a distraction from what Christians believe happened at Bethlehem. On the Facebook page of the California church, Dennis Subbiondo of New York wrote, “As a United Methodist here in New York, a very inclusive state, I am appalled by your Nativity scene which depicts the separation of families. This is not part of the story of Luke.

But the Rev. Dwight Longenecker, a South Carolina pastor and author of “Mystery of the Magi,” points out that most traditional Nativity scenes aren’t factually correct.

The three wise men, for example, who were present in the Vatican’s 2017 Nativity display, weren’t at a stable, as typically depicted, but visited the family at a house, according the second chapter of Matthew.

Also, the wise men likely didn’t have camels, Father Longenecker said.

“They were probably from Arabia and probably rode Arabian horses, a short distance, rather than camels making a long trek across the desert,” he said. “Camels in Nativity sets are OK, but the actual history doesn’t match up with the traditions we have.”


Marie Kelly, from Claremont, Calif., looks at a depiction of Joseph in a cage enclosure separated from baby Jesus and Mary at a Nativity scene outside Claremont United Methodist Church in Claremont Monday, Dec. 9, 2019.

Will Lester, The Orange County Register

But beloved contradictions in the Nativity story are different from the political messages that Claremont UMC Church near Los Angeles sends with its annual display.

This year’s has Mary, Joseph and Jesus in three separate enclosures, ringed with chain-link fencing, which the church likens to U.S. Border Control detention centers. The pastor, the Rev. Karen Clark Ristine, wrote on Facebook that “the Holy Family takes the place of the thousands of nameless families separated at our borders” and that the display had moved her to tears.

The church has addressed social issues with its Christmas display for more than a decade. Last year’s depicted Joseph and a pregnant Mary, riding a donkey, being stopped by a chain-link fence. In 2013, the baby Jesus was replaced with a model of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen fatally shot by a neighborhood watchman the previous year, who became an icon of violence suffered by African Americans.

The church has been deluged with comments, both by phone and social media, and said on its website, “Many people have shared that they are praying for us — some who appreciate the Nativity display, and some who do not.”

It also addressed charges that the creche was a statement against President Donald Trump, saying, “We find the detention and family separation policy immoral in any administration, and this congregation has opposed those policies since their inception. For those who have asked why we did not do such displays previously, please know that we have. In both 2009 and 2012, in particular, our nativity displays attempted to raise similar awareness on immigration policy concerns.”

Phones on fire

Churches involved in protest Nativities don’t risk losing their tax-exempt status, as federal laws only prohibit nonprofits from supporting or opposing candidates.

But churches that take stands on social issues using a creche should be prepared for fury from the public, said Josoma, the priest at St. Susanna Parish in Dedham, Massachusetts, where the Mary, Joseph and Jesus and their attendants appear to be in danger of drowning because of rising sea levels due to climate change.

Josoma, who recently called the pastor at Claremont UMC to offer his support, said he knows what that church is facing, as St. Susanna has had two other controversial displays in previous years. The church put Jesus in a cage last year, and the year before, listed sites of mass shootings behind the Nativity.

Josoma said he doesn’t want St. Susanna to become a church known for controversy, but said it’s important for churches to offer “more than thoughts and prayers” in response to social problems. Last year’s creche drew ire from conservative personality Sean Hannity who said the church has declared war on Christmas, “and basically for two days after that, we couldn’t answer the phone,” Josoma said, adding that many of the comments were profane. But the church also heard from people who were supportive of the church’s stand, he said.

As such, churches may not be adding to polarization, but simply reflecting it, making others unwilling to enter the conversation over whether such displays are appropriate or blasphemous. A representative of Friends of the Creche, a Pennsylvania nonprofit that promotes Nativity scenes as art and serves as a clearinghouse of creche information and exhibits, said, “We have not made any statements regarding the political use of the Nativity, nor do I anticipate us doing so.”

Longenecker, pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in Greenville, South Carolina, said he understands the desire to make a statement but disagrees with anything that shifts the focus from the biblical account.

“The Christmas story does hold within it powerful themes that reverberate down through human history,” he said. “And it’s legitimate for the Christian preacher to pull them out of the story if you like, but what you can’t do is make them the only point of the story.”

As divided as they may over Trump’s immigration policies, most Americans want houses of worships to stay out of politics. In a survey released earlier this year by Pew Research Center, 63% of Americans said churches and other faith groups should “keep out of political matters,” while 36% said they should express opinions on social and political issues.

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly said that the wise men visited the infant Jesus at his family’s home in Nazareth. The Gospel of Matthew says only that the wise men visited Jesus at a house.