Note: We are issuing this statement anonymously because in the current political climate it is important to protect the safety of dissenters and those whose views may be challenging to the powerful Santa Claus Lobby.
Earlier this week we celebrated the feast day of Saint Nicholas of Myra. In the popular imagination, Saint Nick is a warm, cheerful, and giving man. Yet the real Nicholas could not have been more dissimilar and his canonization as a saint is deeply problematic. The so-called “saint” Nicholas was a violent, judgmental, and divisive man unworthy of the title Christian.
We, the writers at Mere Orthodoxy, are calling upon all Christian leaders to denounce Nicholas and for the Vatican to strip him of his status as a saint. Upon the briefest examination of Nicholas’ legacy, one finds a seemingly endless pit of aggression, hate speech, dogwhistling, and exploitative tendencies. For brevity’s sake, we will limit ourselves to six theses on why Nicholas is unfit to be held up as a saint in the church.
Nicholas’ macroaggression silenced a theologically-marginalized group trying to gain a seat at the table.
Though we forget about it now because of the image of Jolly St Nick, the real St. Nicholas was a much scarier man. At the Council of Nicea, Nicholas punched another Christian named Arius in the face, simply because Arius challenged the existing narrative of theologically privileged Trinitarianism by asserting that Jesus wasn’t divine. Instead of allowing Arius and his many followers a chance to defend their claims, Nicholas continued, and some might say started, the tradition of those claiming “Orthodoxy” to silence and no-platform dissenters.
The earliest followers of Christ were not concerned about orthodoxy. They were a people of orthopraxy, following the Way. The slavish and idolatrous devotion to the principle of non-contradiction had not yet taken hold; questions of what was “true” and “false” did not, among these early sisters and brothers, have the prominence that they were, sadly, to gain in later centuries. Moreover, issues surrounding the doctrine of Christology are incredibly complex and not worth breaking fellowship over. As Jesus said in the Garden of Gethsemane: “I ask that they all may be one.” Where the red letters of the Bible conflict with “Orthodoxy,” Christians should always side with the former. There are many things that Christians need to agree upon. But the divinity of Christ is not one of them.
The canonization of Nicholas has normalized religious violence.
To be a saint is to be a moral exemplar for the church. What does it mean for Christian witness if we teach Christians to resort to violence when they disagree with others? Just because Nicholas is a “saint” does not make his violence toward his opponents OK. We shouldn’t valorize these hateful and odious parts of his legacy. Some might say that this was just an instance of rough-housing. But actions have consequences, especially the actions of someone designated as an example of Christian piety. The normalization of Nicholas’ assault on Arius may not have directly caused the long string of religious violence from the Crusades on to the culture wars and bathroom laws perpetuated by the Religious Right today, but it certainly had some snowballing effects.
The fact that, during WW1, the German and French troops celebrated Christmas Day by committing no violence and even playing soccer together should not blind us to the reality that their willingness to be at war with each other is clearly a result of the normalization of violence in the Christian community as a result of what St. Nick did 1600 years prior. We need to create a better culture of being Christian and disagreeing with each other and not delighting in violence. That begins with recognizing the problematic aspects of Nicholas’s journey.
St Nicholas’ charity was often conditional on conforming to cisheteronormative concepts of traditional sexuality and complementarian forms of marriage.
Nicholas’s famous generosity often had a darker edge to it. His giving was frequently tied to expectations of sexual purity and even forced marriages. To take only one example, Nicholas supposedly once “helped” three young women who would have been forced into prostitution by tossing three bags of gold through their bedroom window to provide wedding dowries for them. Given the realities of marriage in such a world, however, Nicholas simply allowed these women to move from formal prostitution toward a way of life often no less violent and horrifying for women. His attitude toward women may have stemmed from a deep-seated embarrassment at needing the help of a woman, Mary the mother of Jesus, to get him reinstated to his bishopric after Constantine rightly stripped him of his titles after the incident with Arius.
Moreover, though Nicholas himself made no explicit comments on the subject of same-sex marriage, the church that he belonged to delivered clear, judgmental pronouncements about the “illegitimacy” of same-sex union. We note, too, that he never delivered bags of gold to young men hoping to be able to marry their male partners; inaction, in this context, speaks volumes. We are still waiting to hear back from Nicholas on this. St Nicholas has fans of all stripes: Christians, non-religious, and LGBT merrymakers have all found something to love in the jolly old legend. So in the absence of a response from the Bishop, it’s worth looking at the severe, unmoving position Jesus and the Undivided Church take on same-sex marriage.
Nicholas is associated with moralistic, legalistic methods of keeping “misbehaving” children in line.
In Switzerland, Austria, and the Netherlands his legend blended with local folk-lore to terrorize young children into obedience with threats of kidnapping and beating. And while the violent superstitions of yesteryear are thankfully behind us, today even the thought that St. Nicholas has a child on the “naughty” list is enough to send the child into hysterics. Even though these traditions developed over several centuries, it is telling that St. Nicholas did not make any preemptive efforts to dispel these rumors about himself.
Nicholas’ methods depend on animal cruelty, fossil fuels, exploitive labor, and surveillance.
Speaking of his list, it is worth noting that that the entire enterprise of behavior surveillance ends with the reception of either a toy or a lump of coal. St. Nicholas gives children a false choice. Either they accept a toy that is made by the exploitive labor of a primitive species of Northern Pole elves, or else are made complicit in the furtherance of the planet killing fossil fuel coal. And to deliver these tainted “gifts” he enlists the forced labor of an endangered species of reindeer.
Furthermore, Nicholas’ dubious system of list-making depends on either the erosion of civil liberties inherent in monitoring the behavior of all the world’s children himself, OR, and perhaps more sinisterly, an elaborate network of spies and informants hiding in plain sight in all the Western world’s cities and towns, gradually eating away at the social fabric of trust and neighborliness needed to build strong communities. Is it any wonder we don’t trust our neighbors anymore? Is it any wonder that a culture so frayed by the constant fear of failure in the sight of a “Saint” would fall prey to the kinds of populist uprisings that have marred 2016?
Nicholas and his legacy undergird and legitimize an exploitative capitalistic economic system.
What may have started out as charity (though see #3 above) soon became a syncretistic “holiday” so tied up in late period global capitalism as to become nearly unrecognizable. Though this may have been expected from a man who became the patron saint of pawnbrokers, society’s first robber barons, whom he never disavowed publicly.
Even if one does not subscribe to the legend of St. Nicholas as the gift giver himself, one need only see the vast amounts of capital expended to purchase toys made in substandard working conditions and for substandard wages among factory workers in the developing world to see that St. Nicholas’ “charity” led directly to our current obsession with material possessions, and the exploitive practices of the Corporations that keep it stoked.
This is a statement that is long overdue. This has been a difficult and painful year for so many of us, full of setbacks. But this was also the year of bravery and courage. Many people across the world stood for things. Like the brave board of trustees at Amherst College who took a powerful stand by renouncing their former mascot, the war criminal Lord Jeffrey Amherst. Or the courage of the Brown University student council who took the bold step of ensuring that feminine hygiene products are available in men’s bathrooms throughout campus. Or in politics, the strength of character it took Jill Stein to raise others’ money to recount her several votes in Michigan. And in the realm of science, B.O.B, claiming the right to voice his truth, valiantly shouting his theories into the firmament that surrounds his flat world, fighting against Big Science. And who can forget the inspiring way Neil deGrasse Tyson stood firm against the incipient rise of the emboldened flat-Earth lobby, with only a Twitter account, a stable job at a respected institution, and several hundred years of scientific consensus behind him?
If we, the writers of Mere Orthodoxy, can stand up against more than 1,500 years of anti-Arian discrimination and the normalization of violence over piddling doctrinal differences, all of which have been at the root of so much division among us, and to which we can clearly trace such things as the Cold War, GMO corn, and the death of Harambe, 2016 will perhaps have been redeemed. We, who sign this with courageous anonymity, in order to keep our own faces un-punched by the “orthodox” bullies who revere this tainted saint, call on Pope Francis to excommunicate this man, and get Christianity back on the right side of history.
As we have circulated this document among Christ-followers of various expressions and backgrounds, some have expressed concern that removing a saint of non-European origin will send a quelling message to those whose cultures have been marginalized in the historic church, and to those people, we want to say: we hear your concern and wish to dialogue with you. Indeed some of our own editorial and writing staff have, during the course of what turned out to be a surprisingly lengthy and emotional process of drafting and revision, felt the need to withdraw themselves to a place of greater emotional and cultural safety.
Perhaps we too have been subject to the narrative of the violent non-European; references to Nicholas as a “thug” are misplaced.
We sincerely regret any pain we have caused. We are all, together, learning on this journey.