2017.12.09 Celebrating Christmas - 365 days a year

"You Danes are all Communists!"

One of my friends threw this at me a while back. Since this is not true, I shrugged it off. But it did make me think about what we were? Stereotypes tend to be at least a little bit true.

Humanists, maybe?

The Danish anthropologist Dennis Nørmark has described the Danes as non-religious and measured on how many people regularly attend service or "believe" in the God of Abraham and Moses he would be right.

Very few Danes - less than 5% - attend church unless they know somebody who are getting baptized, confirmed, married, or have died. We are what the American sociologist Phil Zuckermann calls "culturally Christians", enjoying the rituals around milestones in our lives but not otherwise engaging a lot with the church. That said, around 85% of the population are "card carrying" members of the Danish Lutheran Church and around one third of the population attends service on Christmas Eve.

During my first years here in California, I met Pastor Segerhammar. He preached in First Lutheran Church in Palo Alto, CA. Some of my friends belonged to the congregation and brought my family in for - surprise - the Christmas Eve service.

When I later met pastor Segerhammar at a family function, he explained why the Scandinavian churches have such low church attendance.

Here in USA the church has three functions, he explained.

The first is to teach people the stories and teachings of their faith and shepherd their spiritual lives. The shepherding part is not much different from Scandinavia. But with State Churches (like in England the Queen/King is also the head of the Church) the State can teach Christianity in the State schools. Sunday schools are not necessary if you belong to the Lutheran majority.

The second function of the US churches is to build communities from people of whom many have moved from another state or country. Making new friends is not easy and if your original social support system is far away, you need to build a new one. A congregation serves the purpose of providing people who - supposedly - have values similar to your own. For people who live where they grew up, life usually "comes with" a social network of family and friends from way back.

Finally, the churches in USA serve a function in society at large. They feed the needy and the homeless, run shelters, provide affordable daycare, support members of the congregation who have fallen on hard times... In Scandinavia, these functions are overwhelmingly done by government agencies.

From this perspective, American churches are like a three legged stool. The Scandinavian churches have only one leg - the spiritual one - and that is not much of a support among people who generally describe themselves as agnostics. (Actually, they describe themselves as atheists, but that is because "agnostic" is not a widely known word.)

But pastor Segerhammar doesn't agree with Nørmark that these wily vikings are not believers because he thinks of Christianity in the very broadest sense. Yes, he would have liked that these Scandinavian stragglers who showed up in his church on December 24th would come back more often - "we are open all year" he used to say. But to him Christianity is about looking after people who are not able to look after themselves more than about going to church. After all, church service is to teach the congregation that they should look after each other and after others in need - even those from "Samaria". Somehow, the Scandinavian societies have been built around that central tenet.

If you noticed that I switched from past to present tense it is because I got in touch with the now retired pastor to make sure that I didn't misrepresent him. Having lived in Stockholm, he knows what it is like to be received in a congregation and how much community one can find there. He also marveled at how many issues weigh heavily on the ordinary American that the Swedes didn't have to deal with at all. Yes, they too get sick, but not from the stress of not knowing how to pay for their medical bills.

It is an interesting paradox that in the much more religious USA where around 40% of the population regularly attend service, the religious discussions in the news seem to focus on all issues but the central question of looking out for one another. At a time where cities have been flooded and others burn, shouldn't politicians all strive how to help people rather than to see how miserable they can make them by taking away their access to medical care? Should all public discussion on faith related questions be conducted from the far right? I am glad I am not the only one to think Jesus has been hijacked.

No, I don't go much to church, but even I know that according to the Bible, Jesus said many things about "being your brother's keeper" and absolutely nothing about where children should take their bathroom breaks.

Does this kind of thinking make me a Communist or just a closeted Christian?

Merry Christmas.