Christmas Sermon

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/December 24, 1910


Ye have been called unto liberty: only use not liberty for an occasion of the flesh, but by love serve one another.

For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: Thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself.

But if ye bite and devour one another take heed that ye be not consumed one of another—Galatians, v, 13-14-15.

We have here, dearly beloved, the moving idea in the letter which Paul the Apostle sent from some resting-place by the wayside perhaps about the year 53 of our era to the congregations of Pisidian-Antioch, Iconium, Derbe and Lystra, and we have here, too, the moving idea in the Christian religion. A man may reject every Christian dogma ever invented and preached; he may deny the authority of councils and bishops and hold himself aloof from the visible church; he may even edit the Scripture to suit his own notions (as every theologian in history has done), questioning, perhaps, most of the things upon which the faith of other men is founded; but if he accepts this ideal of brotherhood, of magnanimity, of Christian charity, and makes an honest effort to practice these things in his dealings with his fellows, he may yet call himself a Christian, and no may question his right to the name.

It is this ideal which sharply differentiates the teachings of Christ from the teachings of all other prophets before Him; it is this ideal which runs from end to end of the Sermon on the Mount; it is this ideal which separates Christianity from all other schemes for the salvation of man. Take it away and the Christian religion becomes a mere theory of the unknowable; take everything else away and it is alone sufficient to make Christianity a living force.

But alas and alack, the Christian is but a man, and man is born to err. Since the very beginning of Christ’s pastorate, brotherhood has been on men’s lips, but how often has it been in their hearts? Where, in all Christendom, demand the scoffers, is there a real Christian? Was Paul himself a real Christian? Let us seek an answer in Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. In Chapter V, as we have seen, he urges his distant brethren to love their neighbors. In the same chapter, and but a few lines further on, he threatens all heretics with eternal damnation!

Christianity declined still further after Paul’s day. Men proceeded from threats to acts. The warning of divine wrath gave way to excommunication and excommunication gay way to the stake. As we look back over those dark years we shudder and are ashamed of our kind. Forgetting the teachings of Christ entirely, men butchered their fellows in His name. The whole of Christendom was a shambles; millions died in agony for the crime of seeking the truth; the liberty of the strong was used “for an occasion of the flesh”; the Christianity of Christ died out in the world. Let no Christian of today try to convince himself that guilty blood is not in his veins. It was not alone Torquemada that made a mock of the Sermon on the Mount. Go to Buckle and read of the doings of the Scotch Kirk; remember Calvin and Servetus; the New England Puritans and the Quakers; study of the history of the Church of England. Everywhere in Christendom true Christianity was dead.

But not dead, after all—for after a thousand years an awakening came. The world grew weary of the slaughter. Men began to turn from the appearance to the substance. The voice of Christ was heard again, full and clear above the voices of the contending doctors. The gospel of brotherhood was preached anew. Christianity was reborn.

Today we move forward, and yet backward. Step by step we approach that pure doctrine which Christ preached—that doctrine of toleration, of magnanimity, of Christian charity. We have got past the Middle Ages, and past the age of Augustine; we are once more in the age of Paul. That is to say, we now preach brotherhood as he preached it, but fall short a bit in our practice, as he fell short. The churches are still at war; there are still excommunications and trials for heresy; one church sends out missionaries to “save” the children of another; bishops rant and roar; the ideal of Christ is yet obscured and polluted by a lamentable reality.

But a dawn breaks. The stake belongs to the past; the holy war belongs to the past; before long, we may well hope, the threat of hell will also belong to the past. The dream is not idle. There are already signs of great changes. We move backward—and yet forward!—from the Christianity of the apostle to the Christianity of the Founder. The time is not far distant when the world will hold that man a pitiful fool who seeks to force other men, by anathemas, bellowing and hollow pretentions to authority, to think as he thinks; when all men will be free to interpret the eternal mysteries according to the light that is given them; when every man will keep before him in his dealings with his brother-seeker the divine command that he do unto others as he would have others do unto him; when persecutions and vain dissentions will die out in the world and the Christian ideal of brotherhood, of gentleness, of toleration, of charity will cease to be a mere ideal, and become a living reality.

So much, at least, we may hope. And in that hope there is a tribute from all of us, believer and unbeliever alike, to the gentle truth-seeker who came out of Nazareth.

(Source: University of North Texas, Microfilm Collection)

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