TIME faith

Muslim Students at Duke Will Begin Chant of Weekly Call-to-Prayer

Move called unprecedented by one Islamic expert

Members of Duke University’s Muslim Students Association will begin chanting a weekly call-to-prayer from the bell tower of the school’s chapel this Friday, in what one religious expert called a first-of-its-kind development.

The chant, known as the adhan, will be “moderately amplified” from the chapel to alert the community of the weekly Friday prayer service. The Muslim chaplain at Duke Imam Adeel Zeb said in a statement that the call-to-prayer “serves as a reminder to serve our brothers and sisters in humanity.”

“The adhan is the call to prayer that brings Muslims back to their purpose in life,” Zeb said.

Christy Lohr Sapp, the associate dean of religious life at Duke’s chapel, said the broadcasting of the chant “represents a larger commitment to religious pluralism that is at the heart of Duke’s mission.”

“Our goal in Religious Life is to create a place where religious expression is valued and supported and to foster the spiritual development of the various communities on campus,” Sapp said in an email.

In Muslim communities across the globe, the adhan is broadcast up to five times a day—once for each of the five daily prayers. On Friday afternoons, Muslims gather for the congregational Jummah prayer. Princeton University Imam & Muslim Life Program Coordinator Sohaib Sultan called Duke’s announcement is a “wonderful recognition of the religious diversity at Duke,” noting that as far as he knows, the move is unprecedented.

“The Muslim call to prayer is a melodious chant that will be appreciated by anyone, regardless of faith, who has an ear for spiritual songs,” said Sohaib, who also authored the book The Koran for Dummies. “As far as I know this is unprecedented and a welcome first.”

At New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus, students are alerted of the call-to-prayer by Al Fajr clocks, which display prayer times and light up when the call-to-prayer is announced. The campus is located on Saadiyat Island where students can no longer properly hear the call-to-prayer broadcast throughout Abu Dhabi. At Emory University in Atlanta, the school’s Muslim Student Association broadcast the adhan throughout the month of February in 2010 during Islamic Awareness Month.

Not everyone is praising the announcement. Franklin Graham, a Christian evangelist and son of famed evangelical and Baptist minister Billy Graham, slammed Duke’s announcement in a Facebook post.

“As Christianity is being excluded from the public square and followers of Islam are raping, butchering, and beheading Christians, Jews, and anyone who doesn’t submit to their Sharia Islamic law, Duke is promoting this in the name of religious pluralism,” Graham wrote. “I call on the donors and alumni to withhold their support from Duke until this policy is reversed.”

Read next: Meet the German Activist Leading the Movement Against ‘Islamization’

TIME Media

We Should Be Laughing at Charlie Hebdo, Not Pledging Our Allegiance to It

Charlie Hebdo Press Conference
The new editor-in-chief of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Gerard Biard, caricaturist Luz, Journalist Patrick Pelloux and editor-in-chief of French newspaper Liberation, Laurent Joffrin, hold a press conference about the next Charlie Hebdo edition, at the Liberation newspaper headquarters, in Paris, Jan. 13, 2015. Yoan Valat—EPA

Guillemette Faure is a French writer and columnist for M, Le Monde’s weekend magazine.

Standing up for the satirical newspaper became something of a patriotic gesture, even though Charlie’s dead cartoonists hated patriotic gestures

If you turn the cover of Charlie Hebdo upside down, you can see a penis. At least according to a journalist friend of mine. “This is how Luz always draws them,” he said, referring to prophets. I’m not sure I can see it. But I am sure this is what teenaged boys do: hide phalluses in cartoons. And Charlie Hebdo used to be a newsroom of teenaged grandpas.

We were trying to make sense of the cover. “Everything Is Forgiven,” Muhammad crying and holding a “Je suis Charlie” sign. Was it a critique of the hypocritical support of Charlie Hebdo by important figures? Was it mixing blasphemy with forgiveness, the most likable promise of all religions?

People were standing in line for the unveiling of its newest issue Wednesday morning, and it was sold out in my train station by 6:45 a.m. Terrorists have taken a struggling paper and made it the most sold-out publication in France. A young agent of the French police special operation unit who took part in the rescue operation told me he had only heard about Charlie just before the attack. Even residents of Paris’ bourgeois 7th arrondissement, host to anti-gay marriage protests, seemed eager this morning to get their share of anticlerical jokes. As Le Gorafi, France’s version of The Onion, wrote this morning, “lots of French people wanted to touch printed paper for the first time.”

The problem is that Charlie Hebdo is not supposed to be consumed with such religious fervor. We used to read it rapidly, sometimes disliking the jokes (and, for me, all the phalluses). Charlie Hebdo was not designed to be read with an offense meter, every word and cartoon weighed. “Irresponsible magazine,” proclaims its cover. Cartoonist Luz was the first to feel both comforted and uncomfortable with the immense wave of support. Last week he reminded supporters that the newspaper was a fanzine, illustrated mostly by a gang of anarchist guys who didn’t want to grow up. “Charlie is not supposed to be a symbol,” he said. The day before this new issue, he advised readers to buy another paper along with Charlie.

The remaining team did the greatest thing they could have done: publish a new paper, on time. Not even one or two days earlier, like the weeklies that wanted to cash in on the tragedy. Not a day later, because of all the trouble they had to go through. Just on time. It was a regular Charlie Hebdo, with a regular Mohammed on its cover.

“When you don’t understand that you can’t draw a little guy, you keep drawing little guys,” wrote Luz in a cartoon for this new edition.

And yet here we are, unable to refrain from checking that everything is in place: Mohammed, the rabbis, and the popes. We’re relieved to see that the Catholic Church is also mocked (“Message to the Pope who supported us,” ends the editorial, “we would appreciate hearing the bells of the Vatican, but only if rung by the FEMEN”), even though we know offense-math is wrong, since religious people don’t get offended in the same way by the same things.

In the aftermath of the attacks, we French subscribed to the magazine to be sure it would stay alive. In just a few days, standing up for Charlie became something of a patriotic gesture, akin to standing up for freedom of speech—even though Charlie’s dead cartoonists hated patriotic gestures.

Living in a diverse neighborhood of Paris, I don’t want Charlie to become a symbol of patriotism. We can’t impose an injunction against feeling offended as a sign of solidarity, even to those who should get the joke. “We don’t have to agree,” write the editors Charlie Hebdo in the issue. “The cops died to defend ideas that maybe were not theirs.” The hardest thing today is to accept that, even when discussing matters of principle, we can disagree. Philippe Lançon, a Charlie writer who survived the attack, wrote in the newspaper Libération that the very morning of the attacks, Charlie’s staff had a heated argument about terrorism. “We wanted to laugh and argue about everything,” he wrote.

In the current issue of Charlie Hebdo, Luz brilliantly summarizes these contradictory emotions that we all go through. He tries to assess the situation with two columns—plus and minus. On the plus side, huge crowds of people taking to the streets of Paris with Charlie signs. On the minus side, having to hear the national anthem. On the plus side, Madonna supports Charlie (could she send her underwear?). On the minus side, having to shake the Prime Minister’s hand.

On the plus side, millions in financial help to go to print. And then this overwhelming minus: a bloody empty room.

Guillemette Faure is a French writer and columnist for M, Le Monde’s weekend magazine.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME behavior

How Religion Can Move Us to Do Terrible Things

Remembrance: Tributes mounted outside the Charlie Hebdo office after the Jan. 11 unity parade in Paris
Remembrance: Tributes mounted outside the Charlie Hebdo office after the Jan. 11 unity parade in Paris Christopher Furlong; 2015 Getty Images

Faith is supposed to be inclusive, but flip it on its head and terrible things result

Anyone who has ever played on a team knows the thrill of rooting for your own side’s success while rejoicing at your opponents’ losses. Now ratchet up that gratifying feeling with two other ingredients: an unwavering belief in a vengeful God, and a sense of injury stemming from feeling like a reviled, hard-done-by outsider, and you have some of the precursors of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

Clearly, the murders are not remotely justifiable. At the same time, such violence is not haphazard. Combine extreme religion’s blinders with social ostracism, then season with the testosterone-driven aggressive impulses often found among disaffected young men and you can end up with a lethal stew.

What’s the evidence? Time and again, social psychology experiments have shown that ordinary people can be spurred to commit horrific acts of cruelty. Giving them authority over arbitrarily defined transgressors can prompt brutality, as the Stanford Prison Experiment—in which students were assigned to playact the roles of either guards or prisoners—showed in the 1970s. Persuading them that outsiders are less than human can disable their natural powers of empathy. Priming religious believers with passages showing that God endorses revenge against malefactors is dangerously effective, too.

In 2007, the Michigan social scientist, Brad Bushman, led a study of nearly 500 students, half of whom were Mormons studying at Brigham Young University; the other half were mostly secular students enrolled at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. All were given a violent passage to read that was said to be taken directly from scripture, or alternately, from an unidentified “ancient scroll.” Depicting the rape of a married woman traveling in a foreign region with her husband, the passage sometimes included a sentence in which God commands acts of revenge against the rapists’ foreign tribe. There was no mention of retribution in the passage read by the control group—a subset of the total 500, who were equally likely to be American or Dutch.

Next, all of the participants competed on a task in which the winner could blast the loser with a painfully loud noise through headphones. Who were the most aggressive blasters? More often than not they were the students—both American and Dutch—who identified themselves as fervent believers. They were also most likely to have been shown a passage of what they were told was scripture—rather than an ancient scroll—and to have read about God’s desire for violent retribution. Oh, and these students were also more likely to be male.

Religious men, even ones who regularly read about deities sanctioning violence in their holy books, don’t usually feel the license to kill, of course. In fact, you might expect the opposite. After all, religious people are more likely to do good than other people. They volunteer and donate blood more often than non-believers. They give more money to charity. In most psychology experiments they are more generous and less dishonest than atheists, and in the real world, they commit fewer crimes and abuse illegal subtances less, too. In fact, in the majority of the 39 countries polled by a 2014 Pew study, people say that a belief in God is required to be a moral person. That opinion was most common in poor regions such as Central Asia, and West Africa. But 53 percent of Americans also agree that religious belief makes you more ethical.

So what’s going on? The Parisian terrorists were devout, and like all major religions, Islam espouses the Golden Rule. Why didn’t that stop them from killing?

Part of the answer is that while religion is exquisitely designed to bind people together, enabling them to trust and protect each other, denigrating outsiders can be the flip side of that trust—and that denigration can snuff out empathy fast. Now, brain imaging studies tell us that witnessing bad things happen to those outsiders can make people feel powerful and superior.

Michael Inzlicht at the University of Toronto recently demonstrated that finding by arbitrarily dividing participants into two groups he named “the reds” and “the blues.” The “red” group was shown a video of a model performing certain rituals. After watching the model bow, turn around, and put her hands together, the members of the red group were asked to perform those movements at home for a week. The gestures meant nothing but could serve as a proxy for religious rituals—which have profound meaning to practitioners. The blues had no rituals.

The two groups then played a trust game, and Inzlicht found that the ritualizing “reds” distrusted the nonritualizing outgroup much more than they had before. Not only that, but a subsequent EEG showed that when the blues received negative feedback, the reds showed brain activity consistent with experiencing pleasure. “When they observed the outgroup member getting punished, they enjoyed their misfortunes,” said Prof. Inzlicht.

Now, consider that the perpetrators of last week’s horrifying violence felt excluded by French society—and found their place in an echo chamber of other angry, disenfranchised, and aggressive young men. Add the pain of rejection—which brain imaging studies show can actually be experienced as real, visceral pain—and you get a tinderbox of explosive feelings: A powerful desire to escape a marginalized social situation; to gain a sense of belonging and status by acting as enforcers of a religion’s sacred values; to earn the approval of charismatic religious leaders who incite them to punish “transgressors;”and finally, to experience the anticipated pleasure of witnessing the outsider’s pain.

The terrorists made a choice. It wasn’t rational—even if they believed it was. It certainly wasn’t moral. But their dark minds still merit our study. Understanding the psychology behind their religious blinders is as critical to democracy as condemning their actions.

Susan Pinker is a psychologist and award-winnning writer whose last book, The Sexual Paradox, was published in 17 countries. Her most recent book is The Village Effect.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Saudi Arabia

Saudi Cleric Declares All Snowmen Abominable

UK Hit By Heavy Snow Fall
DORKING, UNITED KINGDOM - JANUARY 19: A family of snowmen sit on Box Hill on January 19, 2013 in Dorking, United Kingdom. Heavy snow around the UK caused hundreds of flight cancelations at Heathrow, with more travel disruptions expected during a snowy weekend. Approximately 3,000 schools were closed in England, Wales and Scotland. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images) Dan Kitwood—Getty Images

Asks followers to resist the urge to build them

A prominent Saudi cleric triggered a minor backlash on social media when he advised his followers not to build a snowman, “even by way of play and fun,” claiming the practice was forbidden under Islamic law.

Sheikh Mohammed Saleh al-Munajjid made the pronouncement shortly after a winter storm dusted the northern reaches of the Arabian peninsula with snow, Reuters reports.

Munajjid, fielding questions on a religious website, replied that any representation of a man, including a snowman, violated the kingdom’s strict ban against figurative depictions of the human form.

“God has given people space to make whatever they want which does not have a soul, including trees, ships, fruits, buildings and so on,” he said.

The interpretation proved contentious on social media, where some commenters posted derisory images of snowmen, while other’s commended the cleric for his “sharp vision” against Satanic temptations.

Read more at Reuters.

TIME Religion

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: These Terrorist Attacks Are Not About Religion

A tribute of flowers and candles in the shape of a heart is set up at Place de la Republique in Paris in memory of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack, on Jan. 7, 2015 in Paris.
A tribute of flowers and candles in the shape of a heart is set up at Place de la Republique in Paris in memory of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack, on Jan. 7, 2015 in Paris. David Chour—Demotix/Corbis

Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time NBA champion and league Most Valuable Player. He is also a celebrated author, filmmaker and education ambassador.

When the Ku Klux Klan burns a cross in a black family’s yard, Christians aren’t required to explain how these aren’t really Christian acts

Another horrendous act of terrorism has taken place and people like myself who are on media speed-dial under “Celebrity Muslims” are thrust in the spotlight to angrily condemn, disavow, and explain—again—how these barbaric acts are in no way related to Islam.

For me, religion—no matter which one—is ultimately about people wanting to live humble, moral lives that create a harmonious community and promote tolerance and friendship with those outside the religious community. Any religious rules should be in service of this goal. The Islam I learned and practice does just that.

Violence committed in the name of religion is never about religion—it’s ultimately about money. The 1976 movie, All the President’s Men, got it right when it reduced the Daedalus maze of the Watergate scandal to the simple phrase, “Follow the money.” Forget the goons who actually carry out these deadly acts, they are nothing more than automated drones remote-controlled by others. Instead of radio signals, their pilots use selective dogma to manipulate their actions. They pervert the Qur’an through omission and false interpretation.

How is it about money? When one looks at the goal of these terrorist attacks, it’s clearly not about scaring us into changing our behavior. The Twin Tower attacks of 9/11 didn’t frighten America into embracing Islam. The fatwa against Salman Rushdie didn’t prevent the publication of The Satanic Verses. Like all terrorist attacks on the West, they just strengthen our defiant resolve. So the attack in Paris, as with most others, isn’t about changing Western behavior, it’s about swaggering into a room, flexing a muscle, and hoping to elicit some admiring sighs. In this case, the sighs are more recruits and more donations to keep their organization alive. They have to keep proving they are more relevant than their competing terrorist groups. It’s just business.

Nor should we blame America’s foreign policy as the spark that lights the fuse. Poverty, political oppression, systemic corruption, lack of education, lack of critical thinking, and general hopelessness in these countries is the spark. Yes, we’ve made mistakes that will be used to justify recruiting new drones. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that the recent report detailing our extensive and apparently ineffective use of torture caused any kind of mass terrorist volunteers. The world knew we tortured. The only thing the report revealed was how bad we were at it. More important, if recruits were swayed by logical idealism, they would realize that the fact that we conducted, released, and debated such a report is what makes America admirable. We don’t always do the right thing, but we strive to. We admit our faults and make adjustments. It may be glacial, but it’s movement forward.

Knowing that these terrorist attacks are not about religion, we have to reach a point where we stop bringing Islam into these discussions. I know we aren’t there yet because much of the Western population doesn’t understand the Islamic religion. All they see are brutal beheadings, kidnappings of young girls, bloody massacres of children at schools, and these random shootings. Naturally, they are frightened when they hear the word Muslim or see someone in traditional Muslim clothing. Despite any charitable impulses, they also have to be thinking, “Better safe than sorry”—as they hurry in the opposite direction.

When the Ku Klux Klan burn a cross in a black family’s yard, prominent Christians aren’t required to explain how these aren’t really Christian acts. Most people already realize that the KKK doesn’t represent Christian teachings. That’s what I and other Muslims long for—the day when these terrorists praising the Prophet Muhammad or Allah’s name as they debase their actual teachings are instantly recognized as thugs disguising themselves as Muslims. It’s like bank robbers wearing masks of presidents; we don’t really think Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush hit the Bank of America during their down time.

We can’t end terrorism any more than we can end crime in general. Ironically, terrorism is actually an act against the very religion they claim to believe in. It’s an acknowledgement that the religion and its teachings aren’t enough to convince people to follow it. Any religion that requires coercion is not about the community, but about the leaders wanting power.

I look forward to the day when an act of terrorism by self-proclaimed Muslims will be universally dismissed as nothing more than a criminal attack of a thuggish political organization wearing an ill-fitting Muslim mask. To get to that point, we will need to teach our communities what the real beliefs of Islam are. In the meantime, keep my name on speed-dial so we can get through this together.

Read next: Watch Parisians Vow To Stand Strong Against Terror Threat

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Military

Muslim Navy Man Sues U.S. Over Beard Restrictions

Jonathan Berts wishes to return to active duty

A Muslim sailor is suing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other top U.S. military officials after he was denied a religious waiver to keep a beard four years ago.

The former boot camp instructor, Jonathan Berts, wishes to return to active duty and believes his case is strengthened by a January 2014 Pentagon decree that relaxed rulings for religious dress and grooming. His lawyers filed the lawsuit on Dec. 22, the Navy Times reports.

After his waiver was denied in 2011, Berts, who served in the Navy for nine years, filed an appeal. Berts was then assigned to stand watch at “an empty, cockroach-infested barracks” and later received an honorable discharge that made him ineligible to reenlist, according to the report. Berts claims that his application was rejected and record dismissed in part for making too much “noise” about the process.

[Navy Times]

TIME India

Indian MP Says Every Hindu Woman ‘Must Produce’ Four Children

Indian Parliament Winter Session 2014
Sakshi Maharaj leaves after attending a Parliament board meeting at Library Hall in New Delhi on Dec. 16, 2014 Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Sakshi Maharaj also wants cow slaughter and religious conversion to receive the death sentence

An Indian Member of Parliament with a history of controversial remarks caused another stir on Tuesday, saying in a speech that every Hindu woman should produce at least four children in order to “protect” the religion.

Addressing a gathering in the north Indian town of Meerut, MP Sakshi Maharaj told a crowd that “the concept of four wives and 40 children will not work in India and the time has come when a Hindu woman must produce at least four children in order to protect Hindu religion,” the Times of India reported.

He also went on to warn that cow slaughter and religious conversion could soon be punished with the death sentence.

Maharaj has acquired a reputation for controversial statements, having had to apologize last month for calling Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin a “patriot.”


TIME Congress

America Is Getting More Non-Religious, But Congress Is Not

Congress Spending
The Capitol Dome and the Capitol Christmas Tree are illuminated in Washington D.C. on Dec. 11, 2014. J. Scott Applewhite—AP

About one-in-five Americans don’t consider themselves members of any particular religion, but in the 114th Congress there’s only one.

Congress changed a fair amount after the recent elections, with Republicans taking over the Senate and a slew of retirements from both parties. But in one major way, the new crop of lawmakers being sworn in tomorrow will be the same as ever: they are religious.

About 92% of members in the now- GOP controlled House and Senate identify as Christian, according to a new Pew Research Center study, only a small bump from the 90% Christian 113th Congress. Over half of members are Protestant and about a third are Catholic, both of which are among the most common religious affiliations among American adults.

But despite the growing number of Americans who don’t affiliate with any religion, there will be very few lawmakers who are not religious.

According to the data provided by the Pew Research Center and CQ Roll Call, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) is the only member of Congress who currently identifies herself as religiously unaffiliated. (Sinema, however, also doesn’t consider herself a nonbeliever; she says she prefers a “secular approach.”) By comparison, about 20 percent of Americans say they are religiously unaffiliated.

Only two known atheists have served in Congress in recent years: Democratic Reps. Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Pete Stark of California, though Frank didn’t announce his atheism until after leaving office. As the Huffington Post notes, he was more comfortable coming out as the first openly gay member of Congress in 1987 than coming out as a nonbeliever in 2012.

Smaller religious groups including Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism are more proportionately represented in Congress: according to the data about 2% of American adults are Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu, and 1% of Congressional members practice those faiths. There are fewer Jews in the 114th Congress than in the 113th, but 5% of Congress members are Jewish compared to 2% of the American public, according to Pew.

Check out the religious breakdown of the 114th Congress below.


TIME Religion

A Nation in Dire Need of Christmas

82nd Annual Rockefeller Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony
The 82nd Annual Rockefeller Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony in New York City on Dec. 3, 2014. Joe Stevens—Retna/Corbis

Christopher Hale is a senior fellow at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and the co-founder of Millennial.

How this annual feast can transform us

As the year winds down, even the biggest optimist can’t deny that 2014 has been a tough year for our nation and the world. The tragedy of the past year has played out on our television screens and in our newspapers. Everyday the headlines seem to get worse. Just this past weekend, our nation was dealt another blow after a disturbed individual executed two New York City police officers in broad daylight. The man was seeking revenge for the unprosecuted death of Eric Garner—an unarmed black man who was killed during a disagreement with New York City police officers over the illegal sale of cigarettes.

The roots of the violence that killed Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos this past weekend and Eric Garner and Michael Brown earlier this summer are complicated and multi-faceted. Racism, policism, economic and structural injustices are only some of the contributing factors.

Though we can’t name everything that’s marked these men’s deaths, we can name the shame that we as a nation experience knowing that this is a country where the plague of violence continues to rage on with no end in sight.

Bobby Kennedy said it so well: “whenever any American’s life is taken by another American unnecessarily—whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence—whenever we tear at the fabric of life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded.”

Against this grim backdrop, our nation comes upon Christmas. The true spirit of this season is often trapped behind our society’s gilded age of consumerism and superficiality. But if we open our eyes and our hearts to rediscover the radical story of Christmas, the holiday can be a source of hope and liberation for our nation during this time of great trial.

Though we tend to romanticize the Christmas story, it’s important to remember that Mary and Joseph bore a lot of hardships leading up to Jesus’s birth. Time and again, they faced discomfort and rejection. As Luke puts it so vividly, there was no room in the inn.

Our nation is suffering its own winter of hardships, but in Jesus, God proves that love itself can be born amidst brokenness, abandonment, and obscurity.

And this is a love that can overcome violence. Christians believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of the dream the prophet Isaiah had of a world made new, a time and a place where “swords and spears are beaten into ploughshares and pruning hooks” and nations “will cease to learn the art of war.”

Jesus comes to bring that holy dream of Isaiah this Christmas, and in the words of Glenn Rudolph, he comes to create a place where ” peace will pervade more than forest and field, [and] God will transfigure the violence concealed deep in the heart and in systems of gain.”

The basic message of Christmas is simple: No matter who we are, no matter what we’ve done, or how badly we’ve failed, God never grows tired of loving us. In Jesus, God has visited his people. At Christmas, Jesus came all the way down into the grittiness of human dysfunction—its violence, its disloyalty and its sinfulness—to bring everyone up. No one is excluded, and no one is left behind.

In the United States, Christmas comes during the darkest time of the year, where sunlight only appears eight hours a day. But it is in this context that the holiday is best understoood. The child born on Christmas is the Star of Bethlehem, most visible on the darkest day of the year.

In his birth and in his story, we can begin to discern a new way forward: a way that leads out of darkness and into God’s wonderful light.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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