Whether we like it or not (and I don't think it's all bad or maybe even mostly bad!) Christians in our country must figure out how to live out our faith in an increasingly pluralist culture. Nowhere is this illustrated better, I think, than during the Christmas season we just finished. More and more, American culture is moving towards making the Christmas season about things other than Jesus' birth, or at the very least elevating those things to equal importance. How do we respond as Christians?
One strategy has been to fight against the marginalization of Jesus' birth by trying to impose the Christian meaning of the Christmas season upon nonbelievers through heavy-handed methods, such as boycotting local business or shouting down people who say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." To me, this is incredibly silly. What exactly does this accomplish? Do I think that everyone ought to celebrate Jesus' birth as the reason for Christmas? Sure. I think Jesus deserves every single last person's worship and adoration. But I don't think that bullying people into acknowledging His birth helps that process.
Another strategy has been to try to find common ground between the values of a Christ-centered Christmas and other interpretations of the season. We all want hope, peace, joy, and love, right? Don't other Christmas traditions besides celebrating the birth of Christ emphasize these things? Why don't we just agree that these are good things and goals we all share so that we can celebrate the holiday season together?
While I am very sympathetic to this strategy, it has very real limitations of which we need to be aware as Christians. While the concepts of hope, peace, joy, and love are certainly not exclusively Christian values and desires, the gospel defines these things in distinctive ways that mean there will always be a limit to how much consensus we can build with those who do not embrace the gospel.
For example, HOPE, according to the gospel, is the longing for the day when the people who trust in Christ are vindicated because He returns and does everything He has promised to do. It is the day when God's enemies are forced to acknowledge that He alone is God, and the day when His people are rewarded for long-suffering in a world that currently mocks their hope. As Christians, we cannot reduce hope to wishing for a better world or a brighter tomorrow so that we can build consensus with those who will in fact find themselves quite hopeless when true hope comes if they do not repent.
True PEACE, according to the gospel, will only be possible when the reign of God is fully recognized upon the earth. Peace will be a result of God Himself crushing all opposition to His rule -- whether that be sin, death, Satan, or rebellious human beings. Peace is a promise for those who submit themselves to the rule of God, and for no one else. As Christians, we cannot reduce peace to something like being kind to one another for the sake of consensus building with those who have no promise of ever experiencing true peace unless they receive forgiveness for their sins.
JOY in the gospel is directly tied to enjoying the fellowship of God and His people. We cannot reduce it to a general sense of being happy or fulfilled, for the gospel makes clear that the fulfillment that brings true joy can only come through fellowship with God through His Son by the indwelling of His Spirit. LOVE, like joy in the gospel, is also directly tied to the character and self-revelation of God. This is not to say that unbelievers cannot love. Of course they are capable of love! But to rally around "love" at Christmas time means that we must adhere to both the full meaning and the boundaries of what the gospel means by love.
I want people to be kind to one another during the holiday season. I want them to give, to remember the poor, to love their families, etc. Where people are doing these things, I want to say "Yes! That's great! Let's all do these things!" But that's nowhere near sufficient for a Christian understanding of Christmas. And practicing better behavior, even behavior we might classify as "Christian" behavior, does nothing for the sin problem so severe that God Himself became man at Christmas time to take care of it.
So, yes, by all means build bridges and find common ground with non-Christian worldviews. Affirm what good you can find in holiday traditions other than the celebration of Jesus' birth. But be careful that in your eagerness to find opportunities to share the gospel, you do not compromise its very message. Words like hope, peace, joy, and love become absolutely meaningless if we do not insist on the distinctive definitions given to them by the gospel when we use them at Christmas time.
Otherwise, getting someone to affirm that things like hope and peace are good things is no more helpful than compelling them to say "Merry Christmas."