A microcosm of why humanity fights wars.

Hayden, Idaho is a small town in a beautiful location in northern Idaho. I have been there numerous times and never realized there’s a war going on. No, not the one you expect in a place sometimes connected to “white supremacists” and “neo-nazis” (not my terms, just parroting the national media). The war, between a man and a homeowner association, is over a Christmas display, but it’s as bitter as most other wars. No one has been killed….yet. You may be thinking, “what does a silly disagreement over lights have to do with real war?” We’re talking 200,000 lights, but even so…..

I read about this war in The Inlander, a Spokane alternative newspaper. The article was well written, and tried to be fair and objective. The writer presented both sides pretty evenhandedly, no one was demonized, no one was evil, both sides tried multiple times to find agreement. The conditions for a negotiated truce were present, all except one, and no one, including the writer who was neutral, seems to understand that missing condition was crucial for preventing the war. I have to tell the story first, leaving out real names, since this could happen anywhere.

There was a man, call him Kris, who in 2014, put on a truly massive Christmas display, complete with 200,000 lights, a live camel named Dolly for the nativity scene, cotton candy machine, a professional mandolin player and volunteers dressed as Santa Claus, Rudolph, Frosty, Christmas elves, the Grinch and Clifford the Christmas Dog. The festival lasted 8 days. It raised Thousands of dollars for kids with cancer. Everyone loved it, including presumably astronauts circling the earth, except for some of his closest neighbors. Grinches, no doubt. Whether by popularity or special revelation, Kris became convinced that God wanted him to do this every year. And 2015, he decided, would be even bigger and better. That’s logical, since Hayden is nothing if not roomy. Due to the complexity of the situation, I am going to paraphrase the writer.

Just two days after Christmas, Kris and his wife go house hunting. He tells his real estate agent to find a place outside the city of Hayden, where he wouldn’t have to worry about getting permits for Christmas shows. he consults with lawyers to make sure that his planned Christmas Light Show wouldn’t break any of the rules in the subdivision’s neighborhood covenant. He calls the president of the West Hayden Estates Homeowners Association, and gives her a heads up about the massive five-day Christmas bash he’d be bringing to their quiet neighborhood. He tells her that he considers it his ministry. So at a tense meeting at a Caffe Capri in Hayden, Kris offers the board an ultimatum: De-annex his house from the HOA — freeing him from its oversight — and he would agree to not pursue legal action. Yes, the neighborhood covenants require three-fourths of his neighbors to agree to boot him from the HOA, but he wants the board to convince them. 

“Instead, in February 2015, the HOA board sends out a message to the other 48 homes of West Hayden Estates, warning them Kris was threatening ‘legal action’ if they did not approve his holiday light show. Kris fires off own rebuttal letter to the neighborhood, accusing the board of lying in its letter and arguing it had violated the Fair Housing Act by discriminating against him. All this before he even gets his house keys. So in March, he and his wife move into a neighborhood that has already begun to resent them. For months it’s quiet. But finally, in October — after he finishes putting up his Christmas lights — he gets a letter from the HOA’s attorney claiming his Christmas show would be ‘be offensive to the senses,’ congest traffic and violate the neighborhood’s covenants. The letter threatens litigation and gives him 10 days to respond. 

Kris responds with a single word: ‘Nuts.’ (I should point out that the response is exactly what general Anthony McAuliffe, acting commander of the 101st. airborne, said in response to a German demand to surrender during the WWII Battle of the Bulge). And then he calls in the artillery. He sends an email to national media outlets. Fox News, which had been beating the ‘War on Christmas’ drum for a decade, laps it up. ‘It seems to me the homeowners association has a legitimate concern about crowds and traffic and livestock,’ right-wing Fox pundit Todd Starnes opines. ‘But I suspect this has more to do with Christianity than camels.’ 

Now I must pause a moment to point out that the bias of the writer is starting to seep out. Starnes is described as a “right wing pundit”. While I believe that Starnes’ opinion is wrong, what is achieved by labeling him in a way to stoke the fires of resentment among the readers of The Inlander? I did describe it as “an alternative newspaper”, but it is recognized around here that their readership is overwhelmingly liberal. While Fox News cultivates conservative audiences, The Inlander cultivates the liberal. Perfectly okay, there’s no other way for media to survive today. Most people don’t want actual, unbiased news, they want their own opinions validated.

Some Christians might have seen all the anger as a sign that God actually didn’t want Kris to hold this event. Instead, after intense prayer, he drew the opposite conclusion: That his faith was being tested and he should hold strong. ‘When he was a kid, he says, he heard the Bible story of the Jews who braved the flames of a Babylonian furnace rather than bow down before an idol — and asked himself if he would have that same sort of courage. I wanted to have the faith of a martyr,’ he says.” Noble sentiment, and courageous, in the proper context, which is NOT an argument over a Christmas display. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, Jewish youth who had been enslaved by Babylon (those were names given to them by Babylon, not their Jewish birth names), staked their lives on their stand for God.

“He doesn’t leave. The HOA withdraws its lawsuit threat. The 2015 Hayden Christmas Light Show proceeds. Kris decides to pay former law enforcement officers, armed and undercover, to patrol his show. There were more guns in front of this street than you would ever believe,” he later tells a neighbor. Ultimately, the guards aren’t needed. For two hours for five nights, Kris’s house glows a brilliant white. “Look at all the people you made happy,” a visitor tells him, as he pans his camera to show the camel and the donkey and the assembled crowd. For Kris it’s bittersweet. His wife isn’t there: With all the threats and media attention, she chose to stay at her mom’s house in Virginia rather than attend the Christmas Light Show. 

“In February 2016, the board sends out a Happy New Year’s letter passing along complaints about Kris’s show, including littering, a crushed culvert pipe, impeded traffic and “children urinating on bushes and in the snow.” Kris is furious — again threatening a lawsuit if his house isn’t de-annexed. Even if he still has to pay the equivalent of HOA dues, he says, he just wants to be free. He ups the ante for his 2016 show. Somebody from San Francisco donates 10 miles of Christmas lights. He brings in a crane to put them up and installs a separate 400-amp electrical panel to keep them powered. The more lights, he reasons, the more visitors, the more powerful his ministry. Costume designers turn donated upholstery into 23 new outfits. Volunteers plan to dress up as Roman centurions to collect ‘taxes’ — voluntary donations — for the two charities.

“So with the statute of limitations about to expire in January of 2017, Kris makes good on his years of litigation threats: He sues the HOA under the Fair Housing Act, demanding $250,000 in punitive damages, on top of damages for ‘shock, humiliation, embarrassment, inconvenience, and economic loss’ his family incurred. When the news of his lawsuit breaks, Kris gets a Facebook message from a stranger warning him, ‘I would watch my back and your family’s back. Be a bummer if something happened.’ When Christmas of 2017 rolls around, in the midst of his lawsuit, his house remains dark. It’s not that he’s given up, he says. He’s just worried that because of a stunt gone wrong or intentional violence, somebody could get hurt. He says he keeps his kids inside because they might get hurt. But Kris also filters his experience through another story: The book of Exodus. He thinks that God may have hardened the hearts of the homeowners association — like he did with Pharaoh’s refusal to let the Israelites go amid the plagues of Egypt — for God’s greater glory. 

“‘Sometimes God wants to show a great work,’ he says, ‘a miracle, a parting of the Red Sea.’ And now he’s heading for his promised land. He won’t be holding another Christmas Light Show in the West Hayden Estates. Instead, he wants to move to a big stretch of private property where he can build ‘New Bethlehem’, an entire Christmas nativity village of shops and actors. ‘Through all the strife that my family endured, in the end I know that God’s name was lifted up,’ Kris says.” No Kris, you got your way, but God’s name was not lifted up, it was blasphemed, by you, trying to baptize your willfulness with Bible verses and drawing false equivalences between true, God ordained trials of faith–the Babylonian captivity and the Exodus–and your refusal to compromise for the sake of peace. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control; against such things there is no law.” Galatians 5:22-23. That passage describes what Godly dealings look like.

“The Christmas movie version of this saga, of course, would end with both Kris and the HOA delivering a neat little Christmas lesson. The spirit of Christmas isn’t about camels or candy canes. It’s about love and generosity. Having a great neighborhood isn’t about tidy lawns or trimmed hedges. It’s about living in harmony, cherishing even the neighbors who sometimes drive you crazy.”  The writer is mostly correct, but leaves out the vital piece: Christ himself. It is His spirit which allows willful, stubborn, prideful human beings to love, be generous, and cherish people who drive you crazy. The missing piece I alluded to at the beginning was a true spirit of love, which would have allowed both Kris and the HOA to truthfully examine their own motives, to negotiate with the goal of finding a solution everyone could live with in harmony. Instead, we see self righteousness, ultimatums and threats. This microcosm is why we have wars. Christ is peace, the “fruit of the spirit.”