Claremont United Methodist Church usually steps outside the norm at Christmas. Instead of displaying farm animals, three wise men and baby Jesus resting in a manger, Claremont United disrupts the nativity scene by inserting a political statement — but they're not making as provocative a statement this year.
This year, the display on Foothill Boulevard has been replaced by a banner declaring "Peace on Earth" in multiple languages. The artist who installs the nativity scene each year, John Zachary, said that the church decided not to move forward with his design themed around gun violence.
Zachary's vision for the design was a steel nativity scene with eight guns pointing at baby Jesus' manger, backed by the words, “What will it take to stop gun violence?"
“I was saying, ‘Do we have to kill Jesus to make people stop gun violence?’" Zachary said. “Obviously it was a very provocative idea, and people were frightened. They were afraid of, you know, what would happen. An NRA protest, or some crazy guy with a gun walking into the church.”
He said that he was disappointed by the decision, though he understood.
“We decided not to do a nativity scene out of respect for John’s vision," said Rev. Mark Wiley, senior pastor at Claremont United Methodist Church, "Even though we had a, sort of, different view of things, the idea of being together on our faith stance is more important."
As for the church's stance on gun violence, Wiley said that the progressive congregation is not divided on the topic.
"We’re united in the vision that gun violence isn’t what the gospel calls us to be about, and calls us to work to end the gun violence," Wiley said.
Previous statements made in the nativity scene have been about gay and lesbian issues, poverty and war.
In 2013 the church received attention after a nativity scene featured a depiction of Trayvon Martin bleeding to death with the words, "A son is given." Zachary described this nativity scene as "notorious" since it received negative attention.
“The church has tried to make a connection between spirituality and justice, and tried to link the Christmas story to social justice issues," Wiley said.
Wiley said that there have been two general reactions from the congregation regarding the decision not to have a nativity scene. The first, he said, is from people who wish they had pushed the envelope, while the other people are glad to have the "Peace on Earth" message spread at the holiday season.
Zachary said that he would still like to do the nativity scene he had planned, or something similar in the future.
"I think we have to be extremely provocative," Zachary said. "I hate to say this, but I think we have been praying for people to stop killing each other for a long time, and it hasn't done much. I think we need to take positive action to change everything out there."