Just over a month after the presidential election of 2004, we entered the Christmas season, marking the beginning of the Christian year. With a touch of either coincidence or irony...

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Just over a month after the presidential election of 2004, we entered the Christmas season, marking the beginning of the Christian year. With a touch of either coincidence or irony, we begin a faith year in the midst of a serious national debate about moral and cultural values.

While our nation is increasingly diverse, this conversation seems to center primarily on the Christian story and doctrine. Debate is direct, sometimes antagonistic, over what these doctrines and values are and how they are to be understood and applied to our individual and community lives and actions.

The timing suggests a providence that propels us to plumb our faith traditions anew.

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Today, it seems that where we stand politically on particular issues, such as abortion, gay rights, the war in Iraq, poverty, etc., is often determined by where we stand religiously on these issues. At no time in recent history has the connection between our personal religious beliefs and our politics been more apparent or divisive. A conservative Christian is likely to be opposed to abortion and gay marriage, while a liberal Christian is likely to say that our attitude toward war and poverty is more important, and each will vote accordingly.

So we know what divides us. Is there anything that unites us?

If we are going to talk about moral values, then we need to be clear about what we mean by “moral.” Certainly, morality is not limited to the realm of the sexual. A concern about morals is essentially a concern about what is right and what is wrong in all aspects of life.

The teachings of the Bible, which seem to be at the center of much of this debate — from the Hebrew prophets to the Psalms to the Gospels — are consistently concerned with how we treat one another, especially those on the margins of society. If anything, Jesus’ treatment of the outcasts of his time — tax collectors, lepers, the mentally ill, prostitutes — ought to inform our attitudes toward those on the margins today, including those who are homosexual.

The Christian faith is a positive, hope-filled faith. The incarnation, God taking human form celebrated in the Christmas story, is a distinctive, infinitely joyful understanding of the relation of God, creation and humankind.

That positive and hopeful sentiment should be the basis for our attitude not only toward our seasonal celebrations, but also toward our relationships with one another throughout the year.

If that be the case, how can we find common ground out of our shared concern for the welfare of our nation, our communities, our families and our neighbors?

We need to have a comprehensive conversation about moral values. Let us talk about sexual morality with regard to such issues as abortion and homosexuality, but let us also talk about the sexual abuse that goes on in the homes of our nation, in both red states and blue. And let us talk about how our faith speaks to issues of war, poverty and our treatment of the environment, for these are moral issues, too.

One value that has not achieved sufficient resonance in the contemporary discussion is what Catholic social teaching calls “the preferential option for the poor.” As Catholic theologian Thomas E. Clarke put it, the preferential option for the poor “becomes a way of saying what God has done for us in Christ, as well as a way of naming the essential mission of the church.”

This means that how an action of our society affects the poor and how they participate in decisions that affect their lives are vital questions for the church’s mission.

Christmas is the beginning of the story of Jesus’ life on Earth, a story that culminates at Easter. To get to the Resurrection (Easter) from the Incarnation (Christmas), the Christian faith asks people for a mature accompaniment of Jesus in his life and work, according to the lessons drawn from the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures and from the good examples of two millennia of saints and communities gone before.

The values handed forward from the exemplary company of believers are well known, even universal — love, justice, equality, sacrifice, service.

The Christmas spirit of giving is a manifestation of the true, inherent tendency in creation and in human beings to oneness in spirit and reality. Advent Bible readings emphasize the prophetic hope, trust and security on which Christian faith is based. As the same readings remind us, if the “lions and the lambs” among us — individuals, institutions, nations — are ever to “lie down together,” human beings must progress in plumbing the broadest range and deepest meaning of the teachings of the traditions of this country and all others.

The distance and distinction between the lions and lambs among us must be lessened. The path from Incarnation to Resurrection, and the call of the Christian faith that is the invitation and meaning of Christmas, require us to joyfully and hopefully seek all wisdom and doctrine in this pursuit.

A good place to begin is simply to sit down and talk with one another in a spirit of humility and hope.

The Rev. David C. Bloom is the director of the Rauschenbusch Center for Spirit and Action at the University Baptist Church in Seattle. Patrick Higgins is a parishioner of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Central Seattle. He works on immigration reform with the Comité Pro-Amnistía General y Justicia Social.