This year’s calendar placed Halloween and the Melbourne Cup within the same long weekend (for Melburnians taking Monday off). It also provided an interesting contrast in ethics. Christians open to Halloween as a harmless bridge-building opportunity often cite the innocence of an annual bet on the gee-gees as a legitimising comparison. The two issues are quite different, however, even though both can naturally be used (as can almost anything) to initiate conversations.
Halloween’s pagan origins and cultural significance (especially in the USA) are largely irrelevant to concerns over its present observance. The fact that there are clear witchcraft connotations is what surely makes it important for Christians to take a stand against overt participation in the event. Witchcraft is not in any way trivialised, accommodated or condoned within the Bible. God lists it among the practices of abomination for which He drives out the pagan people from Israel, while asking His own people to be blameless in regard to the numerous related activities which are specifically named (Deuteronomy 18:9-14).
Some supposedly progressive Christians will naturally say that they don’t actually practise witchcraft in the context of Halloween observance. Well, neither do most people who are not Christians. The point is that there is a clear line of demarcation that centres on perception and makes Halloween quite different to racing carnivals or even to the festivities of Christmas which also have a pagan past. What people think we mean by participation in events does matter and, although we can’t control this completely, we can be careful. We aim at what is honourable in the eyes of others (2 Corinthians 8:21). This is reconciled with the need to please God rather than people (e.g. 1 Thessalonians 2:4) – a principle that can be argued both ways – in the clear sense of gaining our ultimate approval and commission from Him. Therefore, I very much care about His prohibitions, too.
My sharing of faith can happen at Halloween with far more power when I deliberately distance myself from Halloween. In other words, I clearly oppose any overt association with it, abstaining from all appearance of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:22). I nevertheless use every opportunity, including incidental contact with people on 31st October, to share my faith with sensitivity and conviction, motivated by a love for them and not mere observance of a religious conviction. Similarly, I can share faith with a substance abuser with far greater effect when he is clear that I will not participate in, or endorse, his sin; I can build rapport without partnering in his actions.
Gambling on a horse race may involve the mere act of estimating a probability and backing it as a possible return on an ‘investment’. Is this not conceptually similar to share trading? The key difference is probably that, for the punter doing little research, there may be an unhealthy motivation of dependence on quick gain. On the other hand, though, a calculated wastage of twenty dollars on a fun bet can hardly be criticised if most of us find all sorts of needless ways to spend money; it really only less justifiable if it adversely impacts others. The gospel is replete with cautions against legalism and with the overriding concern about the loving consideration of our effect on others (e.g. Romans 14:13). That does not allow the ends justify the means, either.
The fundamental difference between celebrations involved with the Cup and with Halloween is that, while both may include either innocent or harmful elements, one is innately aligned to an anti-Christian practice, the other is not. Isn’t the matter actually that simple?