Apollo 8, Christmas Eve 1968 and a message for today

The year 1968 was a year desperately in need of a Merry Christmas.

The year had seen student protests worldwide, the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War, a chaotic Democratic National Convention, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy and countless other examples of discord.

NASA came through with an uplifting message. On Christmas Eve, half a billion people around the world watched historic, Emmy-winning TV coverage of Apollo 8 orbiting the moon.

The three astronauts (Bill Anders, Jim Lovell and Frank Borman) took turns reciting the first 10 verses from the Book of Genesis.

The words and images showed that (despite our different colors, languages and customs) we homo sapiens are actually close together in the vastness of the universe. They showed how mankind is a mere speck, but a speck with inherent worth in the eyes of its Creator.

NASA had assigned the astronauts the loosely defined task to “say something appropriate” for the monumental achievement. They could have scrounged for some vaguely relevant statement by Shakespeare or the Wright brothers, but the Old Testament soundbite they did settle on resonated with a large, diverse portion of the world’s population.

CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite initially felt trepidations about a Bible passage, but conceded it was “just the right thing to do.”

And by the “reasonable person” standard, it was indeed the right thing to do. It was a simple, broad, non-nationalistic, non-proselytizing message. There was no mention of a kosher diet, circumcision, sin, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection or praying toward Mecca.

But no good deed goes unpunished. Militant atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair sued the United States government because the reading completely destroyed the First Amendment or induced nightmares in millions of agnostics or forced hapless viewers to be baptized or … SOMETHING.

O’Hair’s lawsuit fizzled out, but it certainly sowed the seed for today’s concept of “microaggressions,” made a crucifix immersed in urine acceptable as “art,” emboldened comedians to joke about knocking that baby out of the womb and fanned the flames of today’s overheated rhetoric.

Fifty years after Apollo 8, as we still mourn a former president who imagined a “kinder, gentler nation,” the world still needs all of us to “say something appropriate” every day.

Whatever your age, gender, ethnicity, spirituality, income level or political leanings, common sense and decency compel us to “measure twice, cut once” when choosing our words.

It is not appropriate when your words use actual malice (or willful tone-deafness) to wound others.

Nor is it appropriate to reply caustically to a well-meaning expression such as “Happy holidays” or “Let me open that door for you, ma’am.”

It is not appropriate to use half-truths, rumors and automatic cries of “hater” to make your point.

It is not appropriate to deify Hollywood celebrities and “this week’s rising politician” while ridiculing or bullying someone trying to worship in a more traditional manner.

Whether you PRAY to a Supreme Being for strength or work your highly evolved brain to the max, strive to avoid vulgarity and divisiveness.

Please believe that I have only love in my heart as this week’s column finishes with sentiments from the Apollo 8 broadcast.

“And from the crew of the Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas — and God bless all of you on the good earth.”

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