Hanukkah and Christmas: A Return to Hope in Troubling Times
By Rabbi Michael Lerner / Tikkun
Honestly, do you know anyone who hasn’t been suffering from a case of acute despair, depression or cynicism about the world in the past few months?
For some it might have started long, long ago, when three of the more hopeful public figures of the 20th century, President Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr were assassinated between 1963 and 1968.
For others, it may have come when President Clinton abolished welfare for the poor and embraced globalization and elimination of protections against Wall Street and the “too big to fail” banks’ irresponsibility that would economically devastate much of middle America while making it in the interest of corporations to abandon the workers who had made their goods and relocate in other countries that could pay their workers much less by avoiding unions and environmental protections.
Or when President Bush lied us into a war with Iraq.
Or when President Obama refused to create a single-payer “medicare for all” health program and instead created a plan that allowed insurance companies to raise their rates to make huge profits (thereby discrediting the system enough to allow demagogues to benefit from its unpopularity, or when he failed to bail out people who were losing their homes and instead bailed out Wall Street or when he failed to cancel the pipeline threatening Native Americans but only postponed it, or when he failed to issue a blanket pardon to young immigrants to whom he had originally promised safety in the U.S. or when he prosecuted instead of rewarding whistle blowers but failed to prosecute those who had ordered torture at Guantanamo and many other US military sites around the world, thus setting the stage for the return of torture in the next presidential administration, or when he failed to launch a campaign for a constitutional amendment to eliminate the electoral college or a constitutional amendment to get money out of politics).
Or when Donald Trump labeled Mexicans rapists and murderers without fellow Republicans challenging him and then the entire slate of Republican presidential hopefuls competed with each other in who could be the most racist or xenophobic. Or when people in Europe and the U.S. couldn’t understand what must have driven people to be terrorists willing to kill others, apparently these more advanced people unaware that their own countries had been engaged in wars that have killed millions of people of color around the world in the last sixty years.
Or when polls showed 50 percent of Americans opposed to letting in to the U.S. Syrian refugees who were fleeing from the horrors of ISIS or the horrors of the Syrian government bombing and massacring its own people under the pretense of fighting the terrorists, or when the Israeli Knesset started labeling human rights groups as internal enemies and passed legislation legalizing the seizure by Israeli settlers of West Bank land owned by Palestinians (and with Trump’s nominee to be Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, a person many Israelis say will make Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu look like a peace-oriented dove in comparison, expect the most extreme elements in the Israeli society to feel empowered to be more violent and repressive toward Palestinians and toward Jews around the world who call for reconciliation and generosity of spirit in dealing with the desire of the Palestinians to have full human rights and national self-determination comparable to the self-deremination Jews demanded for ourselves in creating the State of Israel in the first place).
Or when mass killings in the U.S., and the frequent murders of African Americans (especially by arrogant police or random racists) remind us that violence and hatred have no borders.
Or when, despite losing the democratic election by some three million votes, Trump became the next President of the U.S. based on an electoral system set up two hundred plus years ago to ensure that the slave states and the underpopulated states of the Middle West would have much more power than those in heavily populated states in the US Congress and in the choosing of a President.
Or the failure of the Democrats to acknowledge that they might have won with Bernie Sanders and now need a new leadership (e.g. presented by Congressman Keith Ellison), plus a fundamental transformation toward a more class-conscious and inclusive politics that not only struggles against racism and sexism and Islamophobia and anti-Semitism and homophobia but also focuses on the suffering of whites and men caused by the materialism, selfishness, looking out for number one–in short the ethos of the competitive market system–among people who are already scared about their economic security, but also among many who are not worried about money but are suffering from the breakdown of loving families, friendships and relationships that occur when those competitive and selfishness-oriented values pervade their entire society and weaken loving connections.
As my teacher at the Jewish Theological Seminary Abraham Joshua Heschel predicted, this society increasingly is becoming one whose motto is “suspect your neighbor as yourself.”
Of course, no one is permanently stuck in cynicism and despair — or at least that’s the message of both Judaism and Christianity. From the Jewish standpoint, human beings are created in the image of God and hence always have the capacity to transcend all that has happened to them in the past and choose a new path. From the Christian standpoint, that same transcendence is possible, sometimes through the active help of Jesus or God.There is no better way to remind ourselves of the return to a more hopeful vision than to build upon the messages that come through Chanukah and Christmas. Chanukah is a celebration of the first national liberation struggle. A small group of Jewish freedom fighters (today they’d be called terrorists) defied the accepted common sense that the powerful armies of Antiochus’ Seleucid kingdom, located in Syria, were invincible and that attempting to struggle was immensely unrealistic and utopian. A significant section of the Jewish elites were opposed to this struggle, and felt more comfortable assimilating into the Hellenistic culture that Alexander the Great and his successors were trying to impose on the world. Yet, as Chanukah celebrates, the spirit of the people, connected and energized by their connection to a Judaism that saw God as the Force of Transformation in the universe, was more powerful than “the man’s” (imperialist) technology and armies. That story sustained Jews through centuries of persecution.
The birth of the child Jesus similarly evokes the hopeful possibilities of a world that had been conquered by the Roman successors to Greek imperialism. This child, born in poverty and homelessness and among animals, to parents who would soon flee and become refugees in Egypt, has frequently renewed hope for those who themselves have little grounds to believe that their own suffering will soon end.
Of course, both stories have their limitations too. The regime that the Maccabees created soon turned oppressive to those in the Jewish world who did not accept the stern orthodoxies that the Jewish state created, and some even welcomed Roman rule as an alternative. The Judaism that was so hope-oriented in the centuries of Jewish exile from our homeland has now become trapped in nationalist fervor and justifications for imposing exile or living under Occupation for a significant section of the Palestinian people, ignoring the Torah’s command “when you come into your land, do not oppress the stranger (the Other), remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Christianity that celebrated the birth of that Jewish refugee child Jesus would in later centuries turn against Jews, women, people of color and many others as its practitioners sought to impose their religion by force throughout much of the world. So many American Christians today are willing to turn their backs on the fate of other refugees instead of embracing them in the spirit of love that Jesus represented.
So the bad news is that the world is not yet redeemed, and our religions have at times acted more like the oppressors than like the embodiments of the liberatory humanitarian loving energy they set out to embody. The good news is that there are many people in both of these religions who are capable of reclaiming the hopeful and loving and justice-oriented instincts that were there at the beginning and to create beautiful rituals to embody that energy.
This Chanukah (which begins on Saturday night, December 24th this year) and Christmas can be turned into occasions for the spiritual progressives in these religions to unite, affirm their shared message of hope and insist that all our friends and families stop wallowing in despair and cynicism and instead join us in challenging the forces of fear that have led so many people to embrace militarism and xenophobia. Let them hear the voices of those who raise high the banner of love, kindness, generosity, social and economic justice, environmental sanity and awe and wonder at the grandeur of the universe — and let that message be prominently and explicitly articulated by YOU, dear reader, throughout this holiday season.Wait, before you go…
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