The Meaning of Christmas

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Photo credit: oofva.com

By Lawrence Ware

I am often asked to participate in panels about race. This usually happens in February because Black History Month is the only time many universities are interested in talking about what ails black people on their campuses. At the end of almost every panel I’ve attended, there will inevitably be a question from a well meaning, if not naïve, person asking for solutions. After hearing us lay out the complexity and intractability of white supremacy in America, this person will usually ask, “So…what can be done?”

This question comes from a place of optimism about the ability of America to overcome the race-based inequity that is foundational to its existence. The person wants a succinct, easy answer that will allow them to walk out the door feeling a sense of hope. I never give them a hopeful answer. I can’t. I don’t think race-based inequality will get substantially better in this country. I don’t have hope. 

Ta-Nehisi Coates was heavily criticized when Between the World and Me was published. Many criticized him for being hopeless. Consider the following passage:

You must struggle to truly remember this past in all its nuance, error, and humanity. You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. . . . Our triumphs can never compensate for this. Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point. Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about this world is meant to be. So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.

He says it at the end: “struggle over hope.” No, Coates is not hopeful. Why should he be? Anyone who is a student of history can see where this current fascination with racial justice will end.

First, there will be outrage. Then, there may be policy implementation. Finally, there will be complacency while the policy that was enacted is quietly rolled back. Eventually, there will be another moment of crisis, and the process will begin anew. It’s happened before. Slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, segregation, civil rights, then Nixon and Reagan—we’ve seen this before. We know how the story ends.

Like the well-meaning person who asks, “What can be done?” many expected Coates to end with hope. They wanted a reason to be optimistic. He was accused of having an analysis limited in scope by the pain inflicted upon black life. I disagree. I think he was just being honest about what he sees happening because he is informed by historical patterns. The rise of the Trump presidency, in light of history, is, therefore, not surprising. Like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan before him, Trump represents a backlash to policy that will help poor, black, and brown people. This brings us to Christmas.

Typically, this season is thought of as a time of hopeful expectation. That is the conceptual underpinning of the birth narrative. During a time of darkness, comes a beacon of hope. Lyrics from “Oh, Holy Night” say it perfectly:

Long lay the world in sin and e'er pining
'Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

The “thrill of hope” and “the weary world rejoices.” Hope, because finally the one has come to deliver the oppressed from their oppression. The world is weary because of injustice and exploitation. I can see how many can read this holiday as hopeful. I just don’t.

The Jesus story doesn’t end well. Ultimately, he is rejected by many in his day, and he ends up crucified. Not exactly a happy ending. Yet, I think that it is his death that shows us the true meaning of Christmas.

MLK once said: “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

Frederick Douglass said something similar:  “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation…want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning.”

To me, that’s the meaning of Christmas: the birth of struggle and sacrifice in pursuit of justice. 

There has been marginal racial progress in America. And because of this marginal progress, black Americans are expected to rejoice and be optimistic. Slavery was abolished, yes, but the abolition of slavery was never the goal.  Jim Crow was defeated legislatively, but the end of Jim Crow was not the goal. The goal is, and has always been, equality. That’s it. As Malcolm X said:

You don't stick a knife in a man's back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you're making progress ... No matter how much respect, no matter how much recognition, whites show towards me, as far as I am concerned, as long as it is not shown to everyone of our people in this country, it doesn't exist for me.

‘Better’ is not equality. Black people in America want equality. The question is not is it possible for things to get marginally better. Of course they can, but will those in power strip themselves of the privilege whiteness affords them? No. I’m not optimistic about that.

Yet, there is still much beauty worthy of celebration. There is beauty in the struggle for equality. There is beauty in building community, like Jesus exemplified, with those who are like-minded in their pursuit of equality. There is beauty in time spent with family and friends. There is beauty in liberating the mind from the chains of internalized white supremacy, capitalistic excess, and patriarchy. There is beauty in this world. There is no need for despair. Christmas symbolizes the responsibility of the moral person to fight for justice—yet, the eradication of injustice in one’s lifetime is not the goal. The call is to speak truth to power. How that story ends is beyond our control, but it is our responsibility to join in the fight.

With that in mind, Merry Christmas…join us in the fight against inequality.

This article originally appeared on DSA's Religious Socialism Blog

Lawrence Ware is a lecturing professor of philosophy at Oklahoma State University and an assistant pastor at Prospect Church in Oklahoma City. He has appeared on HuffPostLive and written for the African American Pulpit, The Crisis, and other publications.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

Grassroots Fundraising: Paying for the Revolution (9pm Eastern)

June 23, 2017
· 46 rsvps

Are you new to socialist organizing? Or after many years do you still struggle, raising money from members when you need it but without a steady flow of income or budget to plan ahead? Are you afraid to tackle fundraising because it seems so daunting or you are uncomfortable asking people for money?

In this webinar, you will learn why fundraising is organizing, and how to do it – face to face, through fundraising events, and other ideas.

Join us for our latest organizing training for democratic socialist activists: DSA’s (Virtual) Little Red Schoolhouse.

Instructor:

  • Steve Max, DSA Vice Chair and one of the founders of the legendary community organizing school, The Midwest Academy

Training Details:

  1. Workshops are free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have preferably headphones or else speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt talt@igc.org.
  5. If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt schmittaj@gmail.com 608-355-6568.
  6. Participation requires that you register at least 21 hours in advance -- by midnight Thursday for Friday's webinar.

NOTE: This training is scheduled for 9:00pm Eastern Time (8pm Central, 7pm Mountain, 6pm Pacific, 5 pm Alaska, 3 pm Hawaii).

Data Security for DSA Members

June 27, 2017

Ack! I googled myself and didn't like what I found!

WHAT: A DSA Webinar about "Doxing"
WHEN: 9PM EST, 6PM PST

We're proud of our organizing, and chapter work is transparent for both political and practical reasons. However, there are basic precautions you can take in this time of rapid DSA growth to protect your privacy.

Key Wiki is a website that meticulously documents DSA activity and posts it for the world to see. If you're an active DSA member, likely your name is on their website. This is an example of "doxing".

As DSA becomes larger, more visible, and more powerful, we might expect that more websites like this will pop up, and more of our members' information might be posted publicly on the web.

Join a live webinar on Tuesday, June 27 with data security expert Alison Macrina, to learn:

  1. what is doxing? with examples and ways to prevent it
  2. how to keep your passwords strong and your data secure
  3. where to find your personal info on the internet and how to get it removed
  4. social media best practices for DSA organizers
  5. what to do if you've already been doxed

Zoom Link: https://zoom.us/j/9173276528

Call-in Info: +1 408 638 0968
Meeting ID: 917 327 6528

Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
· 11 rsvps

Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Film Discussion: Union Maids

September 24, 2017
· 8 rsvps

 

Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.