Occupy Chanukah and Christmas

Chanukah was the first recorded national liberation struggle against Greek imperialism, and Christmas celebrates the birth of a hoped-for messiah to free the Jewish people from Roman imperialism.

The symbolism of a homeless couple giving birth in a manger surrounded by animals because the more comfortable people have not been able to make room for them inside a roofed home is akin to the symbolism of the candles lit on Chanukah to celebrate the victory of the powerless over the powerful: both offer a powerful reminder that both Judaism born of slaves in Egypt and Christianity born of a movement of the poor and powerless were in their times the “Occupy” movement that confronted the powerful and those who served them.

All the more tragic to witness how both religions have been twisted in our own time to serve the powerful. Major forces in the Christian world have sided with the war-makers, ultra-nationalists, and the blame-poverty-on-the-poor cheerleaders for vast inequalities and protection of the rich against the needs of the rest. Jews, while retaining their commitment to domestic liberalism, have become tone-deaf to the cries of the oppressed in Palestine, to the huge inequalities of wealth in Israel, and have allowed their American institutions to be governed not by “one person, one vote” but “one dollar, one vote.”

One of the reflections of the way both religions have lost their ethical core is that the vast majority of people in both religious worlds have allowed their winter holidays to be turned into orgies of consumerism. The ethos of materialism and selfishness that is the dirty secret and driving force of global capitalism has infected the religious world almost as much as the secular.

The good news is that a counter-movement of spiritual progressives has emerged in the past few decades—spiritual progressives who are willing to challenge the distortions in their own religious communities while simultaneously doing battle with the institutions and practices of the wealthy and powerful. Spiritual progressives recognize that even those who appear most insensitive to the needs of the poor and powerless, as well as most committed to war and to policies that benefit the 1 percent at the expense of the 99 percent, are themselves often quite decent people in their private lives who have simply accepted the fundamental structures of capitalist society as immutable, and have therefore decided that in an oppressive society they’d rather be on top than on bottom. For us, the struggle is not simply about winning specific battles that slightly limit the ability of the powerful to exploit the powerless—it is a battle to transform the fundamentals of this society, to create the kind of rebirth of goodness symbolized by Chanukah and by the birth of Jesus.

That rebirth goes far beyond the demands for taxing the rich or providing more jobs and a rational health care system. Every political, economic, legal, and educational institution must be rebuilt with a New Bottom Line that judges efficiency, productivity and rationality based on how much they help develop in us our capacities to be loving and caring, kind and generous, ethically and ecologically sensitive, and responding with awe, wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur and mystery of the universe. We need a New New Deal, but we need far more—a caring society, caring for each other and caring for the earth.

Talking this way seems completely out of touch with the discourse of public life as shaped by our politicians and the corporate dominated media. So specific ideas that spiritual progressives have advanced, e.g., to replace a foreign policy that sees homeland security as based on political, cultural, and economic domination of others with a policy based on genuine caring for the well-being of everyone on the planet as manifested in a Global Marshall Plan (introduced to Congress by Hon. Keith Ellison of Minneapolis as House Res. 157), or the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment (introduced to the Congress by Dennis Kucinich as House Res. 156). The latter not only overturns Citizens United but also banishes all private or corporate money from elections and allows only public funding, and requires corporations to prove a satisfactory history of environmental responsibility in order to retain their corporate charters, get dismissed as “unrealistic.”

But that is precisely the hidden message of Chanukah and Christmas: Don’t be realistic, but transform reality in accord with God’s most loving vision for our world. That is what it would mean for us to Occupy Chanukah and Christmas once again in 2011. What seems impossible can become actual, because in the final analysis, the world is governed by a force that seeks justice and love, and we humans are created in its image to make that love and justice real on this planet.

How do you manifest that this Chanukah and Christmas? Try this:

  1. Give gifts of time rather than of things. Give your friends some time to do something they might need. For example, a gift certificate of four hours to do painting or plumbing or electrical work or mowing their lawn or shoveling their snow or babysitting their children or shopping for them or cooking some meals for them, or taking their children for a day while they go and play, or helping out with an elder whom they care for so that they can get some free time by themselves, or … well, you know your friends and you can figure out how a gift of time might be far more valuable to them than a gift of a thing, and what that gift of time might be.
  2. Insist on breaking through the gift focus of the holiday by bringing your family and friends together to talk about the spiritual meaning of the holiday for each of them. You can do this on Chanukah Eve (first candle Dec. 20) or Christmas Eve, or more casually at work before the holiday begins, or even by sending this article to them and asking them for their reactions.
  3. At your holiday meals, bring up the issue of those who are struggling this Chanukah or Christmas—both the poor, the near-poor, and all those who are deeply insecure and frightened. Ask people how they imagine their society would be different if the original messages of Chanukah or Christmas were being taken seriously today. Would the rabbis who said that the central command of Torah was to “love your neighbor as yourself” and “love the stranger” be outraged at a society that celebrated Chanukah but turned its back on the poor and the powerless? How would Jesus of Nazareth, our great Jewish teacher who Christians embraced as their messiah, feel about a Christmas focused on consumer excesses? Ask your friends at their holiday meals to discuss the call of the Occupy movement to stop the class war of the 1 percent on the 99 percent and to reverse the wild inequalities that have accompanied the political and economic triumph of the 1 percent over the rest of the population. (And challenge those around you to find ways of discussing this without demeaning the 1 percent, many of whom are good and decent people but who have no belief that anything can change.) Instead of a focus on what Occupy has not been doing right (and there are, in my estimation, some serious critiques that can be made), focus on the core message of what needs to be repaired in our society and how you can become yourself and with your friends the local embodiment of Occupy in your neighborhood, carrying out the strategies and tactics you think “they” should do—because YOU are part of it just by identifying with their demands for justice and fairness, and so you can be the leader in your area to make Occupy be what you think it should be! And then follow our articles about it on our website. Also feel free to print out a copy of the beautifully illustrated guides to Christmas and Chanukah that we put together a few years ago: these guides present more ways to turn these holidays away from consumerism and toward their revolutionary potential.
  4. If you have to give someone a material gift, please consider making it a gift subscription to Tikkun Magazine, where these discussions continue all year long, a membership in the Network of Spiritual Progressives, or even a copy of my new book Embracing Israel Palestine (available at Amazon.com and on Kindle if your local book store isn’t carrying it). Let’s move from pious words about peace and justice to actually building a movement for peace and justice. Occupy has taken a first step. It’s up to us to take the next steps together!