Made Known in the Breaking of the Bread

I have always thought of the kitchen as the heart of a household. In some primordial half-remembered, half-imagined archetypal house, it is the hearth fire around which the members of a household gather. A house can shelter different, even disparate people. You can enter a household, live within its sheltering walls, and share its fellowship and rituals with your fellow inhabitants.

And what more visceral expression of a household’s unity than to share meals together regularly? We all need food to live and sharing food can be symbolic of shared life. And it is in the kitchen, the hearth and heart of a house, that the abundance of creation is chopped and julienned and boiled and sautéed and broiled and then taken and blessed and given and shared.

Perhaps you have had the experience in your family of everybody working together in the kitchen to produce a big meal. Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, summer barbecues. And you talk while you cook, tell stories, laugh together. A large table is set (maybe with the little card table set out for the youngest) and the meal is shared by all with more talk, stories and laughter. In the observance of Passover, the ancient story of freedom told around the shared meal is formalized.

At Easter, many of us ponder the stories of Jesus’ appearance to his followers in the days following his brutal execution. Isn’t it interesting how many of these texts involve food? In fact, they all involve food. In some stories, Jesus cooks the disciples a breakfast of toast and fried fish. In another he eats with them (again, a fish) as if to demonstrate that he is not a ghost. And in these appearance stories, Jesus is at first unrecognized.

In Luke’s story, the two Jesus followers who walk with a stranger to Emmaus don’t recognize that it is Jesus who walks with them until—what? They break bread together.

And more than that. “Jesus would have gone on,” the text says, “but they begged him to stay the night with them.” They offer hospitality to the stranger. And then, when he is at the table with them, he takes a loaf of bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them. And suddenly their eyes were opened.

Now this language is formulaic. It is a formula, a blueprint, a recipe. He takes bread, and after blessing it, breaks it and gives it to them. This is the formula of the Eucharist, of communion, the Lord’s Supper.

Remember, of course, that the gospels are the theological expressions of the early followers of Jesus and not biographies written by eyewitnesses. So the early followers of Jesus, the original Jesus movement, are telling us something very important about how they experienced the continuing presence of Jesus in the days following his crucifixion.

In the early decades of the Christian era, followers of Jesus met in one another’s homes. In the Greco-Roman world, the home, the household, was the domain of women, so often women would preside at the table, around which songs were sung, and scriptures and letters read, a meal was shared and food distributed to the hungry. And, around the table, the Eucharist was celebrated.

Reaching out to the stranger, the inclusion of the stranger in this godly household, the act of pulling up one more chair to the collective table, was essential. At this table there is always room for one more. The universe is extravagant in the goodness bestowed upon us and out of that abundance comes the grace with which we share with others.

The point of being a household of faith is not to lock the doors and draw the blinds and parcel out God’s scarce, limited resources among ourselves. The point of being such a household—of being the church—is to invite everybody to the banquet. This is a feast and everybody is invited.

And everybody sometimes meant random guests being invited from the highways and byways, thrown together in a generous act of hospitality. People of different social status rubbed elbows at such a table.

Jesus shared a table fellowship with his followers, students, and friends. It was a symbol of what his mission was about. Jesus’ table was a symbol of God’s abundance, of the possibilities of liberation and communion when people came together and shared what they had, often across lines  of difference.

And the stories that circulated among his friends were fantastic tales of fish and loaves multiplying, of water turning into wine. In his presence, these stories tell us, nobody goes hungry. At Jesus’ table, all are fed.

Anthropologists speak of commensality—a fancy word for sharing a table—and the insights into culture when observing who is invited to eat, who sits where at the table, who is served first. Open commensality is the practice of there being no restrictions or taboos at the meal table. Jesus’ practice of open commensality is remarked upon throughout the stories of him in the New Testament.

In the beloved community, social differences are elided in a banquet of sharing and hospitality and abundance and fellowship. The bodies we all share unite us in their need for nourishment and we are all given what we need.

When Jesus went up to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, he knew that he was going to get in trouble. He might have even known he was going to die. For at the last meal he ate with his friends, he told them that every time they came together in his name, sharing food, sharing bread and cup, they would be living out the beloved community.

Do this and remember me, Jesus says. Daily acts of eating and drinking, do it for the remembrance of me. You know, the Greek word in the New Testament that is translated as remembrance also means reenactment.

Do this and re-enact my table fellowship. Do this and re-enact my mission.

The shared meal, symbolic of shared life, is the centre of a household’s life, a community’s life. For the earliest followers of Jesus, the reenactment of his mission of shared abundance was the way they experienced his ongoing presence among them—the worshipping, Eucharistic community, those gathered around the freely-given, justice-creating meals of Christian worship.

 

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You have just arrived in town.

The mid-morning sun is heating up the stone walkways of this Mediterranean port city. The sky is a dazzling cobalt, a blue that offsets the whitewashed houses and sandstone walls. It is the first century, and you are arriving in a seaside city along the coast of the Mediterranean in what is now Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Greece, Italy.

You are a stranger here. You know nobody here and nobody knows you. Perhaps you are a migrant labourer, one of a growing number of destitute peasants looking for work. Perhaps you are a recently freed slave. A few things are certain. You have no money, you have no family, you live in the rough world of sailors, fishers, traders making up the underbelly of the Roman Empire.

And you are a Christian. You are a member of a secretive mystery cult based in the life and teachings of a Jew from Galilee, a spirit-filled miracle-worker and sage. He was executed by the Romans as a political criminal, but his earliest followers say that he lives on within and among his followers, wherever two or more are gathered in his name. And his name is Iesous, Iesous Christos. Jesus the Christ. Most of his followers that you know are not Jews, but Greeks, like you, and like you from the lower classes of the Empire.

There are networks of Christos followers, Christians, throughout the towns and villages of this region. You need to keep your cultic practices to yourself, as the religious leaders have disestablished followers of Christos, forbidding you from meeting in the Jewish meetinghouses of the diaspora.

As a newly established sect, your Greek neighbours and the Roman authorities alike are suspicious of this upstart religion. In another generation, Christians will be actively persecuted. Indeed, there are already stories circulating among the believers of court cases and accusations. The secrets of your religion must be kept.

You seek and find each other out, meeting before dawn on the first day of the week, before going to work. You meet to sing, mostly, sing and pray. And then share a meal together. A meal of fish and bread and wine. And then, at the close of worship, food from this feast is distributed.

That’s how you became a Christian. You heard that they would feed you, and so you sought out this new mystery cult. Because you were hungry, physically hungry and desperate to sustain yourself. And they helped you, these Christians. They fed you, gave you clothes, told you who in town was a Christian who you could find work with. And the network of believers exists throughout the Empire, clandestine and unseen.

Like other secret societies, yours has its version of code words and secret handshakes. It is said, for example, if you meet a stranger on the road and begin to talk about your religious practices, and you wanted to know if he or she was a Christian, you could scratch an arc into the dirt, and if without speaking, they drew a similar intersecting arch, you knew there was a brother or sister with you.

And so you arrive here, the mid-morning sun heating up the stone walkways as the cobalt blue sky above offsets the whitewashed houses and sandstone walls. You need to find work, you need to find a place to stay, you need some money, you need to eat. And although you don’t know where to look, you know there are believers here who will help you.

You begin to scan the walls, some of which are scratched with graffiti. Lovers names, political slogans, sexual innuendos, and—finally, you spot it—a fish. Two simple, intersecting arcs. The sign of the fish. It is pointing you to the right, and so you step along that alleyway, to another sign of the fish, pointing left. You continue left along the walkway, following these fish until you arrive at the household of the local Christian community, the household at which the local believers gather for pre-dawn worship on the first day of the week.

You will knock on this door. The door will be opened by somebody who will help you, somebody who will welcome you in to this city’s network of believers. You will be drawn in, welcomed into this circle, and fed. These are your people and they will not let you go hungry. These are your people, and they will take care of you.

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The sign of the fish is the earliest Christian symbol. As early as the first century, Christian grave markers displayed images of the fish and the dove. Long before the cross, it was the fish that symbolized Christianity, the Jesus movement.

As a secretive worshipping community, the fish was a kind of password, an acrostic. If you take the Greek words Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter, which mean Jesus Christ God Son Saviour, and take the first letter of each of those words, you get IXTHYS, the Greek word for “fish.”

It is possible that this creedal formulation (Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Saviour) emerged in Alexandria, the major Hellenistic city of North Africa in the late first century as a reaction to the reign of Domitian, who proclaimed himself a son of God, and had coins pressed with his image and these words. The Christian counter-affirmation was that Jesus was the true ruler, that their first allegiance was to the Kingdom of God.

Mosaics, murals, and frescoes from the first three centuries of Christian worship spaces, including the catacombs of Italy, depict the Eucharistic gifts as a fish, a loaf of bread, and wine or grapes.

The fish is an ancient symbol of life, fertility, abundance. In the ancient world, the fish was a symbol associated with the Goddess. In the ancient Mediterranean,it was a symbol of fertility associated with various Goddesses, including Venus who is venerated on the sixth day of the week—Friday, dies Veneris. In Scandinavia, the Great Goddess was called Freya and fish were eaten in her honour, also on the day named after her: Friday. The Roman Catholic Church, until recent years, had its adherents abstain from eating meat on the day that Christ was crucified and to eat instead fish on Fridays.

The association of the fish with abundance and fertility and life is expressed in many of the gospel stories.  A symbol rich with meaning in the minds of the people, the fish came to represent the worshipping, Eucharistic community, those communities gathered for worship that was both devotion and social justice, both reverence toward God and the distribution of foodstuffs to the needy.

The cruciform symbol of Christ’s cross came long after these early symbols of the table, and I for one take that as significant. Jesus’ death was not as significant as his ongoing mysterious presence among them at the table, where they reenacted his mission.

For me, the symbol of the living Christ is not a codeword for Jesus the man, but rather a symbol of life’s creative, transforming power. I believe to understand the symbol of the Christ, the living Christ (or the “Cosmic Christ”), we need to understand how God’s creative transforming power is lived out in communities of people.

The only compelling and truly meaningful Christology I’ve encountered in all my years of study and reflection is that of the feminist theologian Rita Nakashima Brock. In her book Journeys By Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power, she speaks not of the Christ, but of Christa, the feminine form used in conjunction with Community. The living Christ is Christa/Community.

The power that gives and sustains life does not flow from a dead and resurrected savior to his followers. Rather, the community sustains life-giving power by its memory of its own broken-heartedness and of those who have suffered and gone before and by its members being courageously and redemptively present to all. In doing so, the community remains Christa/Community and participates in the life-giving flow of erotic power. No one person or group exclusively reveals it or incarnates it.

Jesus is like the whitecap on a wave. The whitecap is momentarily set off from the swell that is pushing it up, making us notice it. But the visibility of the whitecap, which draws our attention, rests on the enormous pushing power of the sea—of its power to push with life-giving labor, to buoy up all lives, and to unite diverse shores with its restless energy. That sea becomes monstrous and chaotically destructive when we try to control it, and its life-giving power is denied. Jesus’ power lies with the great swells of the ocean without which the white foam is not brought to visibility. To understand the fullness of erotic power we must look to the ocean which is the whole and compassionate being, including ourselves.

 

Brock argues that the very nature of the Christ insists on relationality: “What is truly christological, that is, truly revealing of divine incarnation and salvific power in human life, must reside in connectedness and not in single individuals… [Jesus] neither reveals nor embodies it, but he participates in its revelation and embodiment.”

In other words, the creative transforming power of God happens when people come together and act out the creativity and transformation of our own lives, as individuals and together in the intentional relationships we call communities. The living Christ exists where love, mercy, and compassion are enacted among human persons.

And this is not an abstract thing. We embody mercy and compassion in concrete acts of care and concern for those around us, particularly those in need, those who are most vulnerable. We embody that spirit—a meal delivered, a bandage applied, a hug, setting out food, a hospital bedside vigil—we make that spirit known in what we do with our bodies—feeding, visiting, clothing, touching.

I think those of us who gather in community can be the conduits of salvation (in that word’s sense of healing and wholeness). We, involved in the intentional relationships known as community, can be the places of saving grace and action. Within the matrix, the network, of who we are collectively moves the spirit that saves the world. Within the matrix, the network, the oceanic swell, of who we are cooperatively moves the spirit that saves the world.

At Easter time, my sense is that people celebrate a living spirit, a green springtime of the soul, a numinous presence of creative, regenerative, transforming power. This power is at work in the world, if only we would recognize it. Its alchemy transforms strangers into friends, disparate individuals into a community. It is the Life that makes all things new. For Christians, it is the living Christ.

When I was in seminary, I worked off campus. One of my co-workers was involved in something called Food Not Bombs. Once a week, these activists would collect discarded food from restaurants and supermarkets in downtown Toronto. Restaurants and supermarkets, you might know, throw away a lot of food. Things that spoil easily or are slightly bruised, food they cannot re-serve or that go off the menu the following day. The activist volunteers of Food Not Bombs collect the leftovers and the refuse of restaurants—who happily give their garbage over—and create huge, vegetarian feasts.

Once a week, Food Not Bombs sets up a table in a public park and invites all passersby to a free meal. The homeless population of the city makes good use of this free food, but it is meant for everybody. I used to love the meals of Food Not Bombs, probably because I shared many of the political aspirations of those involved, with our vision of a world of plenty, where human need comes before human greed.

It seemed to me that if the spirit of Jesus was alive anywhere, it was here. And I don’t mean in the individual face of a homeless person, and I don’t mean in the face of a young idealist. I mean the whole gesture of turning garbage into a feast, redeeming leftovers, of freely offering a table full of food to strangers, the Bay Street business man sharing a meal with a street-involved youth with a mental illness, the rough poor from the underbelly of another empire knowing where to go for food, people of disparate backgrounds rubbing elbows at a shared meal.

For me, the living Christ is not an individual, the living Christ is a feast, a table where mercies are spread, a community, a common wealth. The living Christ is a symbol of our common life shaping a world of mutuality and trust and love, a symbol of what sustains and nurtures life.

Forgiveness, Repentance, & White Supremacy

When the accused killer of the nine martyrs of Emanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina was arraigned in court, much was made in the mainstream media about how the loved ones of the murdered forgave him. This forgiveness was seen as marvelous, simplistic, premature, Christian—it garnered attention and commentary.

This narrative of African Americans forgiving a white murderer and terrorist fits neatly—too neatly—into a larger framework that diminishes the injustices inflicted upon Black people. Somehow the misdeeds of white people magically evaporate in the face of the wonderful “spiritual” and “soulful” presence of African Americans.

This isn’t right. And I mean by this not only that this narrative, and these assumptions, are morally wrong, they are also incorrect.

In confronting him, the loved ones of the slain worshippers did indeed forgive him and in the same breath told him this was his opportunity to repent.

It is this challenge to repent that deserves to be widely disseminated and discussed.

Demonstrating the powerful, all-inclusive mercy of God is the fruit of profound faith and spiritual discipline. God’s unrelenting and universal love is a core message of the Christian life as I understand it (steeped as I am in the Universalist witness).

The community of survivors that held and holds that killer in prayer, offering him forgiveness, demonstrating for him the nature of God, bathing him in the light of divine love are not weak. They are not meek and mild.

Forgiving him does not mean exonerating him. It doesn’t mean declaring him “not guilty.” It doesn’t mean not holding him accountable.

The point of bringing that murderer the light of God is to illuminate the evil he has done.

To make him see it. To make him acknowledge it. God’s light illumines the space where evil lurks, showing it to you. Making it visible to you. Being compelled to see what you have done—and to see it through the eyes of the ones who bear the consequences of what you did—is meant to awaken remorse, contrition, confession.

People have a tendency to cover up our mistakes, our missteps, our—let’s just say it—our sins through denial. We deny we have done anything wrong, or we deny that our actions were wrong, finding ways to justify or rationalize.

The unrelenting soul-force of those who would hold us accountable blow that all away. Look at what you’ve done, they say, see it here in the light. Acknowledge it.

And repent.

The humane response to being shown clearly the nature of our wrongs is to regret them, be sorry for them, to repent of them and ask forgiveness to those who we wronged.

The German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonheoffer speaks of “cheap grace,” like being given the “get out of jail free” card easily and quickly. Cheap grace is, in his words, “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance.”

I don’t think what we’re seeing here is cheap grace. The Christian witness of forgiveness manifested by the loved ones of the nine martyrs of Charleston was one that required repentance.

And some kind of repentance is required if we are to ever have racial justice.

I have so few answers on what this might look like for all of us trying to live through the continuing legacy of slavery and colonialism on this continent. Except that the evil that white people have inflicted on Black and Native peoples will not magically evaporate.

And that without repentance, without the public confession of wrongdoing and without official apology, without a thorough examination of conscience by every person who benefits in the racial system of advantage and disadvantage, there can be no reconciliation, no justice, no peace.

American Intifada: Ferguson and the coming insurrection

At the beginning of the trouble in Ferguson, Missouri, a friend wrote on his Facebook page, “What is going on in Ferguson?”

To which I replied, “An American intifada.”

To be sure, it is not a perfect analogy, but the sight of popular civilian protests facing off against an army firing tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowds, training their automatic weapons on civilians as they patrolled the streets in helmets and camouflage, seemed apropos.

The comparison has been made by others, including Palestinian human rights activists who tweeted hard-won advice to the citizens of Ferguson about engaging with the police-army, dealing with tear gas, and other practical matters.

Not a perfect parallel, but consider this:

Saint Louis County police chief Timothy Fitch, along with other US law enforcement officials, has gone to Israel for training and advice. Fitch joined a delegation of American law enforcement on a trip to Israel sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League in April 2011.

The pro-Israel lobby in the United States has been making good use of the fear of terrorism in this country, bringing police chiefs from American cities to Israel to learn from the experts.

In 2008, the ADL sponsored policing delegations from Miami, Philadelphia, Lexington, KY, Mobile, AL, Salt Lake City, UT among ten others.

The Jewish United Fund, along with the Israeli government, hosted a delegation of law enforcement officials from Chicago in 2010, who were given a seminar in policing techniques, including a field trip to occupied East Jerusalem and its checkpoints. Every major division of Chicago law enforcement (Bureau of Investigative Services, Emergency Management, Organized Crime, SWAT) has been to Israel on such trips.

In October 2012, the American Jewish Committee brought police officers from New York City, Los Angeles, Oakland, Austin, and Houston to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. They visited Megiddo Prison, near Haifa, notorious for its appalling conditions and for torturing inmates—many of them “administrative detainees” held without charge or trial.

Ali Abunimah, in his powerful book The Battle for Justice in Palestine, reports:

 The Jewish Institute of National Security Affairs…says it has brought more than one hundred federal, state, and local law enforcement officials to Israel as part of its Law Enforcement Exchange Program and has trained eleven thousand more law enforcement officers from across the United States since 2002.

Israel—with its “field tested” weapons and techniques used to subdue the Palestinians—is being held up as the model for US law enforcement. US police officers and law enforcement officials are being supplied with techniques and strategies of how a military occupation deals with a hostile population, how an official ethnocracy deals with officially disenfranchised minorities.

Think about that for a minute.

Whatever you personally believe about Israel or the Palestinians—just think about the fact that in the United States of America, police departments across the country are learning how to deal with its citizenry (who they are supposedly charged to protect) from a country that is illegally occupying another people’s land—and all that this implies in terms of military force.

Much electronic ink has been spilled over the last week about the increasing militarization of police departments around the US. Local police forces are acquiring weapons and equipment downloaded from federal US armed forces—armored personnel carriers, automatic rifles, flash bang grenades, and more.

The War On Drugs has met its equally nefarious lover, The War On Terror, and this, dear reader, is their offspring. Ferguson, MO makes visible in stark terms what has been happening in the United States for at least a generation. African American communities and individuals—youth and young men in particular—are under siege in a new way.

The massive effort, in a supposedly “post racial” society, to reinvent the terms of slavery and Jim Crow through the machinations of law enforcement has become well known through the writing of Michelle Alexander, and the movements against mass incarceration and minimum drug sentencing that her book, The New Jim Crow, helped inspire.

The conditions of this re-deployment of state power against people of color is dangerous, violent, and acts with increasing impunity. As it always has.

And the machinations of the reinvented conditions of slavery and Jim Crow are increasingly militarized. The Bull Connor of old is now driving an armored vehicle, equipped with automatic rifles.

Are citizens of the United States being targeted as enemy combatants by a military force? Are we a population to be subdued through curfews, checkpoints, arrest, torture, searches, seizures and other forms of state violence?

If our situation is analogous to military occupation, are the events in Ferguson an insurrection?

What would it take for us to have a widespread civilian uprising against this occupation?

In what ways can we refuse to cooperate, on a mass scale, with the occupation? How do we—collectively, individually—withdraw our power from it?

Voices United: Remembering Pete Seeger

I’m finding that I am affected by the death of Pete Seeger early this morning. In a way that seems surprising.

I listened to his music mostly when I was in high school, at a time when I was reading voraciously about the life and thought of Mahatma Gandhi and learning about the civil rights movement in the United States.

I was myself involved in the student peace and disarmament movement, and immersing myself in theories and histories of social justice movements. It seems that what I was learning about peace, civil rights and labour movements, was the black-and-white outlines that Pete Seeger’s music filled in.

There was something about his recordings, both the songs and the context he gave the songs by speaking about them, that seemed to give what I was learning its third dimension. Also, by following some of the musicians he was influenced by, and the musicians and musicologists who he influenced, that I became better grounded in the life and spirit of activism.

Hearing Pete Seeger in concert at Place des Arts was an experience in the power of raising one’s voice together with others. He told stories, sang, and most of all encouraged us to sing along.

One believed, in the presence of this musician and his audience, in the power of people united. With hundreds others, in the context of moving together for peace and social justice, it was a felt sense of solidarity and community.

I met him backstage, where he signed my programme and punctured a hole in my nostalgia, deflating any sense I had had that the “good old days” of activism were over. It seemed to me, in the Reagan-Mulroney-Thatcher eighties, that my cohorts and I were a voice crying in the wilderness.

I don’t remember his exact words, but he somehow imparted to me and my other teenaged friends that we were right in the midst of changing the world, in our own time, in our own battles, in our own way. These were the good old days.

Still, I sometimes bemoaned the fact that we didn’t seem to have any music—the LGBT and AIDS activist movements, the peace and global justice movements. Dance anthems and hip-hop came close—but were not songs to be sung together.

The only place I ever experienced anything comparable was at church.

As a youth, I began attending my local Unitarian congregation’s weekly worship. Like many who find Unitarian Universalism, when I first arrived it felt like a homecoming. So many others who think the way I do about faith and religion and the world! What made my experience more awesome was I made friends with, and was befriended by, people who were much older than I was.

There was no other place where I raised my voice in song. And no other place where I sang with others, non-professional singers all. The power of this practice—to run sound through your own body that runs through the bodies of those around you—is community-forming, an embodied way of being in solidarity–and claiming the space surrounding you.

Many others, no doubt, are giving Pete Seeger the better-articulated tribute that he so rightly deserves.  For me, his was the voice that activated something in my soul, something that longed to connect with others in solidarity and community in the struggles for freedom. That called me deeper into a life of activism. And that helped me find my voice.

May his memory be eternal.

Bearers of Dangerous Memory

There has been an outpouring celebrating the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela since his death last week. He was an outstanding statesman as well as leader and kept his nation from the brink of catastrophic civil war or worse by courageously walking the path of reconciliation, justice and peace. He refused to become like so many other post-colonial leaders, a strongman with a lifelong hold on power, insisting on serving only one term as president of a liberated South Africa.

What has been somewhat surprising has been the accolades he has received from conservative political figures. When he was a political prisoner, Nelson Mandela was considered a terrorist by the British, American and other governments. As a matter of fact, he was on a list of terrorists kept by the Department of Homeland Security up until 2008.

Politicians who claimed he was a communist instigator of instability and revolution, and who actively resisted international sanctions against apartheid South Africa, are now singing his praises. The CIA had a hand in imprisoning Mandela, he was considered so dangerous by our US government. Now the US president is lionizing Mandela at his memorial service.

Mandela never backed down from his castigating the US for its military adventures overseas, never backed down from his support for national independence for the Palestinian people, never backed down from being a voice for the oppressed and colonized.

We have seen this before, haven’t we?

In the United States, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was considered subversive, increasingly so in the year before his assassination. Dr. King became progressively more trenchant in his criticism of the US war in Viet Nam, and increasingly vocal about economic justice and its relationship to racism and militarism.

Now he has a federal holiday in his honor, during which we are reminded how he dreamed of a bias-free society.

And guess who called upon workers to rise up and do this:

“Strike against war, for without you no battles can be fought. Strike against manufacturing shrapnel and gas bombs and all other tools of murder. Strike against preparedness that means death and misery to millions of human beings. Be not dumb, obedient slaves in an army of destruction. Be heroes in an army of construction.”

If you guessed the avowed socialist, Helen Keller, you’d be right.

Keller is lauded for her heroism in overcoming difficulties and prejudices associated with her disabilities, and her lovely words about optimism and hope are glowingly quoted. Like Dr. King, her pointed remarks about the wealthy leeching off of ordinary people while keeping them down are willfully forgotten.

This white washing of individuals who spoke out boldly for social justice, economic equity, and an end to war, colonialism, and imperialism dulls our senses and lulls us into accepting the status quo. They become domesticated saints, nonthreatening figures who stood for good things we all believe in. This revisionism is meant to keep us from catching their vision of the world made right.

Every Advent, there are right-wing pundits who deplore the so-called “war on Christmas.” In my view, the real “war on Christmas” was the battle that turned the celebration of the birth of Jesus from a warning that the powers of domination are going to be overthrown into a sentimental holiday.

The story of Jesus’ birth, told in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, tell of the political upset caused by the arrival of this baby. The stories of his birth describe him as a threat to the powers that be. King Herod seeks to destroy this claimant to his throne. Outcast sheep herders hear “good news” proclaimed about a “saviour” and “messiah” and “lord”—all political terms.

The revolutionary message of a great leader who taught and lived the way of resistance to domination, taught and lived the way of peace and reconciliation, has been domesticated and drained of its radical power.

It happens all the time.

Yet some of us will remember.

Some of us bear the memory of the ones who defied the powers—Mandela, Helen Keller, Dr. King, and a host of others, a great cloud of witnesses.

Some of us bear the memory of the prophet who proclaimed the arrival of God’s realm of justice and peace and embodied God’s desire for humanity in healing acts of protest and compassion.

Jesus was himself arrested by the powers that be, interrogated and tortured and finally executed as a political criminal. German theologian Johann Baptist Metz speaks of the “dangerous memory” of Jesus’ life and mission, dangerous because it continues to challenge the powers and principalities of this world, powers and principalities based on domination, exploitation, and violence.

Dangerous because the memory of Jesus draws us to the abandoned places of empire—the prison cell and torture chamber, the battle field and the homeless shelter, the toxic waste dump and the inner city school, the family farm and the sweatshop factories—drawing us out of our comfort zones and across lines of class, race, nation and culture to do the work of creating the realm of God.

We who are enlivened by the memory of those who proclaimed a vision of the world redeemed, the world salvaged, the world reclaimed by the passionate, unrelenting forces of love continue to struggle for it to be made in this world. We risk what they risked in the service of a vision of the world made right. In our efforts to make the world a better place, we truly remember and reenact the mission of all who came before us.

We contain within us the powerful memories of prophetic voices that proclaimed justice and truth to the powers that be. We remember all those who struggled to set the world right.

In this age of willful amnesia, such memories are dangerous.

May we all be bearers of such dangerous memories.

The Holy Innocents

Every December 24, my church community comes together for Christmas Eve worship services that, among other things, tell the story of Jesus’ birth.

Our version of the story has the journey to Bethlehem, angels, shepherds, the barn, baby Jesus laid in a manger, a star, the Magi visiting and presenting gifts to the newborn king.

And that’s where we usually end it.

But there is more to the story.

Matthew’s gospel, the story with the Magi from the East following a star, doesn’t end there. Joseph and Mary are warned to flee because the baby is in danger. The Magi, rather than going back to King Herod to report to him where they found his newborn rival, also take flight.

The king realizes he’s been deceived. Enraged, Herod then massacres all the children in Bethlehem.

Matthew then quotes the prophet Jeremiah:

A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.

Hardly the sentiment of our Christmas Eve services. So we simply omit this part of the story.

After the horrific, deeply disturbing massacre of children and teachers at Newtown, Connecticut last Friday, my mind immediately went to this expunged part of the Christmas story.

Bringing children into this brutal world is a courageous, hopeful act.

President Obama spoke eloquently of this at an interfaith service in Newtown this past Sunday evening. He said:

“With their very first cry, this most precious, vital part of ourselves—our child—is suddenly exposed to the world, to possible mishap or malice. And every parent knows there is nothing we will not do to shield our children from harm. And yet, we also know that with that child’s very first step, and each step after that, they are separating from us; that we can’t always be there for them. They’ll suffer sickness and setbacks and broken hearts and disappointments. And we learn that our most important job is to give them what they need to become self-reliant and capable and resilient, ready to face the world without fear.”

The vulnerability to accident or cruelty, the caution and anxiety of exposure to harm, is written into the story of the birth of a child so many are celebrating this time of year. The urge to shield these precious, innocent lives that are in mortal danger without our protection is part of the Christmas story. Weeping and fear are mixed in with joy and laughter at the arrival of a child.

We—individually and collectively—are the guardian angels of the children in our midst. My hope for all of us this Christmas is for us to dedicate ourselves to doing everything we can so that the most vulnerable among us not ever be exposed to murderous brutality and malevolence.

May we hold our children close even as we know we must entrust them to a world beyond ourselves, a world not always of our own making. And let us do everything in our power to make the world into which we release our children a world of peace.

Transforming The Heart of Our Violence

On Friday morning, a gunman entered an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, shooting and killing six adults and twenty children before killing himself.

This incomprehensible act has caused enormous mourning and outrage. So many of us have been feeling grief and also numbness, bewilderment and anger. Our thoughts turn toward those killed and their loved ones. How does a parent survive something like this? How do any of those who lost a loved one that day endure? And because our own humanity connects us, we ask how we ourselves are to go on, and what can we do on behalf of healing and integrity and justice.

In an early briefing, the White House press secretary said it was too soon after the tragedy to start talking about policy issues related to this tragedy, such as gun control. Other politicians have repeated this.

I disagree. It’s not too soon. It’s too late.

It’s too late for those children and their teachers, too late for the gunman and his mother, who he also shot. This horrific crime needs to spur a policy discussion about the proliferation of firearms in this country. If not now, when?

There have been 19 mass shootings in this country since the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. Friday’s tragedy was the sixth such shooting in the United States this year alone. After the killing in an Amish school, after the killing in a movie theatre, after the killing in a Sikh temple, after each one of these incidents people have grieved and asked why and pointed fingers.

But according to opinion polls, a growing majority of Americans oppose restrictions on access to guns. Politically, the issue is a nonstarter. In his long campaign for reelection, President Obama mentioned gun control policy a total of three times. If not now, when? If not after this tragedy, when?

According to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 30,000 people a year lose their lives in this country because of gun violence. For every person killed with guns, two others are wounded. These include homicides, suicides, and police interventions. Most of these deaths and injuries take place without much notice in the press.

We know from the experience of other countries that banning certain weapons or making them difficult to obtain has led to fewer deaths by homicide, fewer deaths from gun violence. We also know from the experience of other countries—countries that have similar ratios of guns to population—that the rate of gun violence in the US is even then comparatively high. In other words, even when access to guns is comparable in other countries, the number of gun deaths and injuries in the US is still higher.  Other countries with proportional numbers of guns do not have as high rates of homicide as the United States. What is the unique relationship of US society and culture to guns and to violence?

What we know about strength and safety, about resolving conflict and encountering difference, arises from our context, a national culture which from its beginnings in colonialism and slavery has favored armed defense and military might. Power and security, dominating others and our natural environment, this is our shadow as a nation. We’re armed to the teeth because we’re afraid.  We are afraid that those we have subjugated for our benefit will overwhelm us.

And the seemingly plausible answer given by a majority of Americans is that we’ll be safer if more of us have guns, we’ll be less afraid if we’re armed.

Gun control may indeed see the statistics of mass shootings and other gun violence go down, but gun control alone will not address the moral and spiritual crisis of our culture’s worldview which is the basis for so much violence in this country. It’s a worldview based on fear—fear of the unknown, fear of difference, fear of the other. It’s a worldview based on the dictum that might makes right, and if we don’t understand something—the unknown, the different, the other—we must conquer or destroy it, rather than engage it.

In addition to social policies that must change, we need to also ask, what within ourselves needs to change as well. What are the seeds of fear within myself? What sources of distrust, suspicion, and anxiety are there within me? How do I handle difference, how do I relate with those who differ from me? What is my encounter with the unfamiliar marked by—is it openness, curiosity? In my dealings with others, do I seek points of connection or only points of contention?

How do we, individually and as families and households, a town and a neighborhood, a community of faith, how do we contribute to the culture of fear? How do we resist it? What forms of desensitization and dehumanization do we participate in?

We need to make space to ask these questions, these queries of self-examination. We need to make space for an internal change, an inner conversion from fear to trust, from fear to love.

These transformations have repercussions for the social order. Gustav Landauer, a nineteenth century German anarchist, says:

“The state is not something which can be destroyed by revolution, but is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently.”

Our social order is a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behavior. Changes in how we order our thinking and our relationships—shaping them around mutuality and cooperation and justice—revolutionizes the social order, the political order.  As Mahatma Gandhi put it: “We must be the change that we want to see.”

And it begins in our own dark hearts. It begins in a long vigil through the longest night until dawn breaks, until vision comes. It begins in our own places of expectant waiting, of contemplative vigilance.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, says,

“Your mind is like a piece of land planted with many different kinds of seeds: seeds of joy, peace, mindfulness, understanding, and love; seeds of craving, anger, fear, hate, and forgetfulness. These wholesome and unwholesome seeds are always there, sleeping in the soil of your mind.”

He goes on to say that what grows in the soil of your mind is what you cultivate. The seeds you awaken and water and encourage will be what you sow in your life and relationships—let it be the seeds of peace, understanding, love. Let it be the seeds of joy, mindfulness and understanding.

Contemplation, mindfulness meditation and prayer are forms of cultivating the seeds of peace. Reshaping and transforming our whole lives are next steps, including all of how we relate to others, remaking and transfiguring the social relationships which are the fabric of our civic society.

We need to enter the simple, dark void, the sheltered silence out of which comes power and change, dreams and visions made possible only in that mysterious empty space. We need to look long and hard through windows of our darkness, into the self, into the everything and the nothing within to touch the sources of our personal and political and planetary transformation.

Guadalupe: Mother of My Cross-Bred Soul

The year is 1531.

It is not quite dawn and the hills outside Mexico City are still shrouded in darkness, the sky lightening where the stars are disappearing in the east. A Native man, dressed in the simple cactus-fiber tunic that the peasants here wear, is making his way to Mass on this Saturday morning.

It is December, and the air is crisp with cold. The man, a recent convert to Roman Catholicism, stops as he hears voices. He looks up to Mount Tepeyac, from where it appears the sound of singing, like that of precious birds, is coming. From the summit of the hill, he hears a voice. “Dignified Juan,” the voice says, calling him by name. “Dignified Juan Diego.”

Juan begins up the hill uncertainly. Up ahead, he sees a lady, standing and beckoning him to come forward. She is beautiful and glows with a radiant light. This most amazing light illumines the rocks and shrubs surrounding her. She speaks, saying, “I am the entirely and ever Virgin, Saint Mary.”

She goes on to tell Juan Diego that she wants a shrine, a hermitage, a shelter built in her honor, here on Mount Tepeyac. And that she wants Juan to go to the palace of the bishop in Mexico City with this request.

Taking his leave of her, Juan Diego goes straight into the city to the palace of the bishop. The bishop, of course, is a ruling-class Spaniard, and this is the imperial city of Tenochtilan, and Juan is, of course, a peasant and an Indian. The bishop’s attendants leave him waiting for a long time, and when the bishop finally speaks to Juan, in passing, he dismisses his vision.

Returning, Juan finds the heavenly lady waiting for him in the same place he had encountered her earlier. Juan tells her what has happened, how he was kept waiting, and how the bishop dismissed him without even hearing his story. Juan begs the Virgin to send somebody nobler, better known, somebody respected and esteemed. “No one will believe me, my Lady and my Queen. I am nothing but a campesino.” The Virgin rejects these protestations, insisting that he is the one to make her message known to the official church.

Again, Juan heads into the city, and again is put off from seeing the bishop, and again is admitted reluctantly. This time, the bishop tells Juan that he must provide some proof that this vision he says he keeps having is actually the Virgin Mary herself.

The next day, Juan hastens to the bedside of his uncle who is dying of a pestilence. His uncle begs Juan to fetch a priest to give him last rites before he dies. Juan hurries off into the crisp December dawn. He needs to take the path upon which the Virgin Mary has appeared to him, but, because his last interview with the bishop didn’t go so well, he wants to avoid her, so he goes another way. Despite his attempt, the Heavenly Lady again appears before him glowing with preternatural light, surrounded by the sound of birds.

“Where are you going?” she asks. Juan confesses that he needs to get the priest before his uncle dies. She tells him that his uncle is well, that he has been healed. She tells Juan to go back to see for himself that his uncle is well, and that when Juan returns, she will provide proof of her identity for the skeptical bishop.

On December 12, 1531, the Virgin Mary appears again to Juan Diego on top of Tepeyac hill. Flowers, rich, fragrant roses from Castile in full bloom, surround her though this is neither the place nor the season for such flowers. It is the desert in winter in Mesoamerica.

“Collect these flowers,” she tells Juan. “They will be your proof to the bishop so that he will believe it is I who am requesting a shrine be built for me upon this hill.” With the flowers gathered up into his simple tunic, Juan heads for the bishop’s palace. This time, the attendants are astounded that the poor Indian who doesn’t seem to know when to go away is back, and back with what seems to be miraculous flowers. Juan is ushered into the bishop’s presence right away. Juan unwraps his tunic, and the fragrant, out-of-season, Castilian flowers tumble out triumphantly at the bishop’s feet.

And there, on the fabric of the poor Indian’s tunic, is an image. It is an image of the Ever Virgin Holy Mary Mother of God.

Virgen_de_guadalupe1

You can see this image today, at the basilica in Mexico City dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe. The bishop, it seems, heard and believed, and built a shelter dedicated to her on that hill. The image in the basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the original cloth, though about a hundred years after these events, somebody has touched it up to make it look a little more like the European representations of the Virgin Mary. They added stars and a crown and a crescent moon beneath her feet and a halo around her entire body. It is, of course, possible that the entire image was painted on and there are many who claim this is the case, a seventeenth century fiction fabricated (so to speak) within a discourse that pitted Native piety against Church hierarchy.

Her mantel drapes her head and falls about her shoulder and arms. Her hands are clasped before her. She is not carrying a baby. She is serene. And all around her, the spiky body halo. The most remarkable feature of this now ubiquitous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the fact that she is brown-skinned. She is widely known in Mexico as la virgen morena, the dark-skinned virgin. She looks more like an aboriginal princess than a European lady. The very name Guadalupe, in fact, is probably a reference to the statue of the Virgin Mary in northern Spain by that name. That statue is carved out of a very dark wood, giving the impression of a dark-skinned Goddess more than the pale images of Mary current in European art. Many of the Spanish troops stationed at Tepeyac were from this region of Spain and may have identified the Mexican virgin with the one in Spain.

I was first introduced to the Virgin of Guadalupe soon after her feast day many years ago, when I found myself in Trinity Church in Boston, hearing about a pilgrimage somebody had made in her honor. When I visited Santa Fe, New Mexico a few weeks later, I discovered such pilgrimages were common there, with pilgrims not only going to the basilica in Mexico, but to various sacred places in the state. Sante Fe is the home of the first church dedicated to her in the United States.

The more I learned her story and saw her image, the more fascinated I became by this figure, and by the meanings that resonate out from around her like the glow of her halo. I became intrigued with what seemed to me a rich, archetypal symbol of the divine feminine and an incarnation of liberationist, post-colonial wisdom.

The fact that this is the story of a Native, an Aztec who converted to Catholicism first caught my attention. My ear is always inclined toward colonized peoples and the stories we tell through our art and religious expression. It is the story of an indigenous person whom the divine visits, and whose narration of this visitation is disbelieved by the colonial powers that be.

Who is authorized to narrate stories of the miraculous, of the divine? By what authority does a Native talk back to the power that subjugate his people, take his land, that erase his language, religion, and existence? What empowers the poor and disenfranchised to talk back to the ruling class?

“Send somebody else,” Juan Diego says. “Send a nobleman, a Spaniard, somebody educated and literate. Not me.” But the Heavenly Lady insists it must be him, and it is the bishop, representing imperial Spain, that must be converted to this poor indigenous person’s simple message to honor her wishes.

Also of note is the fact that the mountain on which Our Lady of Guadalupe is asking to be honored happens to have been the mountain that was sacred to the Aztec goddess Tonantzin. The memory of the Goddess, officially erased by the church, asserts itself. Like a flashback through the clouds of amnesia, the Goddess remains alive. The Franciscans whose missionary activities accompanied Spain’s colonization translated the Virgin Mary into the local dialect as Tonantzin, meaning “our precious mother,” though this word was also the name of the erstwhile Aztec goddess.

Her extinction is resisted by subterfuge; she lives on inscribed within the image of the European Christian Mary. The memory of Tonantzin persists in an act of resistance, in opposition to the disappearance of Native culture and religion.

What also interested me were the uses Our Lady of Guadalupe has had by the First Nations of Mesoamerica. In the 1500s, there were several Native and mestizo uprisings against Spanish rule that took on Guadalupe as their patron. The Mexican patriot Hidalgo, leading bands of mestizo and Native rebels, carried a banner depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe into battle in the 1880s, as did Emiliano Zapata in 1914.  The republic’s first president, Guadalupe Victoria took his patroness’s name after she helped him, he believes, win a decisive battle. In the 1960s and 70s, the Mexican-American labor activist Cesar Chavez marched under a banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe as he agitated for the rights of migrant farm workers.

Guadalupe is an oppositional symbol, a sign of resistance to the powers that be. She is referred to often as the Madonna of the Barrios, the protector of the poor. She is the compassionate mother, and also the defiant Mary who proclaimed the Magnificat:

“[God] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Colonized people respond in many ways to our colonizers. One way is to adopt wholesale the imperial culture, to speak its language and learn its customs, to play its music, to practice its visual art and its religion. This was the so-called “civilizing mission” of the Spanish, along with of course the French and the British. As their empires spanned the globe, these imperial cultures thought of themselves as bringing civilization to the savages. At the same time, they didn’t really believe that the indigenous peoples of the continents they conquered were actually capable of becoming civilized. So the colonized person who adopts wholesale the culture of the colonizer is never really admitted into the circle of civilization despite his or her best efforts.

Another response is for the colonized to reject the colonial culture entirely, to assert our own, aboriginal culture and identity. This is the way of nationalists and separatists, who insist on preserving and promoting the traditional ways of the people. Traditions of language and art and religion are maintained with a sense of pride and self-worth.

One other response might be what we see in the figure of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Aspects of the colonial culture are adopted, but not wholesale. They are invested with meanings the colonizers did not intend, oppositional meanings that, like Juan Diego, talk back to the powers that be. The indigenous cultures are not wiped out wholesale, not silenced definitively, but rather remain present and in constant dialogue with imperial power.

Colonized people do not passively accept domination, even as the unequal power relations strip away all means of cultural production and self-determination. Liberatory, transgressive, and self-affirming messages from the dominating culture are highlighted and drawn upon. An evolving, hybrid culture emerges that is a vehicle for the self-expression of the colonized using the narratives and images imposed by the colonizer. Juan Diego is the prototype of the Indian who is a Christian but not a traitor. Juan Diego is a convert who does not abandon the traditions of his ancestors.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is mestiza, a mixture of Spanish and Native American. I myself am a mix of cultures and national identities. I am drawn to her. She gathers in all of us caught between worlds, between languages and cultures and religions, between the worlds of home and foreign land, of belonging and exile.

I see myself in the story of Juan Diego and the Virgin of Guadalupe. More often than not, I am the bishop, the skeptic. I don’t believe in miracles. And if you say you have experienced something miraculous, I want proof.

But I see myself in Juan Diego, too. Caught between cultures, wanting to move into new territory religiously without abandoning the old altogether, finding a voice to talk back to the powers that be, a bearer of dangerous memories–like him, remembering the Goddess on the hill and using the language and piety of the changed circumstances his people found themselves in.

In the collage of our soul’s world, we rearrange the pieces we are given, creating our own works of art and beauty. I had once dismissed the Virgin Mary as a useful potential archetype of the divine feminine, hopelessly trapped up there on her sexist pedestal, meek and submissive, lauded only for who her son turned out to be–until I met Guadalupe.

Guadalupe is for me the figure of America, the Americas–not European, but not Native or African either, but rather mestizo, creole, an emblem of the hybridity and mixed cultures that is both my own heritage and the fraught heritage of the encounter of Spanish, French, English, African and First Nations peoples. Guadalupe is the figure of my own queer spirit, my own immigrant, cross-bred soul–and can be, I think, for any of us who grew up strange and queer to our own families, who adopted the ways of this country to our parents’ chagrin, who are nostalgic for a homeland we have never seen, who have crossed oceans of loneliness to make our own way in an unfriendly land, who are émigrés from devastated places that no longer exist, who are unrelated by blood to those closest to us, who long for companions to speak to us in a mother tongue we have forgotten. For all of us lost, forgotten, and abandoned, she comes.

Without knowing what I needed until I met her, I am devoted to her now. She represents the creating, subversive power within and the creative subversions of post-colonial peoples. She is the invitation to speak, to narrate, to tell, to talk back. She is an emblem of the long march toward justice and inclusion in which I walk.

The voice that calls will not choose somebody else. It is we who must do this work, to use what is found to forge a religion of the present and future–we who have been unauthorized and demonized, silenced and sidelined.

And so I invite you to a place in the twilight of dawn, where the imagination, the soul, is awakened. Into this numinous space we come, this place of potential for creating religious culture that is a vehicle for our self-expression, for our becoming, that can re-imagine the past in order to create a future that includes all of our hybrid, complicated, contradictory selves.

JESUS, SANTA & CAESAR: Christian vs. Capitalist Christmas

Religion is popularly thought of in terms of faith—personal faith. One’s beliefs, values and practices may be nurtured in houses of worship, but are largely personally held and seen to be private.

Yet religion is also a cultural phenomenon, a discourse of stories and signs that are represented in art, re-presented and acted out in performance (including worship), and expressed in many other forms of culture.

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz famously defined religion as

… a system of symbols which establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in [individuals] by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

Myths, legends, and rituals help form personal and community identities, embody communal life, and frame a worldview. They help give life meaning.

It may surprise some to hear consumer capitalism defined as a religion. And stranger still to think of Christmas as a holiday of this religion.

The capitalist festival of Christmas is “religious” in the sense that consumer capitalism creates and maintains a system of symbols that motivates people to shop for consumer goods and creates an all-encompassing atmosphere during “the holidays” of cheer, generosity, and togetherness.

Symbols of this religion—including Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, candy canes, snow men—are ubiquitous. Its symbols (unlike a nativity scene or crèche) are not considered controversial or inappropriate for public display.

Indeed, the culture at large compels participation in this civic religion. Tree-lighting ceremonies are observed at city hall, public spaces are festooned with lights, and the media are full of “holiday” stories—Santa Claus, Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman, and more–and “holiday” music–songs about bells and snow.

Civic, secular and cultural spaces are used for this ever-present festival precisely because it is a “religious” festival promoted by the dominant “religious culture,” that is to say the capitalist economic order. This commercial carnival called Christmas is not Christian, nor is it at all the same festival as the Christian celebration of the birth of Christ.

In European and Euro-American cultures, the winter solstice was a time of feasting and carousing. For these agrarian cultures, it was a slow time of year and the darkness needed to be fended off in some way. Festivals involving drinking ale and mead that had had time to age, feasting on foods that would spoil by midwinter, and assuaging anxieties about the darkness evolved.

Here in New England, Christmas was banned or not celebrated not because the Puritans were anti-Pagan, but rather because it was a time of drinking wassail, carousing, and (most importantly) of working people demanding favors of the well-to-do. Revelers going door to door and asking for treats (“bring us a figgy pudding! we won’t go until we get some!”) and threatening mischief if not satisfied was a common practice.

Stephen Nissenbaum, in his fascinating book The Battle for Christmas, details how this celebration was transformed by the US ruling class into a domestic holiday in which children asked for or received favors from adults. The action went indoors and the holiday was literally domesticated.

Traditions involving Saint Nicholas were expanded in the late nineteenth century with the popularity of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore, a wealthy promoter of the domestication of Christmas. The story that Santa Claus descended the chimney to give good little children toys and presents became a central element in the Christmas mythos.

The contemporary Santa, with his red suit trimmed with white fur, was popularized tremendously by the Coca-Cola Company in the 1930s.

Santa Claus comes to town on Thanksgiving Day, purportedly, in a nationally televised parade of other commercial icons (the Smurfs, Kermit the Frog, Sponge Bob, Scooby Doo) sponsored by a department store.

Santa Claus may be visited this time of year—where else?—in the local shopping mall or department store. Children queue for hours to commune with him—and to ask for things.

Stating the obvious—that commercial culture and forces of consumer capitalism created and sustain a quasi-religious festival—is not to condemn it. It is, rather, to clarify what is and what is not happening in North American culture from US Thanksgiving to Superbowl Sunday.

The birth of Jesus Christ is not being celebrated.

That is another festival practiced by another religion. It, too, is called “Christmas” and that has caused an unfortunate confusion.

From its agrarian beginnings in material culture, through its domestication and reinvention in the late nineteenth century, through its growing prominence in twentieth century capitalism, this Christmas has only incidentally ever been about Jesus. It’s been about money, material goods, and commercial trade all along.

I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but Jesus was never really the reason for the season.

The Roman Empire had a festival celebrating the birth of a savior, a man worshipped as a god who brought salvation to the people. Weeks long reveling took place in his honor, celebrating not only the new year, but a new era that began with his birth, an era of peace and prosperity. Civic sponsored parades, philanthropic giving, and lavish feasts celebrated the birth of this prince of peace.

It was Caesar that was being celebrated as savior and lord.

The Christian Church in the third century began to associate the birth of Jesus with this time of year.

From the very beginning–indeed from the very story of Christ’s birth found in the gospel of Luke–followers of Jesus have been subverting political culture by speaking of Jesus in Roman and Jewish political terms (messiah, savior, lord, kingdom, gospel, church [“assembly”]—these are all from the Hebrew and Greco-Roman political and civic lexicon).

By saying that Jesus was the only ruler, they were saying that Caesar had no power over them. The affirmation “Jesus is Lord” is subversive. If Jesus is lord, then the emperor is not.

By pledging allegiance to the kingdom of God, they were stating their opposition to and noncompliance with the kingdom of Caesar.

A different kingdom and indeed a different kind of kingdom altogether was lurking in the shadow of the world’s kingdoms, small and unnoticed and yet, like a mustard seed, growing. A different social order was being lived out in the margins–a society based in forgiveness, jubilee, compassion, nonviolent resistance, sharing and love.

When the church came to power, the festival was baptized as Christian. Christianizing the winter solstice, the church hoped to transform culture. The worship of Jesus was to replace the worship of the emperor. With the shift in power, what had been acts and rhetoric of subversion began to more closely resemble the discourse and apparatus of imperial rule.

In the era of Christendom that followed Constantine, the church was in the position to create culture.  Its feasts and fasts, heroes and heroines, liturgies and ceremonies, became continuous with civic culture, political governance, and—let’s face it—empire.

Now that that era is gone… What? Oh. Yes. Sorry. That era is over. It has ended. So sorry. Bummer, eh? Welcome to post-Christendom.

Now that that era is gone, it seems to me that followers of Jesus have a choice to make.

Jesus or Caesar?

Jesus or Santa?

Will we pattern our days after the current empire with its gods and mythos and festivals? Will we participate in the feasts and holidays of the dominant religion—capitalism—or will we not comply?

Which kingdom has our allegiance?

The Kingdom of God as described in the gospels is in opposition to the kingdom of Caesar. The imperial savior brought peace through domination, military might, and the fear of violence. The peasant savior from the margins of the empire brought peace through cooperation, soul force, and trust.

How is it that US Christians still believe that claiming the corporate-sponsored frenzy is or ought to be a Christian holiday? That Christmas is a different holiday. Let those who find meaning in it celebrate it. And, you know, really. Quit bugging them that they are not celebrating what you celebrate.

What you celebrate is different.

And maybe it’s time to differentiate the Christian Christmas from the capitalist Christmas.

Who Owns the Public Square?

One year ago, citizens protesting the Wall Street practices that created the current economic turmoil marched in New York City’s financial district. They descended on Zuccotti Square and occupied it, setting up a protest encampment which acted as a springboard for further demonstrations and was itself a form of dissent against the prevailing economic order.

For months, the Occupy Wall Street protest lived out this form of dissent. It inspired similar encampments across the United States and elsewhere, and similar protest actions against Wall Street greed and government corruption.

Eventually, the occupation of Zuccotti Square came to an end when police forcibly cleared the park of protesters.  Other encampments across the country faced similar fates, in what appears to have been a coordinated effort by the Department of Homeland Security with local law enforcement.

The square was once known as Liberty Plaza Park and was created by the property owners in conjunction with the city of New York as a space for public use. After being renovated in 2006, the park was rechristened Zuccotti Park for the man who is chairman of the company that owns the space. John Zuccotti once sat on, and also chaired, the city’s planning commission. It is a popular spot for workers in the area who eat their lunches at its tables and in the shade of its trees.

When Occupy Wall Street arrived, they reclaimed its original name, welcoming people to “Liberty Park.”

Because the space is privately owned, city ordinances–including a curfew–do not apply to Zuccotti Square. It is meant to be available to the public 24 hours a day. Though a court ruled the protestors should be able to return to the space after police removed them by force, police barricaded the park, refusing to allow the activists back. Higher courts subsequently ruled the protesters could not camp or spend the night in the park.

In Boston, a similar protest took place at Dewey Square, a part of the Rose Kennedy Greenway project of the city of Boston. The greenway was the result of the “Big Dig,” the project that removed an elevated highway that sliced through Boston’s downtown. The space that was created in its absence is a green space for the city’s people, a civic space for residents to enjoy together.

I love those urban spaces in which the public can gather. Strolling through lower Manhattan this past Sunday, I was reminded of that love. It was a beautiful sunny day, warm and clear. Sunbathers, guitar players, drummers, magicians, Tarot card readers, people tossing frisbees, walking, picnicking, blowing bubbles (no, really!) rollerblading… In Washington Square there was a group with homemade signs that were promoting “good vibes.”

But what happens when the public uses these spaces for dissent? What happens when economic, political, and social opinions are expressed in these public squares?

Why, the police are called, and these citizens are pepper sprayed, maced, caged, handcuffed, beaten, kicked, and arrested by law enforcement officers.

In other words, certain forms of expression are criminalized. Any kind of dissent–even popular dissent–is treated as a criminal activity. In Quebec, in response to a student strike opposing tuition increases, the provincial government last May actually passed a law punishing protest activities.

What kind of society has no public square? No place where residents gather in solidarity, not just to enjoy the sunshine and blow bubbles, but to express their political beliefs? What kind of a society represses the free expression of its citizens? What kind of a society creates a deliberately freezing effect on the expression of dissent by subjecting protesters to excessive force, subduing them with violence?

Not a free society. Not a society committed to democracy and democratic ideals.

The public square is so symbolic, and in many practical and significant ways has been replaced by the Word Wide Web. But the physical assembly of citizens creates something that individuals alone at their computer terminals do not. Assembling freely in public is so sacred to the democratic spirit it is enshrined in the US constitution as a right.

It is precisely for this reason that the powers that be have an interest in regulating the common spaces of this republic.

Take for example the whole notion of needing a permit from the police in order to hold a protest march. A 1939 US Supreme Court ruling declared that using sidewalks and streets for political speech was constitutionally protected. Marching down the street, picketing on a sidewalk, handing out leaflets, getting signatures on a petition—all are protected forms of speech.

At the same time, the ruling delineated that such speech needed to be “exercised in subordination to the general comfort and convenience, and in consonance with peace and good order.” Lower courts have elaborated on this to restrict protest—a restriction enforced through the granting of permits—which the Supreme Court deemed “prior restraint” on free speech. Which is to say, permits are a form of government censorship.

Subsequent Supreme Court decisions, nevertheless, have upheld the permitting system, even while recognizing it is a form of government control of citizens’ political speech. Many people have become used to the idea that if the police do not grant permission, the protest is “illegal.”

I think the public square belongs to the public.

And it is being taken away from us. Our access to it is denied or controlled. The public’s right to raise our voice in public spaces is being curtailed. Even when granted a permit, protestors in US cities like New York and Chicago have been allowed only remote, fenced-in pens in which to rally. These pens are not the public square; they are a physical embodiment of the state’s power and desire to limit and contain popular protest.

The forces that would have us not question the excesses and crimes of Wall Street, the complacency of federal agencies, the corruption and incompetence of Congress, would like to see us silent, ignorant, afraid to speak up and–most importantly–completely preoccupied by endless distractions (the Kardashians! Snookie! a new iPhone!).

They win when we are afraid. They win when fear keeps us away from a legal protest march or picket line. When we are isolated from each other, cowering fearfully in our private corners, they win. When all we can see and hear are mindless stories about pop stars or kitten videos on YouTube, they win.

If Occupy Wall Street does nothing else, it should reawaken in the citizenry an awareness of how many of our constitutional freedoms are being chipped away at. Bit by bit, basic civil liberties like the right to freely assemble, are being denied. We’re being gently corralled into accepting censorship and silencing.

Like many other public institutions, governments (often strapped for cash) are collaborating with private interests to create or maintain public parks, plazas, and squares. And like other public institutions, the influence those private interests have on public spaces curtails what can happen within them. Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto is one such space, a private-public square which can be “booked” for events, including rallies, for a fee. When the site first opened to the public years ago, a lone person in the square holding a sign which simply read “Peace” was arrested.

Advertising in urban spaces is allowed, but protesting is not. Unsightly billboards and giant, flashing video screens are allowed, but holding picket signs, distributing flyers and handbills and newspapers, gathering signatures on a petition can get you arrested–even though these are constitutionally protected.

The corporations that are now shaping our public spaces–our spaces–want only what propertied, well to do consumers will tolerate as they shop. So a whole host of activities (skateboarding, begging, cruising, busking) and people (youth–especially youth of color, homeless, sex trade workers) are deemed criminal. In the name of making the city “safe” and “clean,” they make repression seem reasonable and desirable.

Many city centers in North America have come to resemble outdoor suburban malls. Ubiquitous chain restaurants and big box stores have replaced mom-and-pop stores.

This happened by design when Yonge-Dundas Square was created.

With a handful of notable exceptions, Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, another example, is no longer home to locally-owned small businesses. Independent diners, hardware stores, bookstores, five-and-dime shops are all gone, replaced by chains, or taken over by chains (the cinema, the foreign language bookstore). The nature of Harvard Square–who now uses the square and its sidewalks and for what purpose–has changed.

In many urban areas, thriving sexual subcultures have been shut down completely and “red light districts” made safe for suburban shoppers—no whores or homeless people or queers. Times Square in New York is the most well known of this trend, though the forced disappearance of Boston’s “Combat Zone” is another. Suburban theatre-goers shouldn’t have to walk by prostitutes or adult cinemas! They need to get from their SUV to Applebee’s to the Disney Store to the theatre to see The Lion King unsullied!

Here in the US, taking our democracy back from the corporations to which Congress has sold it is the most urgent task of our time.  That is what the Occupy Movement is all about. The microcosmic, symbolic but no less urgent need to reclaim the public square is part of that democratizing project.