Wisdom//

A Return To Hope In Troubling Times: Chanukah And Christmas

Honestly, do you know anyone who hasn’t been suffering from a case of acute despair, depression or cynicism about the world in the past few months?


*For some it might have started with the “Great Recession” which still takes a toll on many families years after the economists claimed it was over (at least over for the 20% most well-to-do in our society). For others, it was with disappointment when President Obama bailed out the big banks and investment companies, but not the millions of people losing their homes, refused to create a “medicare for all” health program and instead created a plan that allowed insurance companies to raise their rates to make huge or when he failed to issue a blanket pardon to young immigrants to whom he had originally promised safety in the U.S. or when he prosecuted instead of rewarding whistle blowers but failed to prosecute those who had ordered torture at Guantanamo or when he failed to launch a campaign for a constitutional amendment to eliminate the electoral college or a constitutional amendment to get money out of politics).

* For some it was when Donald Trump labeled Mexicans rapists and murderers without fellow Republicans challenging him and then the entire slate of Republican presidential hopefuls competed with each other in who could be the most racist or xenophobic.

*For some it started when they got the full picture of how environmental crisis is accelerating, destroying the fragile life support system of the planet — and has been accelerated as the frantic drive to increase profits or die in the competitive marketplace has pushed many corporations to attempt to generate a desire for more consumption of goods people never thought they needed previously, to ravage the earth for oil, coal, gas or precious metals used to make their computers, cell phones, or other cash-cow products, and to vigorously oppose restrictions on carbon or the production of other planet-destroying products. All this intensified now that Trump seeks to appoint to head the EPA — Environmental Protection Agency someone who denies climate chaos is a problem and seeks to dismantle the EPA.

*Or when polls showed 50 percent of Americans opposed to letting in to the U.S. Syrian refugees who were fleeing from the horrors of ISIS or the horrors of the Syrian government bombing and massacring its own people under the pretense of fighting the terrorists

* For some it was when mass killings in the U.S., and the frequent murders of African Americans (especially by arrogant police or random racists) remind us that violence and hatred have no borders.

*Or when, despite losing the democratic election by some three million votes, Trump became the next President of the U.S. based on an electoral system set up two hundred plus years ago to ensure that the slave states and the underpopulated states of the Middle West would have much more power than those in heavily populated states in the US Congress and in the choosing of a President.

*Or the failure of the Democrats to acknowledge that they might have won with Bernie Sanders and now need a new leadership (e.g. presented by Congressman Keith Ellison), plus a fundamental transformation toward a more class-conscious and inclusive politics. Such a politics includes challenging racism and sexism and Islamophobia and antiSemitism and homophobia, but also focuses on the suffering of whites and men caused by the way that materialism, selfishness, looking out for number one in the economy, reinforced by the media’s insistence that this is just how “everybody is because it’s human nature,” have seeped into the consciousness of tens of millions of people. Once people feel that everyone else is selfish and looking out only for themselves, they tend to believe that the only rational way for them to live is to also be looking out for number one. The result is that acting that way weakens families, friendships and loving connections. And that in turn makes many people feel lonely — even in their seemingly happy families, even at their holiday celebrations. Stress gets higher and higher, and people sometimes act in self-destructive ways to drown out their fears and their loneliness.

No wonder the joy of the holiday season has been mixed with cynicism about the future of our world. You’ll hear it particularly from people under thirty-five who have been following what is happening — so don’t be surprised if these issues pop up at your holiday table or, worse, you find young people silent but depressed! And then with media bombarding us with demands that if we want to be truly like our neighbors, we have to shop ourselves into further debt, and that if we are not joyous during this holiday season there is something wrong with us — messages that generate huge amounts of stress and depression for many of us and our neighbors (some of whom will use drugs or alcohol to escape those self-blaming feelings).

Of course, no one is permanently stuck in cynicism and despair — or at least that’s the message of both Judaism and Christianity. From the Jewish standpoint, human beings are created in the image of God and hence always have the capacity to transcend all that has happened to them in the past and choose a new path. From the Christian standpoint, that same transcendence is possible, sometimes through the active help of Jesus or God.

No better way to remind ourselves of the return to a more hopeful vision than to build upon the messages that come through Chanukah and Christmas. Chanukah is a celebration of the first national liberation struggle. A small group of Jewish freedom fighters (today they’d be called terrorists) defied the accepted common sense that the powerful armies of Antiochus’ Seleucid kingdom, located in Syria, were invincible and that attempting to struggle was immensely unrealistic and utopian. A significant section of the Jewish elites were opposed to this struggle, and felt more comfortable assimilating into the Hellenistic culture that Alexander the Great and his successors were trying to impose on the world. Yet, as Chanukah celebrates, the spirit of the people, connected and energized by their connection to a Judaism that saw God as the Force of Transformation in the universe, was more powerful than “the man’s” (imperialist) technology and armies. That story sustained Jews through centuries of persecution.

The birth of the child Jesus similarly evokes the hopeful possibilities of a world that had been conquered by the Roman successors to Greek imperialism. That this child, born in poverty and homelessness and among animals, to parents who would soon flee and become refugees in Egypt, has frequently renewed hope for those who themselves have little grounds to believe that their own suffering will soon end.

Of course, both stories have their limitations too. The regime that the Maccabees created soon turned oppressive to those in the Jewish world who did not accept the stern orthodoxies that the Jewish state created, and some even welcomed Roman rule as an alternative. The Judaism that was so hope-oriented in the centuries of Jewish exile from our homeland has now become trapped in nationalist fervor and justifications for imposing exile or living under Occupation for a significant section of the Palestinian people, ignoring the Torah’s command “when you come into your land, do not oppress the stranger (the Other), remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Christianity that celebrated the birth of that Jewish refugee child Jesus would in later centuries turn against Jews, women, people of color and many others as its practitioners sought to impose their religion by force throughout much of the world. So many American Christians today are willing to turn their backs on the fate of other refugees instead of embracing them in the spirit of love that Jesus represented.

So the bad news is that the world is not yet redeemed, and our religions have at times acted more like the oppressors than like the embodiments of the liberatory humanitarian loving energy they set out to embody. The good news is that there are many people in both of these religions who are capable of reclaiming the hopeful and loving and justice-oriented instincts that were there at the beginning and to create beautiful rituals to embody that energy.

This Chanukah (which ends on Sunday, January 1st this year) and Christmas and the secular New Year also on the 1st can be turned into occasions for the spiritual progressives in these religions to unite, affirm their shared message of hope and insist that all our friends and families stop wallowing in despair and cynicism and instead join us in challenging the forces of fear that have led so many people to embrace militarism and xenophobia. Let them hear the voices of those who raise high the banner of love, kindness, generosity, social and economic justice, environmental sanity and awe and wonder at the grandeur of the universe — and let that message be prominently and explicitly articulated by YOU, dear reader, throughout this holiday season. I hope you’ll send this message to your friends and check out my vision for the kind of world we can build together at www.tikkun.org/covenant (it’s called “A Path to a World of Love and Justice”).

Meantime, I’m honored to be part of the writers for Thrive and wish you warm blessings for a happy and spiritually rich Chanukah, Christmas, New Year and/or holiday season.

Rabbi Michael Lerner [email protected]

Michael Lerner, “the love Rabbi,” is the editor of Tikkun magazine www.tikkun.org and chair of the interfaith and secular-humanist-welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives www.spiritualprogressives.org/covenant. He is the author of two national best sellers: Jewish Renewal — a path to healing and transformation, and The Left Hand of God: Taking Back out Country from the Religious Right.He is also the author of seven other books inclluding The Politics of Meaning, Spirit Matters, The Socialism of Fools: Anti-Semitism on the Left, Embracing Israel/Palestine — a Strategy for Middle East Peace and with Cornel West: Jews and Blacks: A Dialogue on Race, Religion, and Culture in America

Originally published at medium.com

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