For Christians, Christmas shouldn’t just be a celebration, but a time to recommit to Black liberation
As I’ve grown as a thinker, Christmas is less about family, presents and eggnog and more about the birth of sacrifice in pursuit of justice.
By Law Ware
Typically, Christmas is thought of as a time of hopeful expectation. In fact, Advent, the four Sundays before Christmas that many Christian churches use to celebrate the Nativity, began on Sunday, December 3, 2017, and that very notion, hopeful expectation, is a conceptual underpinning of the season.
The lyrics from “O Holy Night” express it perfectly:
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
‘Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope; the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
If you look at the story of Jesus’s birth through a traditional lens, you’ll see political exploitation and social marginalization. Evil appears as though it is about to win, and in the middle of all this chaos comes a beacon of hope that was long prophesied: the magical, messiah who will save the people from their misery.
The words from the above song make sense through this lens. The world is weary due to injustice and corruption, but there is “a thrill of hope” because, finally, the one who was promised has come to deliver the oppressed from their oppression.
I see how many can read this holiday as hopeful—but I never did. For one, I struggled with the metaphysics of the incarnation. The whole Holy Spirit getting a teenager pregnant was strange to me. It reads like a woman getting knocked up and coming up with the worst lie in the history of bad lies. More importantly, the violent way this story ends does not make this a optimistic beginning.
Jesus toils in relative obscurity for 30+ years. He is then rejected by many of his followers in the latter part of his life (see John chapter 6). Finally, he is sentenced to death for challenging the socio-political powers that caused the oppression in the first place. For those reasons, I struggled with seeing this as a joyous holiday. It just did not make sense.
I’ve since overcome this cognitive dissonance by tarrying with the truth that it’s neither the death nor birth of Jesus that should make this an important holiday. We spend too much time focusing on the salvific importance of his birth that we miss the message of his life. And the same reasons Christians overlook Jesus’s life during this time is why concern for the marginalized so often isn’t a defining factor of their Christianity.
In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus tells the story of sheep and goats. It’s a metaphor for his followers who have concern for those who are oppressed and those who do not. When the goats say, “Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not care for You?” He responds with “inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.”
Jesus places himself firmly in the Jewish prophetic tradition of being on the side of the marginalized—and Black folks in this country have, consistently, been the ‘least of these.’
From decrepit schools to the new Jim Crow, we are the left out and the forgotten in America’s democratic experiment. And I have no doubt that Jesus would boldly declare, in response to these injustices, that ‘Black Lives Matter.’ As Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable . . . Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
Frederick Douglass said something similar:
If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation…want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning.
As I’ve grown as a thinker, Christmas is less about family, presents and eggnog (although I enjoy each and every one of those things) and more about the birth of struggle and sacrifice in pursuit of justice.
When Jesus was born, he was born into a world that needed someone willing to speak truth to power; someone willing to sacrifice for the sake of justice, and, if we are to believe the narrative in the Bible, he did just that.
To me, Christmas reminds me of my responsibility to stand in solidarity with Black people here and around the world. Yet, I must do so knowing that, like Jesus, the eradication of injustice in my lifetime might not be achievable. Further, the call of this season is a call to do battle with homophobia, wrestle with white supremacy and tarry with my own complicity in systemic evil. How that story ends is beyond my control, but it is my responsibility to join in the fight.
Law Ware. is a philosopher of race at his day job and a curator of dopeness when time allows. Bylines in The New York Times, Slate, Fusion, Dissent, The Root and others. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org