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 long, long ago, when three of the more hopeful public figures of the 20th century, President Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr were assassinated between 1963 and 1968. For others, it may have come when President Obama promised to fight to save the environment and then opened up a huge territory for drilling. Or 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. Or when people in Europe and the U.S. couldn’t understand what must have driven people to be terrorists willing to kill others, apparently these more advanced people unaware that their own countries had been engaged in wars that have killed tens of millions of people in the last sixty years. Or when a recent poll showed 50 percent of Americans opposed to letting in Syrian refugees who were fleeing from the horrors of ISIS.
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 Christianity that celebrated the birth of that Jewish refugee child Jesus would soon 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 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 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 begins on Sunday night December 6th this year) and Christmas can be turned into occasions for the spiritual progressives in them 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. It’s a spiritual progressive approach — and you can be a militant atheist, agnostic or secular humanist and still be a spiritual progressive — you don’t have to believe in God or be part of any religious community, you only have to be willing to commit your energies to building a world of love, justice and environmental sanity, and do it with us by reading our vision at www.spiritualprogressives.org/covenant and then joining our international movement at www.spiritualprogressives.org/join.
And if you happen to be in northern California, you are invited to come to our Chanukah commemoration on the last night of Chanukah (December 13) at which we will be celebrating not only the Jewish liberation struggle, but all the subsequent liberation struggles (including those being waged by the Palestinian people and by #BlackLivesMatter), affirming what was or still is good in them, acknowledging their limitations and rededicating ourselves to be part of those movements which are so badly needed at this very moment!!! Information and registration info at www.beyttikkun.org. Or create your own.
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. His books Jewish Renewal and The Left Hand of God: Taking Back out Country from the Religious Right, were national best sellers. He is also the author ofThe 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.