Kwanzaa Learnings for People of White Privilege

As a man with White privilege I feel anxiety about offering any comments about a celebration of African/African American history, culture, and wisdom. I do not intend to appropriate the spiritual traditions of other people. However, as I told a friend, “It is not my heritage, but oh my, the wisdom is so powerful, so needed.” 

A bit of personal history is in order. One of the things that happened when I was the pastor of Metropolitan Community Church of Richmond VA that really makes me proud, is our decision to observe Kwanzaa on the Sunday immediately following Christmas. I do not know for sure which year we began, but I know that by 2007 (I had been pastor since 2003) the local paper ran a story with pictures about our observance.  We had purchased a kinara, a beautiful carved wood holder for the seven candles, as well as the required green, red and black candles (I don’t think I had ever seen, let alone purchased, a black candle before this). 

I was moved to promote this because I was acutely aware that this congregation of 80 people was overwhelmingly white-identified—in a city in which African Americans constituted a majority of the population (of course, the suburban counties were very different!). I admit that my reasoning included appealing to African Americans, especially LGBTQ people, to check out our congregation. This was not the first time White-dominated institutions used Kwanzaa as a marketing ploy (Hallmark cards come to mind). At any rate, I have come to appreciate Kwanzaa over the years, although I admit I have not always actively observed it. With this post, I am committing to active year-round engagement. 

Dr. Maulana Karenga

One of the seven principles of Kwanzaa is Kujichagulia, self-determination. Dr. Maulana Karenga, the creator of Kwanzaa, said that he wanted to give Black people an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history, not as a subset of or exception to other holidays, but their own self-designed, self-actuating celebration and foundation for personal and communal life, to define and name themselves, as well as to create and speak for themselves. 

That is why I think Kwanzaa is so vital. It can help people with White privilege come to grips with the reality that Black people, as is true of Indigenous, Brown and other people, have not only a vibrant self-defined culture but are agents in their own well-being. It is essential that we with White privilege massively change the ways we have set up, and continue to set up, the world to deny that. 

All of us, and each of us, who benefit from unearned White privilege need to get our collective knee off the backs of BIPoC people, but we also need to realize that even though we continue to victimize them they already have their own dignity, their own values, their own history. That dignity, those values, and that history are a powerful testament to the vibrancy of the human spirit from which we can learn much.  

We, all of us, need the wisdom that is collected and celebrated in Kwanzaa.  People with White privilege could learn so much from the peoples we have devalued, abused, slaughtered—and continue doing that today. At the same time, we who benefit from unearned privilege need to be careful in our own observance of Kwanzaa to avoid bleaching it (an example of bleaching is what is done each January to the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., removing all the edges of his words and work that might upset us, so he becomes a faint caricature of the giant he was and still is). 

I have already mentioned Kujichagulia, self-determination. Let’s look at the other six. 

Umoja (Unity)—To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race. 

Unity is so missing in our nation today, and really around the globe. Let the coming year be one that helps all people come together. A vital way people with White privilege can contribute to this is to give up some of that privilege, and work to eliminate it entirely. We can’t keep clinging to ideas and practices of superiority over others if we really want unity.

Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems and to solve them together.  

Collective work and responsibility is in short supply these days, especially with the number of people who continue to deny the reality of COVID-19, not to mention the Climate Emergency and the continuing scourge of White supremacy, and engage in behavior which endangers not only them but the rest of us, too. You know who you are and you can change if you care enough about the well-being of all. And the rest of us can promote this change.

Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)—To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together. 

Cooperative Economics seems foreign to our capitalistic, monopolistic society. Imagine, encouraging everyone to use their gifts to build their own dreams in ways to benefit all. One small way I am trying to encourage this is to buy as little as possible from the online giants and give my patronage to local and smaller companies and especially to those owned and operated by BIPoC people. 

Nia (Purpose)—To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness. 

Purpose as an expression of collective focus seems foreign to the deep strain, the dominance, of individualism in the United States. This principle raises up the truth of the beauty, wisdom, and power of African cultures so often belittled and degraded by Western supremacist views. That needs to change, of course, and frankly people of White privilege also must think and work to draw upon parts of our heritage that call us to more universal values and behaviors. 

Kuumba (Creativity)—To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it. 

Creativity is an aspiration to contribute our fullest potential to the well-being of all. This is not motivated by profit and power for a few but by an awareness of our own innate and developed gifts, and a desire to use those gifts to bless, serve the world. There are people of privilege engaging in philanthropy but this is more than that; this is giving our whole selves, and continually stretching ourselves, to create a better world for all. 

Imani (Faith)—To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle. 

Faith speaks to the fundamental human need to believe in each other. In the context of African and African American history, this is a reclaiming of the beauty and power of the various cultures and movements of the people. For White privileged people, this needs to be understood as a challenge to us to affirm the dignity and value of all people, AND to ongoing critical conversation and action that challenges and changes the people, attitudes, and practices that create and maintain hierarchies of value denying the dignity and value of others. Frankly, I, we, have much work to do in this! 

In case you hadn’t noticed, at the heart of Kwanzaa is community, communal living. May this new year be a time where more and more of us live in ways that acknowledge the truth that we all—of every nation, color, racial identity, religion, language, sexuality, gender, age, tribe, education, economic status, as well as all the non-human creatures of this world—are in this together. 

Indeed, the lessons of Kwanzaa tell us we people of White privilege must change. We can share in celebrations of this special time created and led by others, but if we do not show up to work on our own transformation we are only engaging in making ourselves look and feel good.  

We’ve got a year to show some progress. Let us get to it. 

If you want to learn more, you can visit https://www.officialkwanzaawebsite.org and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kwanzaa

Note: As always, I invite you replies as an opportunity for us to continue the conversation. The best way to share in the conversation not with me but with others is to use the comment option on this page. You also can sign up to become a subscriber to this blog. I would be so glad of your continuing participation in the dialogue. 

Addendum to “Chanukah: Reminder to Resist”

During the Chanukah celebration with my Jewish Voice for Peace Metro DC Chapter yesterday (mentioned in the prior post), we shared in this blessing by Rabbi Rosen as the menorah candles were lighted. I find it moving, evocative of the deep spirit and drive for peace and justice in the world. I am thinking I will borrow it to use on other occasions when lighting candles (such as my 75th birthday next year), reminding myself and others of our shared desire for wholeness in the world.

We Light these Lights

by Rabbi Brant Rosen

We light these lights
for the instigators and the refusers
the obstinate and unyielding
for the ones who kept marching
the ones who tended the fires
the ones who would not bow down.

We light these lights
for the sparks that guide us on
through the gentle night
for the darkness that swaddles us
in its soft embrace until the moment
we inevitably emerge
into life renewed.

We light these lights
for the spirit of resilience that remains
after our strength has ebbed away
for the steadfast knowledge even as
the bullets echo repeatedly
off bodies lying in the streets
that the impunity of the powerful
cannot last forever.

These lights we light tonight
will never be used for any other purpose
but to proclaim the miracle
of this truth:
it is not by might nor by cruelty
but by a love that burns relentlessly
that this broken world
will be redeemed.

Chanukah: A Reminder to Resist

Chanukah began last evening at our house with the lighting of the first candle and the singing of

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tsivanu l’hadlik ner shel Chanukah.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to kindle the Chanukah lights.

Tonight is Shabbat, and Jonathan and I will sing the above as well as 

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.

Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to kindle the light of Shabbat.

Every other evening we pray before dinner in the kitchen–first with our beloved Standard Poodle, Cocoa—prayers for the world and our loved ones, giving thanks, whatever we feel called to share—and then on non-Shabbat nights we conclude that by singing 

Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

You will notice that the root of each prayer is identical. I really appreciate that, because each time I am reminded of the centrality of God in my life, indeed all life (at least as I believe). 

I am a lifelong Christian, a queer theologian guided by my ever-evolving sense of what being a follower of Jesus calls me to be and to do, AND I am also blessed to be connected to the ancient and contemporary Jewish roots of that faith. Let me be clear, I can’t help but come to Judaism with my Christian heritage and life, but I also come to this beautiful faith for its own truth and wisdom. To put it simply, I am doubly blessed. 

Actually, the blessing is rooted in my 23-year marriage to the love of my life, Jonathan, a Jewish man who helped and helps me engage with Judaism more than simply coming to love what was called in my childhood, and even in seminary, the Old Testament, the text truly known as the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh. He has helped me appreciate Jewish ritual and music and worship and values so now I want to participate more and more in it. I also am educated about the many Jewish spiritual texts by our rabbi and Jewish writers and scholars, which enriches my understanding and appreciation and grows and deepens my faith. 

Another way to appreciate this shift is that I am repeatedly reminded that God, the God of my understanding, is larger than any one faith, any one religious or spiritual system. So blessings abound. 

Tonight, at 6 p.m., Jonathan and I will join our community and Rabbi Joseph Berman online at the New Synagogue Project (newsynagogueproject.org) for lighting the Shabbat candles and the candles for the second night of Chanukah. I am honored to be a member along with Jonathan. 

Then, on Sunday, I will join my community at Metropolitan Community Church of Washington, D.C. (mccdc.com) for worship at 11 a.m. The pastor, Rev. Dwayne Johnson will be preaching on “The Gift of Wilderness.” That congregation and our pastors are a huge blessing in my life, too. 

Then, at 3 p.m. that same day, I will join online the local community of Jewish Voice for Peace (https://jvpdc.org/jvp-dc)for a Chanukah party/celebration. Our special guest will be a young, gifted writer, Massoud Hayoun, author of When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History. It is a splendid book of story and cultural/religious insight. 

Jewish Voice for Peace is a national organization working for justice and liberation for the people of Palestine. Both Jonathan and I are members. Most members are Jewish, but I am far from the only Christian involved. It is a wonderful movement. We began our involvement with the cause while still living in Richmond, VA (where I pastored the local MCC church) through Richmonders for Peace in Israel-Palestine. When we moved to the D.C. area in 2015, we joined JVP Metro DC. 

I connect all this to Chanukah because, although it is not a High Holy time like Passover, Rosh Hashanah, or Yom Kippur—and is often thought of as more for kids than adults (many view the contemporary focus on Chanukah as primarily a response to the dominance of Christmas in our culture)—I also understand Chanukah as a symbol and encouragement of resistance, resistance to oppression, injustice, and the failure to care for each other and the world.

I want to quote extensively from Rabbi Brent Rosen’s recent piece about Chanukah [the name of his blog, Shalom Rav, refers to an evening blessing of Abundant Peace]. He writes, 

Chanukah, of course, is based upon the story of the Maccabees, the small group of Jews who successfully liberated themselves from the oppressive reign of the Seleucid Empire in 167 BCE. The legacy of this story, however, is a complex one because the Jewish struggle against religious persecution took place within the context of a bloody and destructive Jewish civil war. In contemporary times, the meaning of Chanukah has become even more complicated given its proximity to Christmas, subjecting it to the uniquely American religion of unmitigated commercialism.

Beyond all these complications, I’d argue that the essence of Chanukah is the theme of resistance. At its core, the Chanukah story commemorates the victorious resistance of the people over the power and might of empire. On a deeper level, we might say that the festival celebrates the spiritual strength of our resistance to an often harsh and unyielding world.

You can read his entire article, which focuses on how we can resist Covid-19 through mutual aid, at https://rabbibrant.com/2020/12/10/Chanukah-is-about-resistance-lets-resist-this-covid-spike-through-mutual-aid/. Whatever your faith or lack thereof, I encourage you to read it and ponder your own ways of resistance, not only to Covid-19 but also to the other viruses infecting our world (including White supremacy/racism, militarism, the climate crisis, inequality and inequities of all sorts, and rampant capitalist exploitation). 

It may be the season to be jolly and joyous, as we are told—and it is also the season to resist, to work together to create the world God (however you understand God or the Universe or what/whomever) really means for us to have and be, not just you and me but every single body, human and non-human. 

So I say, “Chag Sameach” (pronounced “hahg sah-mae’-ahk) and/or “Chanukah Sameach”, or simply Happy Holidays or Happy Chanukah! 

And may the resistance be strong, resilient, and joyous.  

 

This Gift Keeps on Giving

[Note: My short essay appeared as part of the Advent Devotional series at my church, Metropolitan Community Church of Washington, D.C. Theme for the season is “You Are a Gift.”]

I have been blessed over the past year or two with a growing awareness of nature, especially trees but actually all other plants, animals, and elements, as well.  

Part of this is due to the influence of several authors I am following, including Robin Wall Kimmerer, a scientist, professor, and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and Robert MacFarlane, a fellow of Cambridge University. Kimmerer’s book is Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, and MacFarlane’s is Underland: A Deep Time Journey. 

I mention these works, because they are gifts to me, gifts that keep on giving. I do not remember how I learned of either of these books, and given how powerful each is and has been in my life, I believe books and authors are a gift from God to me, and of course to many others. 

What they have helped me begin to realize is that there is so much more  that is central to this world than humans. I understand more and more that we humans are latecomers to the earth, that other living things, actually living beings, and even beings we don’t think of as living (mountains, rocks, bodies of water, e.g.) have been here far longer. And they have so much to teach us, if we can let go of our sense of human exceptionalism, as if we are the only ones with knowledge. 

And I go further. I am beginning to experience all these beings as fellow citizens of the globe, each one by itself and all of them together. Now I see the world as populated by more than the estimated 7.8 billion humans. Now the population count is so many times that I cannot even calculate. Just think, scientific studies say there are 3.041 trillion trees,  400 billion birds, at least 10 billion squirrels. 

Talk about gifts! 

This year, in Advent as we focus on the reality that each of us is a gift, that I am a gift, that you are a gift, I now see how many other trillions of gifts there are. They certainly will not fit under our Christmas tree! 

But they do fit in my life, my heart, and I hope yours, too. 

The gift God has given us—all creation—and keeps giving us, is the gift that keeps on giving. How blessed we are! 

Thank you, God!

From Turtle Island to Israel: A Shared Reality

Jonathan and I chose this year to observe two events often overlooked in all the focus caused by what is called the holiday season in the U.S. These two events are Native American Heritage Day on November 27 (part of the month-long Native American Heritage Month), and the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People on November 29. 

At first glance, they may not appear connected, but for me they reflect a remarkable intersection, a confluence of political and spiritual observances, memories, hopes, and yearnings. They both involve the reality of peoples affected by the drive of one group of people to claim and occupy land which is ancestral home to others. 

Native American Heritage Day changes actual date each year because it is always observed on the day after Thanksgiving in the United States. Most people know this day as Black Friday. Clearly, the rush to shop overshadows the observance of indigenous history. Indeed, I think that in both the United States and Israel the realities of these two peoples is largely erased by the dominating power.  

The international Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People is always on November 29, designated by the United Nations (although sometimes events at the UN are on adjacent days). The date was chosen by the UN in 1977 in recognition of the adoption of a resolution on November 29, 1947 calling for the creation of two states, one Jewish and one Arab, with an international status for Jerusalem. This was intended to end the British Mandate in Palestine which had been in force since World War I. 

This plan did not come to fruition. The Jewish leadership reluctantly accepted the plan and its boundaries for each of the new nations but the Arab states objected saying it denied the agency of the people currently living there for self-determination. As we know, the result has been the creation of the State of Israel and the division of the Palestinians among three territories: those who remain in Israel, those living in the West Bank which I called the Occupied Territories because the real power of governance lies with Israel, and those living in Gaza, as well as Palestinians confined to refugee camps in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. 

Thus, what we have in these two events is an effort to draw attention to the suffering of two peoples at the hands of occupying powers. 

The erasure of Palestinians is rooted in what Zionists and others felt was, is, the acute need to establish the world’s first truly safe haven for Jews. This drive began in the 19th Century—in response to pogroms and ongoing repression in Europe—and gained support and energy with the rise of Hitler and the genocide of six million Jews in Europe. Clearly, the creation of this new nation is a response to the devastation, a desperate attempt to create a national sanctuary designed and built by the survivors themselves.

The erasure of Native Americans begins with the arrival of Europeans, many of them subject to political and economic subjugation, seeking a better life in “the New World” (not so new for those living here for millennia). It picks up steam as these arrivals want more and more land on which to create a new society, one that gives them a sense of freedom from often negative experiences in Europe and one in which Christianity, not “heathen beliefs,” dominates. 

To put it simply, both groups are struggling to overcome what has been, and is being, done to them by settler colonial societies. 

Settler colonialism is a distinct type of colonialism that functions through the replacement of indigenous populations with an invasive settler society that, over time, develops a distinctive identity and sovereignty. According to Laura Hurwitz and Shawn Borque’s Settler Colonialism Primer, “This means that settler colonialism is not just a vicious thing of the past, such as the gold rush, but exists as long as settlers are living on appropriated land and thus exists today.”

Settler colonialism was practiced in, and the effects remain, in several countries including Canada, South Africa and Australia, as well as the United States and Israel. Thus, these two groups, Native Americans and Palestinians, both indigenous to territory now controlled by more powerful forces are linked by the fate that has befallen them and their struggle to regain their lands and their rights to live freely. 

As I learn more about the histories of these two peoples and about settler colonialism I see that once again a U.S. value has been exported to another part of the world. I am also coming to believe that the shared history of settler colonialism in both nations provides an important layer in their bonding. Yes, the U.S. wants to support the aspirations of the Jewish people for safety, but I also believe our government and many leaders recognize, if only unconsciously, our shared bond with Israel as an occupying power.

Israel is doing what we have done, and continue to do, to our own indigenous population: put them on reservations; make it difficult, if not impossible, for most of them to lead safe, economically and professionally successful lives; mistreat their children; erase their history from “our” history books; and punish those who speak up agains oppression. 

That is why Jonathan and I participated in two webinars focused on the struggles of the Palestinians and Native Americans. Indeed, one of those presentations was entitled “Unite to Decriminalize Indigenous Struggles from Turtle Island to Palestine,” co-sponsored by Friends of Sabeel North America ( http://www.fosna.org ) and Christian Peacemaker Teams (http://cpt.org ) [Note: Turtle Island is a name for North America  used by some US Indigenous and First Nations people and by some Indigenous rights activists. The name is based on a common North American Indigenous creation story.]

I will be writing more about each of these struggles. In the meantime, you can read some of my thoughts about Thanksgiving and Native Americans through this post from 2015, https://thenakedtheologian.org/2015/11/25/gratitude-or-grief-its-both/ . 

I hope you will join the conversation by leaving a comment.