Another Christmas season is upon us. The malls are now jam-packed with a flurry of last minute shopping. The anticipation is building. The kids are out of school now, and final preparations are busily being made.
Yet amid the hustle and bustle of the season, there is also a strange but familiar weariness setting in. We are fighting it with all of our might, as we do every year but this year especially, we are fatigued. We are still going through the motions, but we are in shock. We are fatigued and we are in shock because we can no longer deny that the world around us is in unfathomable pain. And when we stop for long enough to notice, we are too.
Deep down we can intuit that the uneasiness we feel is about more than Trump. It is about more than Hillary vs. Bernie. It is about more than Obama. It is about more than Brexit. It is even about more than ISIS. It is fundamentally about who we are and who we are becoming. It is about our shared identity and our shared future.
And try though we might to suppress it with “shop therapy”, this Christmas can barely conceal a persistent, nagging feeling that we as a global community have set a series of things into motion from which we are not confident we will survive. As this reality sets in we are faced with an unusual sobriety and a stark realism. Somehow we have done it. We have undone it. We are responsible.
Particularly at Christmas, few things make this more clear than the seemingly endless carnage we continue to see in cities like Chicago and Aleppo. Indeed, in cities like these across the country and the globe our children are being raised with unthinkable terror and trauma as their new normal.
The image of three year old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi washed upon the shore in Turkey still haunts me this Christmas season just as it did last year. And it should. It should haunt each of our hearts and be seared into each of our minds. These are our neighbors, and they are being completely abandoned.
The Center for Syrian Policy Research has reported that 470,000 Syrians have been killed in the five years since the civil war began. This is a death toll that is beyond staggering. It is incomprehensible. But at a time like Christmas, as a Children’s Pastor and a Quaker educator, my heart is drawn to the children who are affected by this crisis.
UNICEF is reporting that there are some 500 children who have been killed in this conflict and some 8.4 million who are in need of humanitarian assistance. And while there has been valiant work done by humanitarian rescue and aid workers on the ground and we should all be grateful for the ceasefire deal reached last week, even graphic images like young baby Alan, and five year old Omran Dagneesh, seemed to do too little too late to grip our moral consciousness and stop the bloodshed.
Yet, as I consider this onslaught of violence, I sense an odd and unnerving familiarity. I feel it in my body in a way that perhaps others do not. I can only imagine that it is because my great grandparents were slaves and that my grandparents and parents lived as sharecroppers during the terror of Jim Crow in the American South. Or maybe it is because I grew up DC in the 80s and 90s when our homicide rate gave us the distinction of being dubbed the “murder capital of the world”. I do not say this to in any way trivialize the carnage that we are seeing in Aleppo or throughout the Middle East. It is simply to say that to be black in America is to be traumatized by violence.
And just as Syrian families and children are resilient in the face of trauma, we were too. Just as Syrian kids will continue to worship at their local church, mosque, or synagogue, play games, work hard in school, or claim as much normalcy as is humanly possible, we did too. Just as Syrian kids and families are far from helpless victims, but do all that they can to sustain their culture, and hold onto hope, so did we.
Resilient communities have also always endured in the face of trauma. While scholars and the media would rather research and report about our “pathologies,” we were organizing interventions in our schools to broker peace between rival gangs. While others would rather critique our music or culture, we were teaching radical peace and nonviolence in neighborhoods traumatized by the so-called “war on drugs”. And while many so-called “progressive” leaders in cities like Chicago refuse to invest in time tested gang intervention strategies, in other cities like Oakland, faith leaders formed “Operation Ceasefire” to solve our own problems. And we have had to do it all in the face of onerous “three strike laws”, mandatory minimums, and Rockefeller sentencing guidelines that punished the very communities in whom we should have invested.
But , how do we face the reality of violence in American cities like Chicago? At the time of writing this piece, we have seen 4, 248 shooting victims this year alone. As Director Spike Lee exposed, this is not Syria or Iraq, but “Chiraq” on our own soil. How many more 9 year old’s like Tyshawn Lee will have to be slain before we wake up? How many more will be slaughtered over what are essentially “turf wars” both here and abroad?
Particularly during the holidays, when I think of these families, my heart just breaks. When I think of all of the moms who have not only lost their children to gang violence, but also to unchecked police violence, I mourn. When I think of Samaria Rice, the mother of twelve year old Tamir Rice, I mourn. I just mourn.
And even as the death tolls rise, it seems that the moral consciousness of our nation and world is hardly pricked. Our Jewish brothers and sisters experienced this numbness in the face of evil as well during the Holocaust. Philosopher and writer Hannah Arendt called it the “banality of evil” and we are witnessing the banality of evil in ways that are both new and eerily familiar. I sometimes wonder if writing about it helps or only adds to our selective amnesia.
Yet in the face of the carnage of our own time, as Christmas quickly approaches I cannot help but wonder about those who lived some 2000 years ago when Jesus was born. As I think of our cities, I cannot help but recall the carnage and the terror that besieged the city of Bethlehem.
When Herod threatened to use his power to kill thousands of innocent babies and toddlers did anyone stand up for them? Were peacemakers dismissed as “alarmists”then, too? Were they told, it’s not my problem? Well, what about Chicago? Is that not our problem too? What about Fresno and Flint is that not our problem too?
As the death tolls rise, I hear the torturous cries of mothers who have lost their children in cities and rural towns across our land and world as they begin to resonate with the cries of the many mothers from Scripture whose babies were murdered by the likes of Pharaoh, Herod, and many other state sanctioned henchmen:
“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.” (Matthew 2:18)
It almost seems unfair to the babies who perished that baby Jesus survived. Sometimes I wonder, did Jesus ever experience the “survivor’s guilt” that so many of us who grew up in American cities have felt for never being aborted, shot, or incarcerated? Did Jesus ever suffer from the PTSD that kids from Chicago to Aleppo will most certainly endure?
I admit that I don’t always have good answers , but my sense is that Christmas is not the time to stuff our questions into a gift we bought at Macy’s. And while it’s a fun tradition, it’s probably not about some flashy worship service with lights, costumes, and smoke on a stage either.
Is it possible that the birth of Jesus is about more than making us merry?As a dear friend recently reminded me, is it possible that Jesus comes at Christmas to help us find a blessing even in mourning?
Perhaps for the lowly, the left out and the oppressed, Christmas is indeed a time to celebrate. But for those of us who live in the richest and most powerful nation on earth, how many of us are truly oppressed? Mary’s song about the birth of Jesus has been outlawed by state governments several times. I think it is because she says:
“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” Luke 1: 52-53.
How would we respond if we thought her Christmas carol was about us? Is this really an invitation to go shopping? Is this really about putting on a happy face while others suffer? I don’t think so. We have come to perfect the art of denial, particularly when it comes to our wealth, our access, our privilege and our power.
Particularly in the face of Aleppo, Chicago, and places like it across the globe, including much of Appalachia and rural America, Christmas might just be a good time to sit with who we really are and where our actions are leading us.
Christmas comes to teach a wealthy and powerful nation and even a wealthy and powerful church not to be merry, but to mourn. It teaches us to mourn for all of those whom we have left out. It teaches us to mourn for those whom we have excluded from our churches. It teaches us to mourn for those whom we have unfriended or pushed out of our comfy echo chambers. It teaches us to mourn for those for whom Jesus teaches that we have left for dead by the side of the road.
So when we consider Chicago , Aleppo, and places like it across the world, Christmas is a call the call to repentance that we have too long ignored.
At Christmas, Jesus actually comes to disturb our false sense of merriment and bliss. And like Herod, if we have come to covet access, money, and power, the coming of Jesus should rightly make us terrified. As Mary sang, and the shepherds and the wise men affirmed, Jesus comes to bring us to our knees. In their humility and desperation for salvation and repentance we see the true meaning of Christmas. So my hope this Christmas is not that we are merry, but that we are ready. My hope is that we are ready to fall on our knees.