The revolutionary hope of Christmas

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Christmas time can be so depressing. It brings out some of the worst features of capitalism and rubs them in our faces. You can't escape, whatever your philosophical or religious belief.

Advertisements spur on feelings of guilt if you don't buy enough of the right kinds of consumer products for people you love. Creative financing is offered so that lenders can make even more profit. And it is an environmental disaster ... more plastic, cardboard and packaging is produced, carted about, and dumped into landfills, vacant lots, and incinerators at Christmas time than at any other time of the year.

And yet ... Nearly smothered beneath piles of gift catalogs and sale circulars, nearly drowned in a sea of synthesized elevator-music Christmas carols, in a locked theological vault guarded down through the centuries by legions of preachers, priests and pontiffs, there burns a persistent secret flame. It is the flame of a revolutionary hope - hope for a better world, a more just society, where the social order is turned upside down so that the poor are fed and the rich are relieved of their ill-gotten gains. And it is something that working people of any culture, any religious or philosophical background can relate to.

What does Christmas have to do with the class struggle? In a word - everything. The story goes like this:

Once upon a time, in a land far away on the edge of a great empire, there was a people with an ancient culture, a storied past, and a great literature, who had been conquered by a technologically advanced imperial power. They were occupied by foreign soldiers and ruled by corrupt local despots who collaborated with the foreign oppressors. There were periodic revolts of local peasants and slaves that were put down mercilessly.

In the midst of all that, a young unmarried girl becomes pregnant out of wedlock. You might think she would regret this development, but on the contrary, she finds in the anticipated birth of a child a reason to rejoice and to hope for a better world. In her joy and determination, she sings an ancient song of liberation:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me -- He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. (Luke 1:46-53)

She and her fiancee are then forced to make a difficult journey while she is in the last weeks of her pregnancy, ostensibly to comply with the demands of their imperial rulers to register for a census. They are denied lodging in local inns. Homeless, the young family takes shelter in a stable, where the mother goes into labor and gives birth to a baby boy among barnyard animals.

Hardly an auspicious beginning for a child in whom his mother had placed such hope. And then things get worse. The local ruler, a collaborator who is kept in power through an occupation army, decides on an act of terror. Convinced that a revolt is brewing in the village where the young couple has just had their baby, he sends in death squads to kill all the male children under a certain age.

Fortunately, the young family is tipped off and they flee into a neighboring country. There they wait until they receive news of the death of their corrupt local despot, and thereafter return to raise their son in their hometown. When he grows up, the boy becomes a carpenter. As if to fulfill the revolutionary hope expressed in his mother's song, he goes on to organize a movement for social and economic change. It is composed of a coalition of fishermen, reformed prostitutes, the unemployed and low-level public servants, with a cross-section of men and women, and people of different ethnic backgrounds.

The aims of the movement are clear from the very beginning:

"Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight ..." (Luke 3:4-5) .

"He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable Year of the Lord." (Luke 4:18-19)

And so, when you look at the Christmas story closely, you find a story of working-class people living in difficult times, in circumstances not too different from those faced by millions of people today. These are people who are aware of their history of struggle. They draw strength from the lessons of the past and nourish hopes and dreams for a better world.

Mary, the young mother in the Christmas story is supremely confident that the future will be better. Her song, known as the Magnificat, is nothing less than revolutionary. This revolutionary aspect of Christmas is also found in the popular Christmas carol "O Holy Night" (Cantique de Noel). The words were written by the French socialist Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure and it was translated into English by the American abolitionist John Sullivan Dwight. The music was written by Adolphe Charles Adam, a friend of Cappeau's who was Jewish. One verse of the carol states:

"Truly he taught us to love one another; his law is love and his gospel is peace. Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother; and in his name all oppression shall cease!"

The political ramifications of this carol were well understood by some reactionaries in our own country and it continues to be controversial. The song was banned for years in many conservative churches in the U.S. and many radio stations in the South refused to play it.

So, whenever you get weary of the holidays and all the claptrap that surrounds them, remember the young family of the Christmas story, how they hoped and dreamed for a revolutionary transformation of their country and how they persevered in the face of oppression.

Whoever you are, have a merry and revolutionary Christmas. And let us then enter the new millennium resolved to wipe out homelessness, poverty, racism and injustice once and for all!

This article originally appeared in the Peoples' Weekly World, Dec. 22, 1999.

Photo: Chicago's Daley Plaza, 2006. (http://www.flickr.com/photos/laffy4k/ / CC BY 2.0)

 

 

 

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  • Just as surely as the Biblical and legendary Paul of Tarsus quoted Septuagint then, and our modern day Reverend MLK Junior quoted Isaiah 40 at the historical 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom, sources for Luke 3:4-5, in our Communist Pastor and friend, Reverend Tim Yeager's wonderful article here, we are, and would be, "The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness.."-that which would "make straight in the desert a highway for our God."
    It is in the blood and guts of struggle for peace, jobs, justice and freedom from want, that the "glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.."
    It is in the continuing struggle for peace, jobs and freedom that the glory of THE LORD will be revealed-just as our Reverend King spoke at that 1963 March referenced.
    It's probably significant that this article has been repeatedly featured by PW at holiday seasons since the new millennium, as it underscores the challenge of Christ to struggle anew, in the tradition of Jesus and all who fought and fight to feed, cloth and house all the world's workers and theirs.
    Many of our would be Communist would be very surprised to find the depth of understanding that Karl Marx had of Christianity(and all forms of human religion for that matter), which saved his materialism from all semblances of religious and materialist dogmatism.
    Many of our "Communists", "materialists" and "atheists" have not a clue of this essential feature of Marxism.
    Often, we can be the most odious ignoramuses on the question of the spiritual and religious beliefs and practices of the working class.
    This excellent article by our brother Yeager does much to educate and free us from this ignorance, to appreciate monumental Christians like MLK, W. E. B. Du Bois, John Brown, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass-and all contemporary revolutionaries (of which there are millions and millions in the United States of America, Black, white, Native and Latino) who follow the "revolutionary hope" of Christmas to wipe out "..homelessness, poverty, racism and injustice once and for all."

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 12/30/2013 11:59am (8 months ago)

  • Love this version of the story..
    Still hoping for the happy ending too.If telling the truth is revolutionary, we should all be doing the formwr and becoming the latter..

    Incidentally it is Corporatism's way but even they cant yet commercialise our dreams..

    Posted by Jacquelyne Taylor, 12/22/2013 6:02am (8 months ago)

  • As always Tim, right on target.

    Posted by Dianne Aid, 12/21/2013 3:54am (8 months ago)

  • Jesus is noted in scripture for falling out / getting up the noses of 3 categories:

    1) The temple money-changers, leeching capitalists exploiting faith

    2) Jealous Roman imperialists. This is exagerated a bit, few will have known what he was about at all. (The Herod "baby killing" story probably ain't true, not that I think he was Roman, more a localised stooge) Certainly Pilate only had Jesus killed because he was scared of another rebellion for NOT executing him, having already had 1.

    3) Most of all by far, the religious hierarchy. He was forever having a go at them. By the age of about 7 he had figured he didn't need them. And they hated him so much that they stitched up and agitated for his execution by the state.

    Capitalists, imperialists, orthodox religious hierarchy: My kind of guy.

    Posted by SJD, 12/25/2012 6:09pm (2 years ago)

  • Clot the malls with lots of autos
    Curse the traffic and the shoppers
    Though there is a bus that goes there
    We don't want to pay the bus fare

    Keep your patience, lines are endless
    Buy more stuff though you are friendless
    Keep this pace, it is frenetic
    Live a life that is pathetic

    Spend your cash for what you've purchased
    It's the rich that we will worship
    Don we now designer sweatshirts
    Made by kids in third-world sweatshops

    Waddle back with your new burden
    Soon your budget will be hurtin'
    You're in debt to save the nation
    Pray to God there's no depression

    Michael Monasky
    2001

    Posted by Michael, 12/27/2011 12:51pm (3 years ago)

  • Tim, I didn't get to read this until the day after Christmas - but I have sent it on to all my correspondents - with my hopes for a happier New Year! Thank you so much!

    Posted by Gail Ryall, 12/27/2011 2:16am (3 years ago)

  • Great article! Thanks Tim.

    Posted by Rev. Paul White, 12/26/2011 8:15pm (3 years ago)

  • Nice but all based on mythological fairy stories of man gods, Marx had it right when he stated Religion is the Opiate of the masses.

    Posted by Red grandad, 12/26/2011 1:21pm (3 years ago)

  • And when he was a young man, he threw out the money lenders, told the rich that they had a duty to give all their money to the poor, and proclaimed that the dispossessed would inherit the earth. He thus became the first communist to be publicly executed.

    Posted by David, 12/24/2011 8:59am (3 years ago)

  • thanks tim for a great interpretation of the birth of jesus and his life of struggle for the oppressed. no wonder they killed him so young in solidarity jim

    Posted by jim, 12/22/2011 4:42pm (3 years ago)

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