"The Jesus of the biblical and black tradition is not a theological concept but a liberating presence in the lives of the poor in their fight for dignity and worth. This is the Jesus I wrote about."
James H. Cone
My mom always tried to make sure Christmas was abundant and good for me and my siblings. She would shop early and poignantly. She would buy us beautiful things like clothes and jewelry, and sometimes gave irreplaceable gifts that would pierce our souls like a meaningful book or a piece of art work. One Christmas she gave me an anthology of newspaper writing when I was considering trying to write. I loved it.
My mom grew up poor with an alcoholic mother. She lived with her grandmother, who loved her, in Massachusetts. While she was tight-lipped about her youth, I knew her Christmases were probably frugal and full of angst, given the pain she must have felt about her absent mother. Still, her unshakeable spirit allowed her to thrive as an adult. I grew up hearing stories about how my mom prevailed over adversity. She dazzled with smarts and accomplishments. She gave her life to service and philanthropy, helping hospitals, schools and scientific organizations.
So when I hear about how Republicans have cut food aid to the poor and voted on a budget that would end unemployment benefits on December 28, I tremble and think of my mom's struggle. The poor are not inferior or indolent. To be sure, some Republicans have resisted this kind of talk, such as Ohio Governor John Kasich, who said the GOP was mercilessly waging a war on the poor.
Talking about the lapsing of unemployment benefits, President Obama said Americans would "lose a vital economic lifeline at Christmas" and that "we're a better country than that."
He's right. All of us are better than that.
In pondering the plight of the poor, I re-read a book called "God of the Oppressed" by James H. Cone about the African American oppressed and poor. The book delineates how poor African Americans have liberated themselves from the bondage of slavery, de facto slavery like sharecropping and Jim Crow, via God and Jesus Christ and African American protest culture.
While slavery and Jim Crow have been eradicated, African Americans still bear the brunt of poverty in America. Whites and Hispanics make up a substantial percentage of poverty, but African Americans make up a larger relative amount.
Cone's description of African American theology is riveting and poetic.
It begins with how the God of Abraham and Jesus Christ have been life and spirit-saving forces for African Americans. The Exodus story, in which Jews were freed from Egyptian slavery, has been a spiritual bulwark for their struggle against white supremacy.
Moreover, Jesus's life and teachings in the Gospels has given them moral sustenance. Jesus's good news was to embrace the poor and afflicted. The Gospel of Luke says: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are you who are hungry, for you will be filled." The symbols of the Cross and Resurrection were God's way to show solidarity to the poor and marginalized. Jesus died for them so that they would find balm and freedom.
African American culture has been equally important for African American theology. During slavery, black slaves would express their protest against the oppressive system with slave spirituals like ones authored by Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. Additionally, in modern times, the witness of Martin Luther King, Jr., Zora Neale Hurston, Fannie Lou Hamer and Toni Morrison have excavated the African American experience with courage, inspiration, grace and love.
The urgent truth is that African Americans have and should continue to speak and write about both their affliction and their triumph. When they convey the truth about their experience, we become more humane as a society.
My mom was not a slave, or a sharecropper or injured by Jim Crow, but she did face enormous hardships that African Americans and humans of all races have encountered. This Christmas we should reject odious lies about those who struggle because of race or poverty. Instead, we should center our efforts on giving love and aid for those who face misfortune.
As Cone said: "We do not struggle in despair but hope, not from doubt but form faith, not out of hatred but out of love for ourselves and for humanity."
Merry Christmas, MoMo. I love you.