By Art McDonald
“On Jan. 1, 1863, supporters of the abolition movement gathered at churches all over Boston, where programs of oratory, hymns, poetry, and song celebrated the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation … in attendance at the Music Hall (on Winter Street) and nearby Tremont Temple were members of Boston’s oldest performing arts organization, the Handel and Hayden Society. To a crowd of 6,000, they sang a program including “The Night is departing,” from Mendelssohn’s “Hymn of Praise,” and “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s “Messiah.”
“The night is departing, the day is approaching,” they sang. “Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us gird on the armor of light,” … words especially resonant with Boston’s African-American community (who counted among them) a sizable number of former slaves … Jan. 1 was dubbed Jubilee Day, after a passage in (the Hebrew Bible) Leviticus that indicates a year in which all slaves would be freed to return to their families, and became a yearly celebration of freedom for the African-American community.” (Boston Globe, Dec. 29, 2016 – “Jubilee Concert Celebrates Abolitionist History.”
Actually, that passage from Leviticus is not only about freeing slaves, but it’s a declaration that the land (private property) actually belongs to God and every 49/50 years is to be returned to its original owners and, furthermore, debts are to be canceled. What a concept – A proclamation from God that is in service of the common good, i.e., the good of all folks vs. any notion of purely personal gain or economic exploitation by the few. It was called the Jubilee Year.
This amazing Jubilee event every year on New year’s Eve in Boston made me think, once again, of our recent Presidential election and some of the themes that emerged that, ultimately, spoke deeply to some of our most struggling fellow Americans. It’s a very curious thing to me and many others that President-elect Donald Trump and Democratic challenger, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, spoke to some of the same constituency. Any number of voters, including a few whom I know very well (relatives by marriage), had said back in the Summer, that if Bernie Sanders wins the nomination, they would vote for him, if Hilary Clinton wins, they are voting for Trump! Ideologically, a reasonable person you would surmise that Sanders and Trump were miles apart, thus speaking to very different constituencies, yet, as we now know, among others the same white, working class folks who helped elect Trump, would have considered voting for Sanders. Amazing.
Most curious of all, in some ways, This “old guy,” 74 years old, who appealed to the younger generation who got the “Bern,” Senator Sanders is Jewish and we’ve never had a Jewish President and we are all aware of the many reported incidents, especially since the election, of anti-Semitic attacks across the country. Even more amazing, Sanders is an avowed Socialist, a designation and ideology often dismissed by a large constituency as un-American. To this end, in conversations with many friends since the election, despite polls suggesting Sanders would have beaten Trump, a number of Jewish friends believed the American people would never have elected a Jew, and many other friends suggested it would be even less likely that the voters would have elected a Socialist! At least for the time, we’ll never know the answer to this question.
Today, a day after the great Jubilee event in Boston, commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, inspired by a passage from the Jewish bible, we are gathered to celebrate a somewhat minor Jewish holiday, coincident with Christmas this year, Hanukkah, as the revolutionary Maccabees reclaimed the Temple in second century BCE and rededicated it by lighting the sanctuary lamp. And, of course, part of that ancient celebration was a miracle of one day’s worth of oil lasting for 8 days, thus Jews make Hanukkah an 8 day celebration, ending last evening, and light all 8 candles.
Like the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, freeing Black slaves, Hanukkah celebrates the emancipation of the Temple, the sacred home of the Jewish people, from domination/occupation of a Syrian dynasty – Both highly political events and victories for oppressed groups.
In his unlikely campaign, Sanders, the Jew and Socialist, proclaimed a message of emancipation for struggling workers in our society, against what he referred to as a “rigged system,” and as a Jew, though not particularly religious we are told, he was still drawing off this deep Jewish history of freedom fighting, emancipation, social justice and, yes, socialism. To this point, some years back I read a book review about a Jewish community in New York City in the let 19th and early to mid-20th century entitled: “A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York.” It’s a story about Jewish immigrants which documents a fascinating alliance made between Russian-speaking Jewish intellectuals and German-American Socialists. A big challenge for the Russian Jews was to convince Yiddish-speaking immigrant laborers that a focus on Socialism and communal values was necessary to make for a just world, despite the intellectual’s bias that Yiddish was a language of backwardness and oppression. In the end, for the workers, attempting to build a Socialist society was a way to overcome some of the hardships they faced as poor, uneducated immigrants and workers.
So this is part of the history Sanders was drawing from, even though he didn’t emphasize his Socialism once his campaign began gathering steam. But, when he was asked about it, he made clear what Socialism meant to him, i.e., something much like the forms of democratic Socialism that Western and especially Northern European countries have instituted in the past many decades, he responded, his Socialism was not an authoritarian, top-down imposed system, but rather a very participatory system in which not individual prosperity but common good values dominate the social-political and economic structures. These societies have provided universal health care, free college, good public transit, etc., and despite high tax rates, a system that I would suggest has worked pretty well for the vast majorities of those societies, especially vs. societies more structured on the free market and individual freedoms, although global economics are clearly forcing changes of some elements of these economies.
Truth is, if we look at the moral and social teachings of many of our deepest religious traditions, whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and others, economic equality and distributive justice rank very highly, with a heavy focus on the common good (what’s best for all). And many of these traditions are quite critical of our current economic and social arrangements. If you want to read a religious statement that has been deemed Democratic Socialism, read the United States’ Catholic Bishop’s Letter on the Economy of 1986 – one of many such statements by religious leaders on the unacceptable level of inequality. Our own UU national assemblies have published many similar statements of note on this topic. If you want to know the Jewish/Christian roots of such a system, read “the acts of the apostles” about the early Christian community that shared all goods.
Certainly we need ongoing conversations about racial and ethnic inequality, but just as seriously we need conversations about economic inequality and the common good. It is hardly a secret that despite our incredibly inventive capitalist economy, which has created enormous wealth, the distribution of that wealth is ever more concentrated in the coffers of the few, maybe even less than 1 percent.
Going forward, despite grave concerns among many of us as to what lies ahead in this country under the upcoming leadership of President-elect Trump and his likely cabinet appointments, I sense an enormous amount of new energy for activism and movement-building around such issues that Senator sanders has raised, as well as many others in movements such as Black Lives Matter, Moral Mondays of Rev. William Barber, ( he calls the movement “moral fusion,” the beginning of a “third reconstruction”) and the upcoming march of Washington by a large coalition of women who are demanding their voices be heard. It’s a worrisome time, and an exciting time of new opportunities. I can tell you I have received calls for any number of people who want to increase their level of participation and activism going forward. That sets my juices flowing. It is the way things should be if we are to have a functioning Democracy. And, as we work on movement-building, with groups such as ECCO and so many others (climate activists, immigrant rigts’ groups, LGBTQ advocates, etc.), I believe religious congregations, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Quaker, UU, and others, will need to play a very major role. Our gospel and our shared values have serious social implications. Now is the time to deepen those commitments.
As head of Sojourner’s Christian and evangelical community in Washington, DC, Jim Wallis has said recently in a radio interview, change for justice and the common good will not come about by whoever is elected to the White House (one person), but if it is to be lasting, must come from the grass roots, from movements of people who give direction to our leaders, much like the abolitionist movement which helped lead to the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of slavery in this country. Nevertheless, there are new slaveries and new injustices that need to be abolished in our day. It is our task to make it all happen.
This year’s Jubilee celebration in Boston, commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation, which took place yesterday afternoon, was performed at the Boston Public Library, a departure from its usual venue at the African Meeting House on Beacon Hill. Each year the musical focus is on Mendelssohn’s ‘Elijah (the Jewish prophet) and Handel’s ‘Judas Maccabaeus,’ the leader of the Jewish rebellion to reclaim and rededicate the Temple, Hanukkah, the feats we celebrate today.
“This year’s program included ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ whose words were written by H&H member, (and famous Unitarian) Julia Ward Howe. It also includes ‘Life Every Voice and Sing,’ often referred to as the ‘Black National Anthem.’ It ties it back for us, continuing the vision of what the Emancipation Proclamation began, and what needs to continue to happen now to really have a free and just society,’ concludes Emily Yoder Reed, H&H vice-president of education and community engagement.
Finally, as Marita Rivero, executive director of Boston’s Museum of African American History, offers, “We’re fortunate to have an encouraging lesson to all of us about the value of working together … holding up the 19th century African American community as an example of the power of many to effect change … they (the freed slaves) continued to reach back and make sure they were addressing the issue of slavery for people who were still enslaved … they continued to pull people into freedom.” Amen, Hallelujah, Happy Hanukkah, Blessed New Year!