For those who missed out on a Christian education, or have forgotten the words, the carol Away in A Manger tells the story of the birth of Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem. Like the Occupiers today, Jesus and his parents were part of the 99%. They were poor citizens of an indifferent Empire. Ordered by government decree to leave their home in Nazareth and travel to Bethlehem, Joseph and a pregnant Mary were made homeless because Rome was preparing a census for taxation purposes. Some things don’t change. The man whose message of peace, love and resistance would inspire billions over the centuries, was himself poor and homeless when he entered this world.
It has been decades since I considered myself a Christian. My falling out with the Church and the realization that Christmas was just another capitalist plot coincided with my teens. Since then, my favourite Christmases have been the ones where I sat cross-legged on a cushion for hours at a time. Buddhist meditation retreats were the way to go until I met my partner, who of course loves Christmas. It has not been an easy reconciliation but this year her gift to me came in the guise of a question, a Christmas koan, a possibility of transcending this Bacchanalian madness. What does it mean to occupy Christmas?
In the 20th century most protesters who set themselves against the status quo were reading the Communist Manifesto, not the New Testament. Christianity, on the other hand, was the religion of Empire and was used with great efficacy on every continent to oppress, repress and suppress. But there is something about the Occupy movements of 2011 that seems to herald a reclaiming of a language of faith.
Someone holds up a sign in New York: Compassion is the new currency. A sign in Toronto: Don’t Stop Believing. In Montreal: Re(love)ution, Be humanKind, and Put Not Thy Faith in Banks.
In the United States, neighbours form human chains around houses to prevent the bailiffs from seizing the properties. People mass at banks to protest each other’s foreclosures. This is not American-style rugged individualism or survival of the fittest. Rather, this is neighbourliness and community in action, this is Jesus at the temple raging against the money lenders, speaking truth to power. While we have been worshiping at the alter of consumption, buying the latest gadget, plugging in and tuning out, we have been neglecting our relationships with each other and the Earth.
Yet this past year, beginning with the Middle East and quickly spreading around the world, we have been reminded, capitalism and Empire notwithstanding, that we are all connected. From Facebook to Adbusters, many disparate people have spoken with many singular voices. And out of the din came a few central messages: love thy neighbour as thyself, we are each other’s keeper, the poor shall inherit the Earth.
Chris Hedges wonders if these movements may revitalize Christianity. If perhaps Christianity will abandon its alliance with the powerful and come down to join the people. After all, it’s what Jesus would have done.
Kathryn Harvey is a historian living in Montreal.