Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Black Friday: On truth and justice

Writing about Thanksgiving and Hanukkah as Thanksgiving wanes and Black Friday waxes.

Both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah are holidays that celebrate a mythic narrative. In both cases the myth replaced a much more gruesome reality. Thanksgiving celebrates the Pilgrims surviving the first winter in the New World with the help of the Native Peoples. In celebration people come together to give thanks for the good things in their own lives–family, friendship, plenty. These are good things to celebrate. However, the myth of the Native Americans welcoming the Europeans to this part of the world erases the story of genocide, atrocity, and displacement which was the actual fate of most of the Native Americans. As Malcolm X said in a different context, the Native Peoples did not land on Plymouth Rock, it landed on them. So, while gratitude is an important practice, so is truth and the admission of culpability.

Hanukkah, on the other hand, celebrates a religious miracle–the finding of one cruse of pure oil with which to light the menorah or candelabra in the Temple in Jerusalem, after the “Greeks” had tainted all the other oils and made performing the sacrificial rituals impossible. Through the metaphor of light and the story of the miracle, Hanukkah has become a festival which celebrates the light which overcomes the darkness, the possibility of miraculous victory, the power of belief in self, family, and people. These too are fine and worthy things to celebrate. However, celebrating them erases, pointedly and concertedly, the history of sectarian struggle and civil war ¬†on which the later story of the miracle was overlaid. The military victory of a small band of zealous priests, was replaced in rabbinic tradition by the religious miracle of the oil, a miracle which returned the presence of God to the Temple. The rabbis did not want to celebrate the Hasmonean band of zealots because when granted victory they in turn became despots and tyrants.

A third narrative layer was introduced by the Zionist movement. The Zionists resonated with a nationalist victory but had no use for either religious zealots nor miracle stories. The Maccabees became forerunners of the muscular Zionists who would reclaim the land with both spear and plow.

Wrestling with the historical truths of these stories while drawing from the inspiration of their myths can be a very worthwhile endeavor. Unfortunately, the dialectic tension of history and myth, historic wrong and eternal verities, is muffled, indeed drowned by the fenzied drumbeat of rampant consumerism.

Gratitude has been replaced by greed. The American version of family and friendship is now told by the stuff that one can buy. This is not merely a misplaced set of values. There is real injury in these “celebrations”. Erased from the tale of happy families returning home with their flat screen television to gather together and enjoy each others’ company, is the tale of the underpaid workers in the United States, and the workers overseas who toil under harsh and dangerous conditions. The demand for “Black Friday” discounts comes at the expense of workers who are paid so poorly that they themselves cannot afford any of this stuff–not to mention rent for their family–and is built on an unholy notion that there is a right to “cheap” which overrides the obligation of justice.

This is not something that we have no control over. There is no law of nature which dictates that workers should not be paid a living wage. It is a decision made by people who prize greed over justice. Therefore, this year on Black Friday, I will be joining thousands of people of good will and hundreds of Walmart workers in demanding that Walmart start treating its workers with dignity and pay them a living wage and allow them to work enough hours to feed and shelter their families.

With this practice of caring and responsibility we will hopefully start telling a new story about work and reward, celebration and obligation.

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To find where there is a Black Friday demonstration near you go to OurWalmart.org.

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