Maybe It's Time for Some New Christmas Carols
I was raised by Mormon hippies. In addition to traditional Christmas carols like “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” (my father was especially fond of the “figgy pudding” verse), we learned the complete canon of 60s protest anthems, including one of my favorites, as sung by Peter, Paul, and Mary, “If I Had a Hammer.” The song was written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays in 1949 to reflect the progressive labor movement and experienced a “second coming” as a civil rights era anthem in the 60s.
Remember when people could protest bad stuff and change the world?
It’s that time of year again—the time when media professionals take advantage of unusually quiet offices to compile their annual “Top Ten” lists. Most 2014 lists will likely lead with the tragic deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner (and perhaps of Brooklyn police officers Rafael Ramos, and Wenjian Liu)—manifestations of the same civil rights tragedies that my parents used to sing about 50 years ago. In fact, the past few years have seen several stories of marginalized people protesting privilege and power.
In 2011, Occupy Wall Street was declared the most important news story in a year that included the Gabby Giffords shooting by a man who had schizophrenia and the deaths of Osama bin Laden and Steve Jobs. I had a chance to see the Occupy movement for myself when I was visiting friends in November 2011, the weekend before Mayor Bloomberg shut the Zuccotti Park party down. My first-hand impressions were not positive. I talked to the self-proclaimed media liaison, a pleasant-faced union organizer who refused to give me his real name, though he told me he had been bussed in from Pittsburgh. We had an interesting discussion about classism and Marx, the kind you can’t generally have in Idaho. But while I wanted to sympathize with the message of the 99 percent, what I witnessed was less a collection of legitimate movement sympathizers and more an exploitation of homeless people, many with mental illness.
(Aside: 2011 also saw a black man, Troy Davis, executed by the state of Georgia for the 1989 murder of an off-duty white police officer. Davis steadfastly maintained his innocence, and there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime).
In 2012, the top stories were mass shootings: the tragic deaths of 20 first graders, 6 educators, Adam Lanza, and his mother in Newtown, Connecticut; and the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting by James Holmes, a young man with schizophrenia. The shootings trumped even the 2012 presidential election and Hurricane Sandy.
(Aside: In February 2012, an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman; according to Pew Research Center, 70 percent of blacks closely followed the story, while only 30 percent of whites cared.)
In 2013, we lost a cultural warrior, Nelson Mandela, and gained another one, Pope Francis. George Zimmerman was acquitted of second degree murder in the Martin case, sparking protests that have simmered and erupted ever since. Princess Kate had a baby, and two Chechen brothers brought terror back to America in the Boston Marathon bombings.
(Aside: The most prominent mass shooting of 2013, Eliot Rodger’s Santa Barbara rampage, didn’t make the top ten news stories, nor did any of the 26 other mass shootings that year. Still, in 2013, we talked about guns, and we talked about mental health, and some of us even hoped we would do something. Representative Tim Murphy introduced a comprehensive mental health reform bill, the “Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act.” Despite broad-based bipartisan support, the legislation died in committee this year.)
In 2014, we heard about police shootings (many of those killed had mental illness). And we heard a lot about Ebola. As of December 22, the World Health Organization reported 7,518 deaths in West Africa from the virulent hemorrhagic fever. The World Health Organization reports that suicide deaths globally are more than 100 times more common, with more than 800,000 people dying by suicide each year. In fact, suicide is the second leading cause of death after accidents for people ages 15-29.
(Aside: We talked about suicide in 2014 too, first in February when Phillip Seymour Hoffman died of an overdose at the age of 46, then with beloved comedian Robin Williams’s tragic death in August. But neither story made the top ten cut, nor did the fact that James Holmes, who is known to have schizophrenia, is facing a death penalty trial, while Scott Panetti, who also has well documented schizophrenia narrowly avoided death at the hands of the State of Texas.)
Which brings me to Christmas.
Forgive me for asking, but sometimes I wonder, when I look at the mess this world has become: what would Jesus do? Yes, that Jesus, the “reason for the season,” the baby god born in poverty, raised in a climate of oppression and social injustice?
Jesus would demand change. Jesus would tell us to love each other. Jesus would die for his truth.
Meanwhile, we buy presents—so many presents!—and bake cookies and sing “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas.”
We are comfortable with the baby Jesus, lying serenely in his manger while angels watch over him.
We are less comfortable with Jesus in the synagogue, speaking truth to power. Or Jesus on the cross, dying to save people who just don't want to be saved.
I think that if Jesus could choose his own carols, he would prefer Pete Seeger’s call to action: “It’s the hammer of justice! It’s the bell of freedom! It’s the song about love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land.”
Maybe we need some new Christmas carols in 2015.