This Christmas season celebrates human inclusion in a divine story. I know our American culture has made a concerted effort to commercialize this season and muffle any mention of its thoroughly religious significance. Imagine evacuating Yom Kippur, Hanukah, or Ramadan of its religious foundations. This season reminds us there is significance in the human being. This season celebrates active divine personality affirming the value of human personality in time, space, and creation.
While American culture continues to sanitize and demystify the Christmas season, the Church has a fresh opportunity to recapitulate the first century event of the incarnation. We can breathe new life into this historical narrative and communicate it within the context of our nation which has pockets of persons struggling with economic burdens and people anguishing over many difficulties in cross-cultural relationships.
In summary, the angels appear in a dynamic high definition spectacle to poor working class persons during their swing shift. These poor working class persons of the Middle East exist in the shadow of a government ruled by persons of a different ethnicity. Their subjugation has resulted in events which included rebellion through violence by some, accommodation to obtain political and economic influence by others, and for others, the prayerful anticipation of the Messiah to establish an everlasting kingdom of righteousness, justice, and peace. The poor working class and ethnically marginalized have a front row seat to the drama of the ages.
The Christmas season significantly affirms the dignity of poor working class Americans. The angels did not appear to affluent intellectuals with the message of peace. The working poor on the fields of Israel observed with their own eyes the majesty of eternity communicating the ceasing of hostilities between God and man because of the presence of God. In an American culture and specifically in an American Church culture which esteems prosperity over poverty, white collar over blue collar, and formal over informal education, the Christmas season reminds us the working poor are privileged with the experience of beholding God in the flesh first and the vocation of evangelization to announce what they had seen and heard.
As we stumble into 2017 with a growing number of working poor and unemployed persons imagine the societal transformation which can occur as these men and women are offered primary seats to announce good news. In the realm of religion this can resemble pastors and preachers submitting to the teaching of working poor men and women who possess an experiential understanding of Philippians 4. As Pope Francis states, the Church needs evangelization by the poor. In the realm of economics, the Christmas season reminds the working poor, in fact all of us, our value, worth, and opportunity to participate in the story of God does not depend on our economic standing. The Christmas season invigorates the working poor to be active participants in transcendent storytelling demonstrating the power of God in and above our limited economic barriers.
What does the Christmas season communicate to men and women experiencing the storms of ethnic strife and dehumanization? Let me briefly state, the American Church has been complicit in advancing-explicitly and implicitly-the notion the Christmas season is about a Caucasian family. This event does not begin on the rolling green of Ireland or the rainy country side of England. The angels do not appear in Germany, Sweden, or Norway. This event occurs among persons whose skin color and hair texture is far from Western European ethnicity. A tradition which “prides” itself on biblical accuracy should make the necessary correctives. Considering such correctives, the angels’ announcement of peace has personal and societal implications. God declares peace to men in whom he is pleased. God’s gift of peace is indiscriminate in its offering. Jew and Roman are both included in this new reality of peace which offers an internal transformation of the soul. As men and women, of various of ethnicities experience the individual peace of God, such a transformation extends to transformed interpersonal relationships.
I have no idea as to why we continue to circle around this same bush of racial reconciliation. It is as if we are the children of Israel taking a forty-year trip to a land of peace which should be a short journey from slavery to freedom. Yet we persist in the desert as another generation dies in not able to appropriate the Promise Land. The Christmas Season reminds us God indiscriminately and graciously reconciles himself to persons who “injure” his love and holiness in the most horrific of ways. In 2017 and in the sphere of societal relationships we can extend peace to those who injure us based on our ethnicity. Violence in word and action demonstrates the possibility a person has not internally appropriated the peace of God. Peace which unites former opponents results in forgiveness, relationship, and above all, love which confounds the world. Lastly, the political sphere can learn from this announcement of peace as well. Our government must continue to participate in legislative actions which protect and unite all her citizens affirming the dignity and significance of all persons. As peace pervades our personal, societal, and political lives we will be person who dance into a land of peace which overflows with the milk of affirmation and love which taste like sweet honey.
I am thankful for the Christmas season. I am thankful God continues to give peace indiscriminately to men, women, and children in past generations, our present, and the future. This Christmas season reminds us to look at our culture upside down and place as much affirmation in the value and worth of the working poor and those who are ethnically different. This is a peace we can all celebrate.
Overview of the Legislation
Arkansas State House Representative Mary Bentley (R) has submitted House Bill 1035 as an act to be considered during the 91st General Assembly of the State of Arkansas which will convene in 2017. HB 1035 has two purposes; 1) restrict food stamp benefits to the purchase of healthy foods and 2) address obesity among persons living in poverty who by “overconsumption of excessively sugared foods, food products, and beverages increases the risk of obesity and other diseases” (HB 1035, Section 1, (a), 2).
In summary, HB 1035 seeks to influence the health of low income Arkansas citizens receiving SNAP benefits by restricting benefits to the purchase of foods and beverages possessing nutritional value as determined by the Department of Human Services (DHS). DHS will develop these restrictions based on current programs such as Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) and the implementation of the modified program will depend on DHS having approval from the Department of Agriculture.
On face value, Representative Bentley’s proposal serves to address a needed concern in our state but like all government interactions there will be unintended consequences. Immediately, restricting food purchases to healthy foods will cause men and women to purchase food at a higher cost and therefore, impact purchasing power. Secondly, SNAP acts a “supplement” to an existing, though limited household income, creating a situation in which another income source will be needed to make up the loss due to the purchase of higher priced foods. It is important to understand who are the men and women who will be impacted by this legislation.
The Obvious Need
The United States Census data reports 13.5% of persons are currently living in poverty. In our state of Arkansas, 19.1% of persons or 568,836 beautiful persons are living in poverty. In a land of material prosperity, men, women, and children are the working poor seeking many times to make decisions between rent and utilities, groceries and medicine. It is a curious thing our legislatures are quick to amend and financially restrict programs which impact the poor and not as quick to limit their own spending power. When was the last time a legislature proposed spending restrictions on its own bureaucracy? I am willing to be corrected. More importantly, who are these men and women?
Angela is a single mother of two. Angela works in the medical field assisting doctors with patients and based on her hourly wage of working forty hours per week Angela qualifies for SNAP. Angela, could take a second job but such an action would not allow her to be home for her children after school hours. So, what would you do?
Carl is a single father of two. Carl spent two years working with DHS to gain custody of his children who experienced a terrible situation of abuse in the home of their biological mother. Carl secured employment at a local car wash and uses SNAP to provide meals for his children. When the weather is bad, Carl does not work. SNAP functions as a necessary resource for his children.
Per the USDA, an Arkansas household receives an average monthly benefit of $252.57 through SNAP. The proposed legislation will impact 214,056 households or 468,904 persons in our state. Open a refrigerator and you will find generic three liter sodas, basic eggs, milk, and close to out of date meat. Take a moment, pull a seat up to the kitchen table of these households and look in the grocery bags of these men and women. You will see knock off Cheerios, potato chips in a yellow bag, and maybe those vanilla cookies that come in the long three rows. These are typically not the goods you will find in Kroger on Salem or Whole Foods on Chenal Parkway. These are men and women who are taking what they have and putting food in their stomachs to make it through the day.
The Responsibility of an Individual and Society
Human beings are participants in a shared reality possessing a common bond because of their personalities of rationality, creativity, and need for affiliation. In other words, we are all brothers and sisters regardless of ethnicity, religion, or economics. As individual human beings, we are the center of responsible action and each of us must live in a manner which extends our individual lives in a moral and ethical manner. Simultaneously we exist alongside other individuals. Individuals mobilize to create a society to maximize individual lives and accomplish a set of goals based on shared values. In the context of a society, the tension between individual needs and societal preservation exists. The individual has the responsibility to act morally alongside his or her neighbor which includes the use of resources. The society acts to serve the individual, especially the weakest, so the society can continue to flourish.
Our society determines to address food insecurity by establishing SNAP and improve an individual’s opportunity to purchase food. The individual in response to such generosity has a moral obligation to use such resources for that expressed purpose. Under the proposed legislation, the representatives of Arkansas identify it is necessary to create amendments to this program and yet the proposed approach does not necessarily address the second objective of obesity reduction through healthy eating. Therefore, what role can the society and individual play in improving the use of SNAP and obesity reduction?
Recommendations to the Legislature, Community, and Individual
In the Gospels, Jesus looks over a mass of men, women, and certainly children which had been following him and listening to his teachings. At one point, a disciple discerns the hunger among the people and Jesus states, “You give them something to eat.” What follows are some improvements which can be made to HB 1035
Therefore, as we discuss this bill in the upcoming legislature let us all remember to seek to participate in a beloved community. In a community in which individuals who are hungry and thirsty experience satisfaction and the community works passionately to act compassionately and steward our resources well.
As an African American I am pleased to see another male figure who looks like me possess the opportunity to exercise great influence to change the lives of other people. Dr. Carson stands in a growing choir of African American men who have seized opportunities to improve themselves, their families, and society. He joins a chorus which includes President Barak Obama, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Attorney General Eric Holder, Senator Corey Booker, Mayor Andrew Jackson, and Secretary of State Colin Powell. While this choir of men possess different political voices and octaves, collectively they sing a beautiful song of powerful contribution energizing the uplift of America and a strong voice of African American resolve. These men are reminders we can be triumphant.
In the announcement of Dr. Ben Carson’s selection as the new Secretary of HUD, pending Senate approval, some men and women who share his ethnicity have responded negatively. Social media has been brutal. Consider the following,
“Uncle Tom over the projects”
“Any black person who is excited and willing to work for Trump who surrounds himself with known white supremacists and look the other way when it comes to our oppression is indeed a coon, a sambo, an Uncle Tom.”
“He is Black…Isn’t he?”
“He's black (on the outside anyway) so of course they assume he lived in public housing.”
The above statements represent in my estimation manifests an intense internal conflict in response to an individual who has “stepped out of line.” I choose not to argue the merits of whether Dr. Carson is qualified to run a government agency. How many people have the experience of doing such work until after he or she has done the job? Secondly, we-African Americans- betray ourselves. Many of us just spent the last eight years celebrating President Obama’s leadership as the Chief Executive and now are in a state of lament as he prepares to transition to private life. In a state of schizophrenia, we now dehumanize a man who has conquered similar circumstances and now has an opportunity to influence housing for millions of Americans.
Why do we as African American’s expend such a level of vitriol towards a human being who has chosen to place himself in a position to move persons forward? Specifically, as Secretary of HUD his leadership will impact persons who live in low income housing, develop solutions to address the 549,928 homeless persons in America, and provide funding opportunities to nonprofits to address all types of housing situations. Dr. Carson represents an American and an African American who is living freely, yet the language attached to his person reflects the language of slavery.
House versus Field
What do I mean? Slavery as a former American institution created a situation in which one group of persons primarily benefited socially, economically, religiously, and politically, while another group experienced the deprivation of human dignity. This deprivation of human dignity created a situation in which slaves on plantations would identify as “field slaves” and “house slaves.” Malcom X earlier in his work commented about the house versus field slave dynamic by stating,
“The house Negro usually lived close to his master. He dressed like his master. He wore his master's second-hand clothes. He ate food that his master left on the table. And he lived in his master's house--probably in the basement or the attic--but he still lived in the master's house. But then you had another Negro out in the field. The house Negro was in the minority. The masses--the field Negroes were the masses. They were in the majority. When the master got sick, they prayed that he'd die. [Laughter] If his house caught on fire, they'd pray for a wind to come along and fan the breeze” (Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan. 23 January 1963).
Frederick Douglass commented on his field slave experience as an emotional, physical, and spiritual dehumanization. “I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute” (Douglass, 1881). In contrast, a former slave named William Brown reflects on his own experience as a house slave by stating, “I was a house servant - a situation preferable to that of a field hand, as I was better fed, better clothed, and not obliged to rise at the ringing of the bell, but about half an hour after” (Brown, 1847).
The situation of house slave versus field slave inevitably created a situation of division, distrust, and maintained in theory the possibility of slave revolts from occuring. This was not always the case though. In the final analysis, persons who existed in the same tortuous situation learned to despise their fellow brother or sister due to their situation on the plantation.
Fast forward to today and African Americans continue to appropriate similar language, as in the case of Dr. Carson. Per some, Dr. Carson represents the house slave on the plantation of America under the thumb of the slave master President Elect Trump. Men and women rather than celebrating success choose instead to view a representative of their ethnicity as a “Uncle Tom,” “sellout,” and question his blackness.
Stacy Washington who hosts a radio show in St. Louis has experienced similar disparaging and dehumanizing remarks. On multiple occasions this African American woman has had her “blackness” questioned, her legitimacy of marriage to an African American man questioned, as well as the comments of “coon” and other disparaging remarks.
We possess an internal conflict of the soul which manifest in our communities. We desire to see African Americans succeed yet such success depends on political position. It appears Dr. Carson’s, Mrs. Washington, or others like them, their legitimacy depends on political position. If they maintain the status quo with success they are accepted but to have success and communicate a different position delegitimizes success and the label Uncle Tom is applied.
Peace on Earth
In the Gospel of Luke, poor shepherds were tending their flocks with the sky rolled open to reveal a choir of angels singing, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased” (Luke 2:14). The eternal and transcendent reality established by mankind’s Creator merged with our temporal existence to communicate transcendent peace would be realized in the lives of frail persons.
I don’t know how long it will take for us as African Americans to find peace between each other but I do understand it begin with God and then being at peace with our individual selves. Peace offers us the possibility to reflect on ourselves as images of magnificence and infinite possibilities. As we arrive at this loving self-perception we have the capabilities to perceive each other in a similar fashion. Peace will eradicate the self-hate which produces such language as sambo or Uncle Tom replacing it with language of encouragement, celebration, and prayer. This is what Christmas is partly about. Men and women being at peace with each other because God has chosen to bring peace to his creation.