Stories are powerful. They can be redemptive. They can also be dangerous. Right now in America, as around the world, it is a time of both types. We must strengthen redemptive stories, and oppose ones that endanger. We ignore society’s stories at our peril.
America is deep into its holiday season, and holidays at their core are stories brought to life. Hanukkah, which ended last week, brings to life the Maccabees’ underdog victory over Hellenistic royal persecution. Hanukkah’s festive songs recount “the marvels... that You wrought for our ancestors... by the hands of Your holy priests” – thus giving “thanks” dually for human achievements and for God as all good’s ultimate source (“Ha-Nerot Ha-Lalu” – “These Candles”).
Christmas, next week, brings to life the story of Jesus’ birth, twinning a manger’s humility with the “good tidings of great joy” of a divine savior born (Luke 2:10). C. S. Lewis phrased the narrative thus: “a stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.”
In Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism, the festival of lights Diwali, held in November this year, lauds “the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, and goodness over evil,” per scholar Vasudha Narayanan.
When Ramadan falls during midwinter, it contributes the devotion of fasting to the season: “Thus may you... magnify God for having guided you.” (Qur’an 2:185)
WHAT, IN TURN, is the American national story? For generations, America’s large white Christian majority enabled white Christians to feel that the American national story was that of white Christianity. Minorities had to make do amid this climate, often at steep emotional, cultural and even physical and mortal cost. Over the past half-century, two trends have been transforming this picture.
First: American commercialism has been smothering the depth and sincerity of holidays, particularly Christmas, with corporations’ profits, the material-centric highs of shopping and gifts, and shopping’s anxiety. Black Friday and Cyber Monday have joined the American holiday pantheon.
Second: American national life has been becoming much more of a multicolored mosaic. This development arose in new ways during the pivotal ‘60s, reached farther heights with the US’s first black president, and is reaching greater heights still as America’s non-white-Christian demographics approach becoming the nation’s majority. Christmas songs still fill radio airwaves, yet many store greetings have changed from “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays” – and public-property manger scenes are disappearing.
Some Christian conservatives decry a “war on Christmas.” And materialism has indeed degraded Christmas. But regarding multiculturalism, this view mistakenly sees denigration in what is, in fact, a move from hegemony to equality.
Yet in both cases, America has had a national-story vacuum. Commercialism is not satisfying or meaningful enough to be a lasting replacement. The absence of one dominant story does not function as a replacement.
Vacuums get filled.
ENTER DONALD Trump. From his ramrod line, “We’re saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again,” to his groundlessly claiming that “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners” are among the asylum seekers from Honduras, Trump’s story is one in which white Christians are the true Americans: they are besieged, once rightfully enjoyed hegemony, and will get it back – through him. That story’s most-compressed version is: “Make America Great Again.”
The right choice for America is not to return to a white Christian past, nor to stay stuck in the all-too-materialistic present, but to transition into a national story of the future.
That story should be that what truly makes America great is that we are the sum of all our stories. We are the gratitude of Hanukkah, the good tidings of Christmas, the victory of good of Diwali, the devotion of Ramadan. We are what makes each story distinct, and we are what our stories share: light, wonder, joy, and love. And we are the very phenomenon of all these stories’ being summed together – of different kinds of people’s coming together to constitute one society of shared bonds and common striving.
This story neither privileges white Christians, nor leaves them out. This story offers both something novel, and the fullest-yet fulfillment of what has been America’s credo all along: “e pluribus unum” – “out of many, one.”
And this narrative calls Americans to fight demonization, and to honor each other and each other’s traditions.
Often, with an inclusive philosophy comes a sense of inevitability. That sense is false. It can also lead to self-undermining complacency. Time is on inclusion’s side only if we work to make it so. The swift resurgence and high-level victories of the white-Christian-centric narrative spotlight the fact that inclusivity remains contentious, and is under renewed assault.
Stakes are high. Extremists are again spurred by white-Christian-centrism to commit terrorism, from a Pittsburgh synagogue to a Kentucky grocery store. At the US-Mexico border, US troops, authorized by a White House memo to use “lethal force where necessary,” are facing Hispanic asylum seekers with nowhere else to go.
Those who back a story in which America is the sum of all its stories must fight for it as if lives are at stake. Because they are.
Noah Lawrence is a legal scholar and a student at New York City’s Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. He previously worked for the Israeli Supreme Court and Senator Richard Blumenthal.
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