This Christmas, it is not easy to hold onto hope. COVID-19 deaths have surpassed three hundred thousand. Twenty-seven and a half million Americans are without health care. Many workers cannot pay rent or put food on the table, even as Jeff Bezos and others in the 1 percent grow richer by the day.
But amid the chaos, we can look to voices from the past and present that lift our spirits, fortify our resolve, and help us organize.
End the Wars.
Fight for $15.
Cancel Student Debt.
Green New Deal.
Now that is what I want for Christmas.
How did Nina Turner find her voice? The odds have always been stacked against her. Born to teen parents, Turner is the oldest of seven children. By the time she was five, her mom and dad had split up. At fourteen, she went to work, giving everything she earned to her mom to help support her family.
After high school, she worked a variety of low-wage jobs, from fast food to retail. Eventually, she earned her associate’s degree at Cuyahoga Community College, where she is now a tenured professor.
Within Nina Turner is the spirit of the Black Church. The daughter of an evangelist, she jokes that growing up she went to church eight days a week. It nurtured the fire — that fierce truth-telling — that she brought to Bernie Sanders’s campaign.
Describing her work for the progressive movement, she told Cleveland’s Plain Dealer last year:
In many ways I see this as a ministry. I am on a mission to help make this world a better place. . . . to bring about a revolution in this country. The type of revolution that will not leave working class blacks, whites, Latinx, Asian, and indigenous people behind.
Turner’s bid for Ohio’s 11th Congressional District is an early holiday gift. But we know that no one politician can save us. The road ahead is long. As we head into the next months of quarantine, it is important to ask: What is possible? How creative can we be? How do we keep hope alive?
For inspiration, this pastor looks to a Christmas story from nearly a century ago.
Eugene V. Debs was among the most influential Socialists in US history. His reputation was built on his ability to skewer the money changers, to rally the working class, and to pay any cost for doing so.
Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
The judge then sentenced Debs to ten years in prison.
On the bare wall of his prison cell, Debs hung a picture of Jesus, who he called “the martyred Christ of the working class.” He formed relationships with his fellow prisoners, worked for prison reform, and wrote articles railing against the prison system. His fellow prisoners called him “little Jesus.” In 1920, while still serving his prison term, Debs ran for president of the United States for the fifth time, receiving nearly one million votes. Despite languishing in prison, his resolve never wavered.
Finally, on Christmas Day, December 25, 1921, Debs was granted an early release. It was a miraculous scene, later described by the historian Howard Zinn: “The warden ignored prison regulations and opened every cell-block to allow more than 2,000 inmates to gather in front of the main jail building to say good-bye to Eugene Debs. As he started down the walkway from the prison, a roar went up and he turned, tears streaming down his face, and stretched out his arms to the other prisoners.”
A glimmer of possibility broke through that day — hope that continues to persist, despite everything that tries to snuff it out. We hear it in Nina Turner’s voice, we remember it in Debs’s resilience, and we find it at the heart of the Christmas story.
Christmas began with a young Jewish woman — a poor, brown, unwed, teenage mother. Mary lived under the brutal rule of the Roman Empire. The military occupied the land and seized whatever it wanted — crops, animals, women — as “service to the state.” Under Roman occupation, 95 percent of the Jewish population lived in abject poverty.
But Mary was far from “meek and mild.” When she learned she was pregnant, she sang a song of defiance: “The mighty have been cast down from their thrones, the humiliated exalted . . . the poor have been filled, and the rich sent away empty.” Despite everything, Mary lived as if a change were coming.
So she walked through the night looking for a place to give birth. Danger was all around her, and everywhere she turned, she was denied shelter. Until, finally, Mary found a barn. On a pile of hay, surrounded by farm animals, she gave birth to her son, Jesus.
“This was the beginning of the mighty movement,” Eugene V. Debs wrote, “. . . for the overthrow of the empire of the Caesars and the emancipation of the crushed.”
This Christmas, may the mighty movement be born anew within each of us.