It’s officially spring — the time of Passover for Jews, Holy Week for Christians, Holi for the Hindus, New Year for Sikhs, Beltane for pagans.
And just as the sap is beginning to run in the sugar maples, these rituals are full of opportunities and inspiration for creative resistance. Over the years, activists have appropriated and embellished rituals associated with the spring holidays in some instructive ways — ways that highlight values that are often in direct opposition to what the mainstream interpretations of these practices espouse.
Passover: ‘Let my people go!’
The Jewish holiday of Passover is, at its core, a celebration of liberation. The original biblical story told of a people freed from slavery under a cruel pharaoh in ancient Egypt. Though this entire history may itself be fabricated (that’s another story!), the stories and icons associated with the ritual meal of the Seder have been adopted to move participants well beyond the original intention.
First of all, the story itself, the “haggadah,” has been variously rewritten, expanding the definition of slavery and liberation beyond the evils of human bondage to liberation from racism, from hunger, from occupation and from persecution of many types. One of the earliest examples of this were the Freedom Seders in the 1960s. In April 1969, on the first anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, a large interfaith Seder with as many as 800 people was held in Washington, D.C., honoring the struggles of black Americans against oppression. Since both African-American Christians and Jews actively embraced the story of the Exodus, the Seder both built community between black and Jewish constituents and held spiritual meaning for participants.
The Freedom Seders sparked the writing of many more haggadahs to guide people through celebrating various other liberation struggles — feminism, vegetarianism, the liberation movements in Latin America in the 1970s, environmental sustainability, child labor and more. Interestingly, events based on these Seders have expanded even beyond Passover itself. In the 1990s a series of “Pride Seders” were developed and held concurrently with other LGBT pride events a couple months after the holiday actually took place. These ritual meals, though not connected to the Passover celebration except by inspiration, offered a framework for Jews and others who have felt excluded in their families, congregations or communities to own and remake traditional rituals in a positive and culturally significant way. In the past few years, some communities have developed “hunger Seders,” which focus on food deserts and the nutritional needs of low-income children and families in many cities.
There are many traditions within the Seder rituals that lend themselves to being adapted to new contemporary needs — making them at once comfortingly familiar and radically inclusive.
Since Judaism, like many of the world’s largest religions, was developed within a patriarchal framework, the Passover liberation story has spoken especially strongly to the women in the community concerning their own need to liberate themselves. Feminists in the 1970s recast the Seder ritual by highlighting the roles of women and adding stories and symbols that spoke to women’s contributions. A cup of water for Miriam might be found alongside the cup of wine for the prophet Elijah, for instance, testifying to her role as Moses’ protector and prophetess.
At the center of the meal is the Seder plate, an actual plate with several ritual items that represent key aspects of the Exodus story — including a roasted lamb shank, bitter herbs, a cinnamon apple salad. Some will add an olive, or an olive branch, to honor the significance of olives as a food staple in Palestine and as a reminder of the need to work on achieving peace with the Palestinians. Some also add fair-trade coffee beans or chocolate to represent progressive Jewish concerns about forced child labor in the supply chains of those products.
The inclusion of an orange on the Seder plate is one of my favorite examples of adaptation of old traditions, along with the story of how it came to be. Rabbi Susannah Heschel — daughter of renowned Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who led the 1969 Freedom Seder — first proposed this idea as a way to show solidarity with lesbian and gay Jews, as well as others marginalized by the orthodox community. She was moved to suggest this because, in the 1980s, a group of women at Oberlin College had put a crust of bread on the Seder plate to represent how lesbian and feminist issues were excluded; since bread is not to be eaten throughout the week of Passover, placing the crust on the plate violated rules of the holiday and only served to continue exclusion rather than doing something that would be inclusive. (This is a fabulous lesson for activists — the importance of keeping in mind that to make a transformation possible it must be something that could be accepted into the community, not something that is alienating at its core or impossible to imagine.) Susannah had participants at her Seder each take a segment of the orange, suggesting sweetness and juice, and then spit out the seeds as an act of spitting out the unsavory bits of homophobia and prejudice. Including the orange spoke to sweetening and enriching the community when everyone is welcomed.
And since we’re on the topic of male domination — many people think that the orange came to be included on the Seder plate because a man, upset that women were allowed to be rabbis, said to Susannah, “A woman belongs on the Bimah like an orange belongs on the Seder plate” (the Bimah being the platform where the altar in a syagogue is). Although this version of the story is not true, it is one more example of patriarchy taking ownership of a woman’s lovely and juicy idea.
Holy Week: On the back of an ass
Two rituals of the Christian Holy Week that have been used effectively in nonviolent actions include Palm Sunday and Good Friday — with its theatrical stations of the cross. The first Holy Week, in which Jesus was tried and crucified, is a far cry from what normally goes down today; if folks were to act or think like Jesus himself did, they’d probably find themselves outraged at the world around them — the poverty, inequality and violence inherent in the system — and might, instead of being in church, be in the streets, standing up for justice, protesting for a better world. Recognizing this has opened up a lot of space in the progressive Christian communities for integrating activism back into the week’s events. And protests in the original spirit of the day continue in the Middle East as Palestinians struggle for self-determination and to participate in religious rituals in Jerusalem.
At the beginning of Holy Week, Palm Sunday marks the day that Jesus arrived in Jerusalem. Large crowds gathered to catch a glimpse of whomever it was — since he was rumored to be coming to town to protest the mighty Roman Empire — and waved palm fronds in the hot sun. As it turns out, Jesus rode into town on a donkey — not a powerful horse that one would ride into battle or a prestigious chariot. Riding a common animal was not only overt solidarity with the lower classes but a direct rebuke to the excesses of the Romans. It also sent a message that he came in peace. This high political theater was followed up by more direct action that disrupted business as usual at the Temple, where he turned over the tables of the money changers. Confronting the rich and powerful of Jerusalem and Rome made Jesus a target for repression.
Progressive Christians have often observed Holy Week as a time of resistance and work for justice in practice. Recently, an interfaith gathering at the White House called on Obama to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry tar sands from Canada into the United States. Interfaith Moral Action on Climate Change brought palm fronds along to symbolize life challenging the destruction caused by the fossil fuel industry. Calling on courageous individuals to use civil disobedience to send a message to the president, they invoked the need to stop the plagues of our generation — the ecological disasters that result from climate chaos.
In Australia, Palm Sunday is a traditional day of protest for peace. During the 1980s, Palm Sundays were the occasion for enormous anti-nuclear rallies all across the country. In 1985, 350,000 people participated in one of the largest events, demanding an end to Australia’s uranium mining and exports, abolishing nuclear weapons and creating a nuclear-free zone across the Pacific region.
Good Friday’s traditional reenactment of Jesus’ “stations of the cross” as he approached crucifixion has been the foundation for many theatrical actions. Last year, for instance, Occupy Boston’s Protest Chaplains led a crowd through symbolic stations that highlighted the need to challenge American empire and the unfettered control of the 1 percent, as well as the disproportionate cost to women and the poor of the economic crisis and of war. The ritual, which recalls that Jesus was forced to drag the cross he would be crucified on through the streets, also became a reminder of how critical it is for each of us to overcome our fears and resist injustice.
Of course there are many more examples throughout history of how activists have made use of religious rituals as the basis of creative political work. Not that everyone will be reachable through an altered ritual — certainly religious associations can be exclusive and alienating for some. But it’s worthwhile to think of new ways of harnessing spiritual, religious and popular traditions as we look for accessible and transformative ways for growing our numbers. These traditions, perhaps even more deeply than popular culture, are embedded in our psyches and thus have resonance at a very elemental level.
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