Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Ins and Outs of Christmas

no seas inhumano

tenos caridad
que el Dios de los Cielos
te lo premiarĂ¡

This time of year in Mexico is known as the Posada season -- a time for festive remembrance of poverty. “Posada” means “inn” and starting with Advent people offer to host “posadas” by inviting friends and relatives to their “inn.”

Typically, the guests will assemble as “pilgrims” at some nearby spot. Bearing candles and singing hymns they proceed through the streets following a man playing Joseph, a woman playing Mary and, when available, a burro playing himself.

When they arrive, the “inn” is darkened and silent. Joseph knocks. No one answers. He knocks again.

“Who is there?”

“In the name of Heaven, I beg you lodging; as my dear wife can walk no longer”

The inn-keeper gruffly replies, that there is no room and begone.

“Show us some kindness; God will repay you; my wife is with child and we’ve come a long way.”

Hard-hearted and angry, the inn-keeper replies he could care less and will not be bothered by wayfarers in the night.

“But my name is Joseph, and my wife is Mary, God’s chosen maid to bear the Divine Word”

There is a pause inside, before the lights turn on:

“But if you are Joseph and Mary, bearing God’s child, we did not know you, come, bless us, inside.”

The door opens and the guest-pilgrims enter singing happy refrains.


The semi-liturgical party-going of the Posada Season, serves as a reminder that the Christmas message is an ambiguous one. It is, to be sure, a celebration of hope, birth and family -- the “within-ness”. Not surprisingly, this aspect of the event is given prominence in consumerized or Protestant countries. But the other aspect of Christmas celebrates the without-ness of despair, poverty and estrangement. Not only is a transition to light not possible without the dark, but the light comes from within the dark. True Christmas celebration is not possible without remembering that Jesus began, as he ended, “despised and rejected of men”

Nor without remembering that, at this very moment, a crime of rejection is being committed in the Holy Land against a million and a half Gazans living under a cruel and barbarous siege that has lasted over a year. To be sure, the siege is the inverse image of the posada -- Gazans are not wandering in the dark but are rather shut up in the dark; they are not trying to get in, but food and warmth are kept out. The inhuman essence of the matter is all the same.

The siege began in October 2007 when the Israelis began “interrupting” fuel and electricity supplies to Gaza. Although the U.S. press characterized these measures as some kind of punitive inconvenience, buried in the “fine print” was the fact that the Israelis also “had closed one of the two crossings through which food, medicine and other supplies pass into the area. ... As a result, only limited supplies of basic goods are allowed to enter the strip, and all exports of produce are prohibited. ...”

God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay, an Israeli spokesman assured a complacent gentile world that “We will allow in the minimum amount of food and medicines necessary to avoid a humanitarian crisis.” Ah, well in that case...

The brute cynicism was beyond belief.



In a different darkness, sixty years ago, Rafael Lemkin, a Polish Jew wrote his seminal and defining study of genocide. Lemkin analyzed the various facets of German occupation policies, particularly in the East, to show how they were calculated to erase the existence of un-desired ethnic groups. Outright mass murder was the least part of the analysis. In fact, at the time he wrote, Lemkin was not fully aware of Nazi exterminations. He focused instead on lesser means which tended toward the ultimate end with just as much effective ruthlessness as hands on killing. According to Lemkin genocide operated primarily on cultural, social, economic and biological levels.

It began, he wrote, with “the destruction of the foundations of economic existence" which necessarily brought about a “retrogression” of the target group’s welfare. Destroying economic foundations served also as the prelude to a biological degradation that ultimately produced a physiological withering away through disease and debilitation, in what could be called a process of induced natural selection. In the case of Poland, physical debilitation was carried out through racial discrimination in feeding. As of the end of 1942, Poles received 66% of their pre-war rations and Jews 20%. Having rendered the population susceptible to disease, the next step was to deprive the target group of the elemental necessities for preserving health and life such as requisitioning warm clothing or withholding firewood and medicine. Such measures are especially pernicious to the health of children, which of course is precisely the point. As a whole these and like measures reduce the targeted population to the most primitive conditions of mere existence. Social cohesion fragmented, economic life reduced to hock and barter, education, cultural life rendered irrelevant in the struggle for survival, and its health subverted, the target group becomes helpless, hopeless, disoriented and easily disposable



The result of Israeli “interruptions” were entirely predictable from the outset.

In January 2008, the World Bank reported that as of the end of 2007, 90% of Gaza's industrial production had ceased and agricultural output has fallen by 50% It warned that the economy was on the verge of collapse. One wonders what kind of economy was left to verge. Simultaneously, the World Council of Churches, noted that fuel shortages had hobbled the ability of health clinics and hospitals to deliver services and denounced the Israeli action as “illegal collective punishment” and immoral. The U.N. warned of pending malnutrition and reported that the Israeli blockade had back stopped 224 UN food-relief and in the previous two weeks only 32 trucks had been allowed entry.

But while the UK Guardian was reporting that Gazans were starving, the New York Times derisively reported that “Palestinians [had] used a bulldozer to knock down another portion of the wall ... to continue their shopping spree” in Egypt.

The “shopping spree” -- for food -- did not last long. The breach was sealed and, by April 2008, the Save the Children fund, reported that 50% of Gazan children has inadequate vitamin A levels, 40% were anemic and 1/5 had deficiencies that suppressed their immune systems.

In May of 2008, BBC reported that the impact of the Israeli blockade had been “wide ranging”. It cited the example of a young chicken farmer who was forced to kill 50,000 hatchlings, because gas was not available to keep them warm. What this small business failure meant was that 50,000 chickens were not available for food, even if the young farmer had wanted to give them away. The fuel cut-off, also meant that sewage treatment plants could not work so that raw sewage spilled into the mediterranean or backed up and flooded the streets, risking the spread of pestilence. In tandem, available drinking water was reduced because the Gazans were deprived of the chemicals needed disinfect potable water. Perhaps this was why, notwithstanding the reportorial sneers from the Times, Gazans returned from their “shopping spree” carrying cases of soft drinks.

In September 2008, the U.N. Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon denounced the Israeli decision to classify all of Gaza as an “enemy entity.” The Secretary pointed out that the Israelis’ interruption of electricity and fuel to the civilian population was contrary to international humanitarian law.

In November the International Red Cross reported that the Israelis’ policy had in fact triggered “devastating” long term biological effects. The economic embargo had forced Gazans to cut expenses down to “survival levels”. Agriculture and fishing had been destroyed. Most Gazans survived on 2 dollars or less a day and “those households that still have jewelry and non-essential appliances sell them” in order to buy subsistence food. Chronic malnutrition was rising and children were suffering long term damage from vitamin deficiencies.

This month, December 2008, BBC reported that, the U.N.’s relief warehouses were empty and that supplies trickled in on a day per day / truck per truck basis. Although Gazans were surving on UN subsistence food, the high carbohydrate diet of bread, rice, and vegetable oil was causing more wide-spread vitamin deficiencies and chronic hunger. Some people were contemplating suicide ”just to escape this misery.” The BBC reporter, allowed entry into Gaza by the Israelis, described the bombed out buildings and the fields and orchards plowed under into 1/4 mile no man’s land in order to serve as the Israelis’ “security perimeter”. Selected and lucky Gazans -- whom he described as “trustees” -- were allowed up to the check point to serve as porters. Such was Gaza’s isolation, that his arrival was treated as a newsworthy event by the miserable inhabitants of this ghetto, now shut out from the rest of the world, huddling in hunger, cold and darkness.

The excuses the Israelis dredge up in the attempt to justify their actions -- that they are needed to protect an Israel reeling under a barrage of “missile” attacks that have killed four people in as many years -- are meaningless. Equally bald faced and worthless are protestations that the “sanctions” will stop when the “hostilities” stop. International law forbids collective punishment. The prohibition operates not when there is peace but precisely when two groups are at war. Civilized people who desire to retain some humanity in the midst of conflict, will ask themselves, what threat is posed by a little child, a young mother or an elderly grandfather. Civilized people do not attempt to blackmail their enemies by starving their children. And Christians at least do not do so because “So as ye do unto the least of these, so do ye unto Me.”

There is, it must be said, a kind of political puritanism that acts as a killjoy to every happy moment. We have come to think of Christmas as a happy and sentimental time and do not take kindly to Scrooges reminding us to think of the starving millions in China. There is far too much cruelty and suffering in the world; and it is only natural and healthy to reserve time for joyfulness. One can imagine Martin Luther slapping dour Melanchthon on the back and bellowing Peccare fortior! True enough; but of what strength is joy, if it is merely heedless?


It is also inescapably true that the message of the Magnificat is that God lies within and is born from, the poor, the weak, the helpless; and it is the divine worth of these despised and forgotten that is the light in the dark. So as Christ was born, an outcast in a cold and miserable manger, it is appropriate to protest and pray for the Christ imprisoned and hungry in Gaza.

©WGC, 2008

1 comment:

Donald Schell said...

The passion and intelligence of this piece brings a flicker of good news to a dark, bitter story. Thank you.

Donald Schell