A spiritual home for the holidays

Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays
‘Cause no matter how far away you roam
When you pine for the sunshine of a friendly gaze
For the holidays you can’t beat home, sweet home!

The holidays are all about family. Right? Norman Rockwell’s iconic paintings and illustrations of holiday celebrations certainly portray the image of the happy American family – multiple generations seated around the table, complete with Grandma serving a 20-pound turkey. Some families look just like that – and if they do, the holidays are likely to be merry and bright. At least, if you get along with your family.

Sadly, many people don’t get along with their families, which can make the holidays an extremely painful and difficult time. Of course, there’s no shortage of dysfunctional families, for a wide variety of reasons. And family conflict, alienation, and rejection are still potent realities for many sexual and gender minorities, despite the fact that, according to national polling data, positive attitudes towards LGBTQ people are steadily increasing. Add to that the fact that Christmas is one of the most widely celebrated Christian holidays – anchored in a religious tradition that has been used to oppress and persecute LGBTQ people – and you’re essentially pouring salt into an open wound.

Say you’re gay. Or bisexual. Or transgender. Or any of a variety of sexual and gender minorities. And let’s say you were raised within the fundamentalist Christian tradition – that homosexuals are sinful, bad, inferior, diseased, perverse, or some other horrible thing. There’s plenty of people out there who fit this profile – and if we use Bernadette Barton’s 2010 study of “Bible-belt Gays” as an example, people who grow up with these teachings live through, to use her words, “spirit-crushing experiences of isolation, abuse, and self-loathing.” Spirit-crushing. So if your family has rejected you, and your spirit has been crushed by Christianity, how do you find a way to honor the spirit of Christmas without feeling totally depressed and alone?

I wish I had a good answer to this question, but I don’t. You can find other people to celebrate with – people who support you and accept you unconditionally. You can partake in the secular, commercialized aspect of Christmas (which is what most people do anyway). But once the holidays are over, the family rejection and doctrinaire Christian teachings are still there. Because of that, the post-holiday season can feel like the crash after the high – the hit of stark reality after several days of giddy escapism.

I just finished reading a book titled Jesus and the Disinherited, written by theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman. It’s relatively short, at just 102 pages, and it’s not a heady, cerebral read. But it’s one of those books that I read slowly, stopping every once in a while to digest what I’d just read – and realizing, as I was reading it, just how groundbreaking a perspective this was when it was written. This is a book that laid the foundation for a non-violent civil rights movement. It heavily influenced Martin Luther King Jr., who became an avid follower of Thurman’s teachings. And it has turned my own perspective on Christianity on its axis.

In Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman acknowledges an ugly truth – that Christianity has been used to oppress people, including women, African-Americans, and Jews, to name a few. However, Thurman interprets the Gospel as a message of resistance and empowerment for the oppressed, especially given the fact that Jesus, a poor Jew, lived during a time of intense racial and cultural tension – and likely understood first-hand the experience of oppression and marginalization. He understood people whose “backs were against the wall” – a phrase Thurman uses liberally throughout his text to refer to the disinherited. Jesus, according to Thurman, was also a man whose “back was against the wall” – but instead of resorting to fear, deception, and hate (all of which are enemies of the soul), Jesus made a radical call for love:

[Jesus] projected a dream, the logic of which would give to all the needful security. There would be room for all, and no man would be a threat to his brother (p. 24).

Jesus projected a dream. Howard Thurman taught that dream. Martin Luther King Jr. preached that dream:

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

Although Thurman’s book focused specifically on the African-American experience of oppression, Vincent Harding, who wrote the foreword to this edition, notes that Thurman’s message is clearly relevant to many other groups whose backs were pushed against the wall – LGBTQ people being one of the most timely examples. For me, reading Jesus and the Disinherited has given me an opportunity to consider Christianity from an entirely new perspective – and it’s given new meaning and depth to the Christmas holiday for me.

Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent, and I will light the fourth Advent candle this morning. On Christmas morning, I will light the center candle, signifying the birth of Christ. These rituals were never very important to me from a religious standpoint. But today, I see the lighting of the candles as a symbol of Jesus’ message – the message, from a social justice standpoint, of love, acceptance, and unity. I offer that hope to all those whose backs are against the wall, and who don’t feel like there’s a home for them for the holidays.


Filed under homophobia, human rights, psychological research, religion, transgender, Uncategorized

4 responses to “A spiritual home for the holidays

  1. Gary Hollander

    Thanks for the lovely, thoughtful message, Gayle.

    For me — an atheist who is a former Capuchin Friar and also a former Lutheran Musician and a confirmed Episcopalian (yes, I do get around) — these winter holidays are a thing as much to avoid as embrace. My partner and I generally take a low-key approach, avoiding all things commercial. For Chanukah (don’t even ask) we light candles, but don’t pray. We find the meditation on light is sufficient as approach solstice. Often before the season is in full swing, we also decide to do something really big for someone: make a huge contribution or go on a shopping spree with them. This year we did something big for an employee of mine, and listened to him in the car, at lunch, and over the sales racks.

    On December 25, we spend the day with each other, often in pyjamas, and devote and hour or more to planning where we will make our year-end charitable gifts to groups engaged in social justice. Although we don’t exchange gifts, I hesitate to say so; it sounds then like that is something that we miss or about which we feel some void. We don’t.

    Some time that day, I call family members, all of whom live fairly close, to wish them well and listen to how their days are going. We often start getting calls from other friends late in the day or early evening; they want to tell us how bad things were for them with their birth families.

    During the next two weeks we will hear about the joys and sorrows of holidays for our friends and family members. My partner and I will comment later how nice it was to listen and not to get caught up in the drama of the season. We will take naps and dream dreams.

    I wish I could better convey how lovely this time is for us. The world on a fast track and so dissatisfied…while we listen.

  2. Thank you for sharing the rituals you practice around the holidays, Gary. The two themes that jumped out at me right away were “giving” and “light.” So many religious and secular holiday traditions revolve around these two themes. It’s a good way for me to ground myself in the values I want to live every day.

    This past Winter Solstice, I was in an early morning meeting. At one point during the meeting, I turned my head towards the window and saw the most brilliant reddish-pink light streaming through. I stepped out of the meeting for a few minutes to go outside, and I got to witness not only the brilliantly colorful sky, but a double rainbow. On the shortest and the darkest day of the year, there emerged this beautiful color. What better message could have come from nature!

    Thank you for following my blog, Gary, and for all your thoughtful comments.

  3. Thank you, Gayle, for writing about Thurman’s perspective on Jesus. Of all that I have read and heard about Jesus and his teachings, the message urging love and compassion for those who suffer resonates most with me. If that were the only message of Christianity passed down from generation to generation, the Christmas holidays would be so much more pleasant (and meaningful!) for many of the families of origin you speak of, Gary.

    • It seems so simple, doesn’t it, Keith? And yet, the messages of love, compassion, and social justice have been such a threat to the social order. At least I can try to practice (and pass along) those messages to the best of my own ability.

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