by Adam Clark
It’s strange that the day after Christians celebrate the birth of child who was to become a liberator that they fail to see the liberating possibilities in the week long celebration of Kwanzaa (Dec. 26-Jan. 1.) The infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke portray Jesus as the bearer of concrete longings of a people for freedom from Roman rule. Kwanzaa was created out of the liberation narrative of the 1960s. The longing of African American people for freedom, selfhood and beauty grounds and shapes the vision, values and practices of Kwanzaa. It is derived from African first-fruits harvest celebrations and encourages it’s observers to be thankful for good and beauty of Creation and act for the well-being and wholeness of the world.
Despite its ecumenical character, Kwanzaa remains controversial in black churches. Many popular websites professing to explore the relationship between Christianity and Kwanzaa encourage Christians not to practice Kwanzaa. These websites question the relevance of Kwanzaa to the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Some regard Kwanzaa as a rival “pagan holiday,” “cultic celebration” or as idol worship. Others question the motives of the creator of Kwanzaa, Maulana Karenga, who is cast as an anti-Christian thinker, hostile to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. These religious detractors position themselves as defenders of the faith and see their attacks on Kwanzaa as a way of preserving biblical faith against the unbiblical principles of Kwanzaa.
What’s ironic is that the people who denounce Kwanzaa do not have the same suspicion toward the celebration of Christmas. There is a sharp distinction between the biblical portrayal of Christmas and its contemporary emphases. Christmas Day originated when the church used the stories of the birth of Jesus to place a thin Christian veneer over the Roman holiday celebrating the Winter solstice. The American celebration of Christmas that features Santa Claus as its chief icon, lighted trees, shopping rituals, massive food grabs and spectacular gift giving resemble the festivals of Imperial Rome that honored the might of Caesar more than the humble story of a couple that gave birth to a Christ-child in a manger.
Thus the religious critics of Kwanzaa have it backwards. Instead of rejecting Kwanzaa and embracing the religion of consumer capitalism that co-opts the Christmas story, observant Christians should regard the practice of Kwanzaa as a new mode of expressing their faith. At the heart of the celebration of Kwanzaa are the liberative acts of rescuing and reconstructing African history and culture, cultivating communitarian African values and using them to enrich and expand human freedom and flourishing. This is accomplished through the Nguzo Saba, the seven principles of Kawaida (a communitarian African philosophy), which shapes the heart of Kwanzaa. The Nguzo Saba, understood within a Kawaida framework, is the hub and hinge on which the holiday turns and the core of its moral and social consciousness.
While there is value in all observances of Kwanzaa, people who practice Kwanzaa outside of its Kawaida framework are more susceptible to making the holiday superficial and become vulnerable to charges of “You’re just dressing up pretending to be African” or “This holiday has nothing to do with the concrete needs of black people. It’s bourgie!” Thus the practice of Kwanzaa without Kawaida is like observing Christmas without understanding the significance of Jesus birth to a people under Roman rule. It is the Kawaida that gives Kwanzaa its liberatory framework. Each principle represents not only a central value but a certain practice necessary to achieve human fullness and well-being. Christians find parallels in Jesus’ mission to bring establish the kingdom of God on earth. Jesus’ image of the kingdom points toward an alternative vision of life under God, a world transformed. Likewise, the Nguzo Saba (Seven Principles) initiates an alternative vision of life in black communities. The seven principles are: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity) and Imani (Faith). Each day of Kwanzaa is devoted to the observance and practice of a principle.
As a celebration framed in the midst of the African American freedom movement, Kwanzaa must be informed by ongoing struggles and aspirations of African and other aggrieved peoples. The democratic insurgencies in the African countries of Tunsia and Egypt that initiated the Arab Spring, Occupy movements, the reconstruction of Haiti, and initiatives to address environment devastation in light of BP oil spills and Fukushima (Japan) nuclear meltdown should be embraced and celebrated as practices of Kuumba (creativity) “to do always as much as we can in the way we can in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it” and as actions that participate with Christ in making the conditions on earth resemble those in heaven.