While shopping for Christmas gifts this year, I visited a Christian bookstore to buy a gift for my grandson. Being an inveterate bookstore browser, I couldn’t leave without looking at everything. What I found in church supplies shocked me.
The church bulletins many of us see each Sunday morning are purchased with the printed cover and run through a copier with the order of worship. Among the bulletin shells for Advent, Christmas, and other days, I found one for Kwanzaa. I was stunned.
Then a few days after Christmas I came across a newspaper article entitled, “Many churches wrap Kwanzaa into their Christmas services.” The article quoted several pastors who favored including Kwanzaa celebrations in their holiday worship. This further jarred me.
Kwanzaa is a seven-day holiday that runs from December 26 to January 1. It has no roots in antiquity, but is the invention of Dr. Maulana Karenga, who heads the Department of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach. Dr. Karenga created Kwanzaa in 1966, mixing elements of African harvest festivals with sixties radicalism and the civil rights movement. The seven principles of Kwanzaa set forth by Karenga include unity, self- determination, cooperative economics, and faith. And faith, by the way, is defined as, “To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.”
Dr. Karenga’s official Kwanzaa website states that while celebrating Kwanzaa includes “special reverence for the creator,” and is “spiritual,” “. . . it is important to note Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday, not a religious one.”
The site goes on to say that “you should not mix Kwanzaa holiday or its symbols, values, and practices with any other culture.” That’s in part because Kwanzaa was established as an alternative to Christmas which was viewed as a western holiday. Christian worship would seem to violate the intent of Kwanzaa’s promoters. But if public schools and civic ceremonies are any indication, Kwanzaa is gaining equal standing as a third holiday alongside Christmas and Hanukah. And most folks have no idea it is not an ancient African ritual, but rather the invention of a sixties activist.
When I contacted some of my African-American friends, I was encouraged. One inner-city pastor said that Kwanzaa had all the trappings of a manufactured holiday and that most people he knew — Christian and non-Christian — had no interest. Another friend said that it was an issue in a few churches in his area, but that pastors were dealing with it by making a clear distinction between a celebration of ethnic and cultural heritage and the celebration of the birth of Christ. Good — these pastors are right.
But Christians need to be on guard. As the bulletin shells in the bookstore indicate, politically correct Kwanzaa is working its way into worship.
And the church is always vulnerable to syncretism. Santa kneeling at the manger, church Easter egg hunts, inviting an Imam to speak from the pulpit, and dozens of other examples show how easily we mix cultural rituals with our Christian faith. Let us be reminded worship is not for a cultural celebration, but for the celebration of the one eternal God who created and rules all cultures.