During the last ten years the African cultural celebration known as Kwanzaa has become increasingly prominent in public life. Newspapers routinely provide coverage of local Kwanzaa observances, and television stations include Kwanzaa with Christmas and Hanukkah in their holiday greetings.
What is Kwanzaa, and how did it start? Kwanzaa was invented in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, who chairs the Department of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach. From his involvement in the Black Freedom Movement, Dr. Karenga recognized that black Americans lacked a cultural celebration that would affirm their African heritage. This is mainly because the slave trade that first brought Africans to America ripped them out of their cultural setting, and thus prevented tribal traditions from being handed down to future generations. Unlike immigrant groups that chose to come to America, Africans did not have a social context that enabled old traditions to survive in the new world. Coming up with Kwanzaa was Dr. Karenga’s way of reconnecting African Americans with their cultural past. Although it is promoted as a festival for the worldwide African community, it is mainly observed here in the United States.
The word Kwanzaa means “first fruits” in Swahili, the most widely spoken African language. In keeping with this definition, Kwanzaa is partly a harvest festival. But it is primarily a celebration of African culture. In the words of its founder, Kwanzaa reaffirms “the dignity of the human person in community and culture, the well-being of family and community, the integrity of the environment and our kinship with it, and the rich resource and meaning of a people’s culture.”
Many Christians feel uneasy about Kwanzaa. This is mainly a matter of timing. Since the festival is held from December 26 to January 1 it appears to conflict with Christmas, and thus to rival Christianity. In fact, when Kwanzaa first started to attract public attention, many black churches actively opposed it for this reason.
Supporters of the festival claim that it is cultural, not religious, and that therefore it is compatible with any religion, including Christianity. However, they admit that Kwanzaa has “an inherent spiritual quality,” and it must be said that some of its traditions have religious overtones. The festival is presented as a time of reverence for the Creator and the creation. Kwanzaa is said to bring “a universal message for all people of good will”—language that sounds very much like what the angels said to the shepherds (see Luke 2:10; KJV). One day of the festival is dedicated to faith, and another is called a Day of Meditation. However, since the content of this faith and the object of this meditation are left unspecified, Kwanzaa should not be considered an alternative religion.
If there is a danger in Kwanzaa, it is the temptation of turning culture into a religion. According to the Official Kwanzaa Website, the festival “brings us together from all countries, all religious traditions, all classes, all ages and generations, and all political persuasions on the common ground of our Africanness.” This makes it sound like culture is the ultimate reality. Even religion finds its place under culture, rather than the other way around. This temptation—to make everything else revolve around our culture—is one that we all face, whether or not we happen to be African American. We can thank God for our ethnic heritage. We can even celebrate it. But we have to be careful not to make it the basis for our life in this world.
Kwanzaa promotes seven virtues, or basic principles for life—one principle for each of the seven days of the festival. These virtues are rooted in traditional African philosophies of life. They are unity (Umoja), self-determination (Kujichagulia), collective work and responsibility (Ujima), cooperative economics (Ujamaa), purpose (Nia), creativity (Kuumba), and faith (Imani).
With the exception of self-determination, these virtues echo important aspects of biblical Christianity. The Bible teaches the importance of unity, work, responsibility, purpose, creativity, and faith. The overlap between Kwanzaa and Christianity is not surprising. It is another sign of God’s common grace, which is at work within all people and all cultures. Because we are all made in the image of God (see Gen. 1:27), we cannot help but reflect his goodness and grace, in spite of our sin. Common grace cannot save us. Only the saving grace of Christ can do that. But what common grace can do is remind us of the good and gracious God who made us all.
Unity, work, responsibility, purpose, creativity, and faith are noble virtues. However, they only come to their full expression and ultimate perfection in Jesus Christ. This is the difference between Kwanzaa and Christmas. Whereas Kwanzaa offers us principles, Christmas gives us a person—the incarnate Son of God.
Where is the best place to find unity? In the church of Jesus Christ, which unites people from all cultures into one indivisible and everlasting family. Who has shown us what it means to work and to take responsibility for others? The Son of God, who did the work of salvation when he took our sins upon himself. What is our true purpose in life? To glorify God the way Jesus taught us, which we can only do through a saving relationship with him. How can we reach our full creative potential? By opening our imaginations up to the sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit. And what is true faith? It is a loving, trusting relationship with Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord.
Whatever virtues there may be in Kwanzaa come to their fullest expression in Jesus Christ. Thus the thing that is most worth celebrating—at this or any other time of the year—is the coming of his salvation into the world. Whatever else we may think about Kwanzaa, we should not allow it to distract us from Jesus, whom God sent to be born in the manger, to die on the cross, and to be raised from the dead, so that everyone who trusts in him could be saved.
[Information for this Window on the World comes from The Official Kwanzaa Website hosted by Dr. Maulana Karenga. The author wishes to acknowledge the assistance of Elder Michael Kennedy in thinking through the place of Kwanzaa in African American culture today.]
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