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Purple Reign

Lucy Winkett

Lucy Winkett'No longer are there red states and blue states. The colour purple rules.' Reactions to Barack Obama's victory have ranged from celebrity endorsements (this one was from Oprah) to Kenyan street parties. US commentators had varied in their assessment of how important racial identity was in the campaign, but the United States has its first black president, which is by any measure a historic step for a country that also heard Louis Armstrong sing 'My only sin is my skin. What did I do to be so black and blue?'

The author of The Colour Purple, Alice Walker, is credited not only with identifying purple with the hope for racial justice but with a critique of feminism that European feminists took to heart. Introducing the concept of 'womanism' - that is the development of a sensibility that took black women's experience seriously, the double jeopardy of discrimination that comes with being black and female - she remarked that 'womanism is to feminism as purple is to lavender'.

Purple is the colour of Advent; not the 'waiting for Christmas' period that many believe it to be, but a penitential season of strong apocalyptic Scripture and themes of death, judgment, heaven and hell. Advent is the time to read the prophets and to listen to the extraordinary imagery of the book of Revelation. It is a time for cosmic imagination and global solidarity. It is a time to face the world's bigotry and greed.

Advent is the season for the big questions of life. It is the fast before the feast of Christ's Mass. Its spirituality is stark, truthful and stretching, a moment to recall the judgment picture in Matthew's gospel when those who remembered the poor, sick and imprisoned, and acted in their interests, were embraced by God.

With this in mind, no one with an interest in public life will argue that Western society is just and fair in every aspect. Of course a measure of economic, racial and gender justice is protected by legislation. But when citizens in the criminal justice system and mental health services come disproportionately from ethnic minorities, when a woman from any ethnic background cannot expect to earn as much as a man, then Advent wisdom, with its radical insistence on justice as proclaimed by Jeremiah and Jesus, has much to contribute.

There will be many families who will live with a high level of anxiety in the run up to Christmas. Debt, negative equity and the threat of unemployment will hang over the preparations. Newspapers may publish hints on how to survive a 'credit crunch Christmas' but the ensuing reduction in spending, perhaps welcomed by a society sick with surfeit, will nevertheless cause anxiety and distress for some.

In the churches, those same people will see purple as the colour of grief and also of royalty, a rich hue that encapsulates the paradoxes of life. The truth-telling that Advent encourages offers hope for the future. And while Barack tells us that while we breathe we should hope, we hold our breath as we see this hope become reality. There is a black man in the White House.