Friday, December 25, 2015

The Politics of Christmas

In the days preceding Christmas this year, my Facebook feed has been cluttered with remarkably repetitive stories: promises to explain the political implications of “I Saw Three Ships,” “Do You Hear What I Hear,” “Good King Wenceslas,” and other Yuletide standards. Every Christmas seems characterized by some overwhelming theme. This year, apparently, it’s that Christmas traditions have political significance. Somehow, despite the weight of history, this always surprises people.

At the risk of sounding like my dad, we’ve arguably forgotten the meaning of Christmas. I don’t mean that Santa risks displacing Baby Jesus from our attention; we’ve fought that battle relentlessly already. Rather, the strident complaints about the War on Christmas have forced liturgically conservative Christians to cede all political implications of Christmas to people whose interests couldn’t coincide less with the message contained within the Gospels.

Northrop Frye writes that Jesus’ life, as we know it, remains inseparable from prophecy. True that, but it clearly also remains inseparable from politics. From its opening passages, Jesus’ biography ballyhoos its political implications. The two birth narratives, often melded into one in twee Protestant Christmas Eve services, actually have different takes on then-contemporary politics. They agree, however, on one important point: Jesus’ birth explicitly repudiates worldly power and influence.

Luke, the better-known birth narrative, begins with Joseph and Mary displaced from their home for tax purposes. It explicitly establishes Christ’s birth amid the upheaval of a conquered people, whose lives are periodically suspended to subsidize a government that rules the land, without ever working it. Re-imagine it thus: if America required every Native American back onto The Rez for BIA bureaucratic purposes, Modern Jesus might appear in such circumstances.

Matthew, by contrast, pits Jesus’ birth against Herod the Great. A puppet king established by Rome, history records Herod’s reign as a triumph of secular splendor paid for by the impoverishment of Judea’s people. Josephus records that Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem was more spectacular than any Roman religious house. And Matthew records Herod demanding an entire generation put to sword to forestall any challenge to his worldly authority.

One could continue. Luke records pre-teen Jesus disputing the religious authorities in their temple—religious authorities whom Obery Hendricks recounts weren’t spiritual shopkeepers, but an explicitly political order established to govern a conquered people. (“Priests” are, historically, lawkeepers, not shepherds.) Matthew describes Jesus’ family exiled to Egypt, an explicit allusion to Israel’s two periods of national exile in foreign lands. Both Evangelists record differing, but explicitly political, early Messianic childhoods.

This thread continues into Jesus’ ministry. Traditional liturgy loves emphasizing how Jesus called His apostles from among fishers, farmers, and other uneducated poor. The apostles’ lack of theological training is certainly significant. But equally important, Jesus called His apostles from Galilee, from people nominally Jewish, but who, through geographical inconvenience, couldn’t participate in standard Temple ritual. Jesus’ apostles weren’t merely unschooled and penniless; they were impious, despised, and possibly apostates.

Jesus seldom spoke against Roman occupation. He demanded believers “render unto Caesar” (itself a loaded story), and even healed a Centurion’s beloved servant. However, Jesus reserved His greatest wrath for Pharisees and Sadducees. Not because He opposed religious authority, as some suppose—He engaged modest, curious religious like Nicodemus in Socratic give-and-take eagerly. Rather, He opposed religious leaders because they derived their power from maintaining the status quo like Quislings.

Even His death has political implications. Douglas Adams famously claimed Jesus “had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change.” But be serious: empires don’t nail hairy provincial preachers to timbers and stake them up to die in the municipal landfill for telling people to pray more. Temple authorities demanded Jesus’ death, and Pilate capitulated, because He threatened their dominion.

Though theologians across time have debated exactly why Jesus needed to die, one thread remains constant: human authority found Him dangerous. He preached against wealth, dominance, and power. He forgave sinful women while condemning lustful men. He healed and redeemed Samaritans, while chasing Jews from their Temple. He literally hugged lepers. He established power relationships exactly opposite those this world favors. Jesus’ life was wholly, explicitly political.

Catholic author (and sometime conservative mouthpiece) Garry Wills writes that “Jesus did not come to bring any form of politics.” True enough, if by “politics” we mean partisan alignments. Jesus doesn’t endorse any political party, notwithstanding both American parties’ recent eagerness to enlist His membership. But Jesus clearly had strong positions on human relationship to power. Christians need to examine this closely. Human governments can’t get us into Heaven.

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