Politics of Christmas

Are you kidding me? Julie made a papaya-leaf Christmas wreath.

What does Christmas mean to you? Ugly sweaters? Eggnog? Elf? Christmas matters, but it is easy to think otherwise, buried as we are under a flood of schmaltzy tinsel that inundates us year after year. Usually I just kind of write it all off with a humbug. Yes, unfortunately, I tend to be a bit Scroogish (Scroogy?). Baby, bathwater, all the same to me. But this year I have actually been thinking about the Christmas story, and actually reading the texts. Funny things happen when you start doing that…


Admit it, you don’t read these.

There is one in Matthew (1:1-17) and one in Luke (3:23-38), but we usually skip both. They are like Leviticus, we know they are important, but we don’t actually read them unless we have to. But we shouldn’t ignore them, they are important. The one in Luke is kind of hidden away, but the one in Matthew is front and center, the first thing you read in the whole book. It is like his opening line, and as we all know, first impressions matter.

The genealogy of Jesus in Matthew is interesting. He includes 4 women, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and “her who had been the wife of Uriah.” Having a women in the genealogy would have stood out, but having 4 was most unorthodox. No wait, that is understated. This is like an oasis of equality in the middle of a vast desert of male dominance, whose cool waters stand in sharp contrast to the parched patriarchy surrounding it. (I prefer overstatement).

Not only were women included in this genealogy, but also 3 out of 4 of them were foreigners as well! Tamar, Rahab and Ruth were not Israelites, and “her who had been the wife of Uriah” (please stop with the games, we all know who she is) was married to a foreigner. This is very significant, and should disabuse us of the notion that the coming of Jesus was only significant for the Jewish people. He was Jewish, and lived his whole life in a Jewish context, but it is clear from the beginning that his message was for everyone. It is interesting that this genealogy, with its unmistakably universal overtones, occurs in the narrative of Matthew. In Matthew’s version of the Christmas story, every time someone sneezes, it is a fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. It would have fit in much better in Luke, who as a non-Jew himself was eager to point out the broader implications of Jesus’ story, but it is in Matthew, and not in Luke, and that should tell us something.

It is also interesting to remember the stories of these 4 women. They are all pretty memorable, but not always for the right reasons:

Tamar – Dressed like a prostitute to seduce her father-in-law.
Rahab – Was a prostitute, and a traitor.
Ruth – Ok, she was pretty good. But she did expose Boaz’s feet to the cruel nighttime wind!
Bathsheba – Committed adultery. Also, bathing in public.

Of course the geneology is full of men who were sinners too. I don’t want to single out the ladies. Just look at David, arguably the most important individual in the genealogy (Jesus is called “the Son of David” after all), and certainly Israel’s greatest king. Because of his sin the kingdom was divided and destroyed, and the people were led into exile. So it wasn’t just the women. But still, to include prostitutes in the genology of Jesus! Crazy. Also, it kind of says something about the Bible in general. It is full of stories about people who mess up, do bad things, and are punished by God. In other words, it is full of real people. Real people who make real mistakes. This is especially striking when the stories are about the kings, especially since the people of Israel wrote it themselves, about their own kings. In a time where kings were and considered gods and worshiped, this was very distinctive. But it is because the stories in the Bible are about real people, not royal propaganda.

And the same is true of this genealogy in Matthew. Jesus came as a king (only kings had genealogies). But he came to make a different kingdom, one that is for everyone (men and women, of every ethnicity); a kingdom for real people, real sinners, including prostitutes and adulterers, but also hot-head kings (David) and compulsive liars (Jacob).

Politics of Christmas

In Luke, we find the Magnificat, or The Song of Mary, which is a beautiful piece of poetry that has been a part of the Church’s liturgy for centuries. But if you look closely at it, you find something that you might not associate with Vespers and incense:

“He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty” (Luke 1:51-53 NKJV).

I’m sorry, is this Mary or Bob Marley? Am I mistaken, or is the mother of Jesus chanting down Babylon? Undoubtedly, this is strong stuff, and it would be hard to miss the political nature of these verses. They are about justice and liberation, and they are pretty subversive. No king would have been happy to hear that God is going to “put down the mighty from their thrones,” but it just so happens that Herod, who was king at the time, was especially sensitive to threats to his rule. You see, he was a little paranoid.

And he had good reason to be paranoid. The people didn’t like him. He wasn’t considered Jewish by many because he was a convert, an outsider. And he was a sellout. He was put in power (and kept in power) by the Romans. Because of his unpopularity, he did whatever he could to get legitimacy, which is why he built the Temple. But some people even rejected the Temple, because he built it. Not only that, they rejected the whole Temple establishment. They went to the desert, like the Essenes. This was a religious act, but it was also a thoroughly political act. The division between the two did not exist. In fact, it still does not exist in most of the world, and has only existed in the West for the past few hundred years. But I digress.

Herod wanted to be liked by the people, but (in true Machiavellian style) he also went out of his way to make sure he was feared. And he was. He was brutal and cruel. Killing people was nothing to him. He murdered members of his own family (one of his wives, 3 sons, mother-in-law, brother-in-law and an uncle), not to mention all those babies! In Luke we also see the angels appear to the shepherds, and tell them that a new king is born. In v. 2:9, it says that the shepherds were “greatly afraid.” When you look at Bethlehem, and how close it is to the Herodian (one of Herod’s palaces), it is easy to imagine why. They knew they were hearing something that Herod wouldn’t like, right under the gaze of a visual symbol of his power. He was a great builder, and he put his buildings up everywhere as concrete (or stone rather) reminders of who was really in charge.

Herod’s palaces were also symbols of the imperial power of Rome. It is easy to forget, but the people of Israel were living under the thumb foreign rule. It was an occupation, and like all occupations, it was enforced by military power – by violence or the threat of violence. Of course we all know this, we don’t really forget it, but we don’t think about it, especially in the context of the Christmas story. We always hear Luke 2:1-6 read by little kids in the Christmas pageant and thus we associate it with the cute voice of a 6 year old. It is funny listening to them try to pronounce the word “census,” and hearing a 1st grader saying “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed,” borders on the absurd. It softens the blow.

But this phrase points out the categorical, octopus-like reach of the occupation. It touched every part of the lives of those who lived under it. Even birth. Joseph and Mary probably didn’t really want to make the long trip to Bethlehem, especially since Mary was about to give birth, but that didn’t matter. They had to because they were ordered to. Joseph could have appealed to the authorities and told them, “We can’t travel, look at my wife! She is about to give birth.” Maybe he did. Who knows. But even if he did, the system wouldn’t have cared, it couldn’t have cared. Administrative, bureaucratic systems don’t care about individuals. They don’t care about people. They can’t, because they don’t even see people. That is how they are designed.

People want freedom. This is a message that resonates everywhere in the world. If there is one thing that 2011 has taught us, it is that no matter how well entrenched the power is, it can be uprooted when the people set their sights on uprooting it. Christmas was a coup, Jesus was the usurper. The story of Christ’s birth has been sanitized beyond recognition, but really it is not a cute story. It was a bloody power-struggle. The word “Christ” means “king,” and you can’t say the word “king” and stay out of the realm of politics.

Compare, for example, Matt. 2:15 and 1 Kings 11:40; 12:3. Just like Jesus, Jeroboam had a claim on the throne, and so the king who was already on the throne, Solomon, tried to kill him. He had to escape to Egypt to wait until Solomon died, and then he returned to claim the throne. This was common, and it still is. Transfer of power is a delicate thing, and whenever a king dies, political turmoil follows. Look at what is happening in N. Korea right now. Ottoman history is filled with examples because for awhile they practiced open succession, which basically meant that when the Sultan died, his sons would fight to the death and the last one standing would become the new Sultan. This lead to some grisly stories, and often the first act taken by the new Sultan would be to kill all his brothers, even if they are babies. Mehmed III was the worst, he killed 19 brothers and half-brothers when he became Sultan.

They did this because they knew that even a baby represents a potential (probable) threat. Babies grow up, and Herod knew Jesus would grow up as well.

Prince of Peace

This is a violent story. Why? Because Jesus came as a king. But this wasn’t his message. His message was one of peace.

We see peace all over the Christmas accounts. In Luke 1:76-79, it is Zechariah’s turn to sing, and he is talking about his son, John the Baptist, whose task was to prepare the way for the King. God sends the sun to shine down on us, to chase away the shadows, and to “guide our feet into the path of peace” (Luke 1:79 NIV). We all know Isaiah 9:6, which many ascribe to Jesus, and consequently one of the names given to him is the “Prince of Peace,” and, of course, Luke 2:14, angelic singing this time, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests” (NIV).

Of course, the Jewish people didn’t really want peace. If they did, they could have been a part of the Pax Romana. Lots of people wanted into the Roman Empire, it offered protection (they were defended by the best army in the world), and lots of other benefits, with relatively few inconveniences. As long as you were willing to submit, it wasn’t that bad, and not even close to the tyrannical tendencies of some of the ancient Near East’s other empires. Really, the Roman occupation was about as benign as an occupation could be. Which is why some factions of the Jewish people worked with the Romans, and accepted the cosmopolitan worldview. The Sadducees for example. But most of the people didn’t want peace, they wanted freedom, which is why they rebelled against Rome, numerous times.

What does all this mean? Obviously Jesus didn’t bring peace, if anything, things have only gotten worse since he was here. But peace in the scriptures is different than what we think of as peace. In Hebrew peace is “shalom,” which is related to the word “shalem” which means whole. Peace is not just the absence of war, it is more holistic than that. It is the presence of something that is usually missing. It is health, wholeness and restoration. It is bringing creation back to the way it was originally supposed to be.

In the midst of all the violence and sadness in this story, there is hope. Matthew 2:18 quotes from Jeremiah 3:18: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” Jeremiah wrote during an occupation as well, and in the shadow of exile and destruction. But in Jeremiah 32, God tells him to purchase a plot of land. This was a sign of hope, a symbol of restoration, and that is the message of Christmas. Matthew 1:22-23 says that Jesus was to be called “Immanuel” which means “God with us.” That is how God originally intended it, and that is the peace that Jesus came to restore. We were created to be with God, and that is what is usually missing.

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6 Responses to Politics of Christmas

  1. jdmcray says:

    Good stuff. Not to mention that Matthew’s version is basically imaging Jesus as Moses in the New Exodus (journey to a foreign land, king killing babies, going to Egypt, etc.). Crossan and Borg’s First Christmas is a cool little book exploring the different nativities (which can’t be too easily conflated). And exploring how the Pax Romana is worlds apart from the shalom of the prophets. I think Richard Horsley (who is in my top three favorite biblical scholars) has a book on the nativity stories as well.

    Speaking of all the political stuff, check out Wes Howard-Brook’s new book Come Out, My People!: God’s Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond. A complete commentary on the Bible illuminating the two religions, like magnetic poles, wrestling in the text: not Judaism and Christianity, but the religion of creation and the religion of empire. Legit stuff.

  2. Carly Keith says:

    Thanks for sharing this Josh. I love following you guys on this blog, and I pray for you often. I definitely miss you guys and hope to see you in the future! Merry Christmas 🙂

  3. Pingback: This is my Story, This is my Song: Christmas 2012 | joshjulieblog

  4. Pingback: Songs – Christmas 2013 | joshjulieblog

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