Lots of commentary claims Christmas is profoundly political. A blog from a retired United Methodist bishop offered the usual talking points:
Politics is about power, its definition and use. Christmas is about God’s politics, God’s definition and exercise of power.
Here are the images of God’s power:
- a baby born among the homeless,
- an immigrant child escaping violence,
- a carpenter/preacher speaking truth to prevailing religious and political power,
- a compassionate healer of the sick who welcomes outcasts,
- the crucified Jesus extending forgiveness to thieves and a violent mob,
- the Risen Christ, still bearing the scars of crucifixion,
- the Living Christ present in the longing for wholeness, justice, and peace.
There’s truth in some of these claims of course but also some confusions deployed for political points. Was the Holy Family homeless, as is commonly claimed? They and others in Bethlehem were only if travelers unable to secure lodgings qualify as such.
Were the Holy Family immigrants? They later escaped to Egypt after King Herod sought to kill Baby Jesus. They did not immigrate to Egypt, which was part of the Roman Empire, but stayed there, likely among Hebrew kindred, until Herod died. They could be called political refugees or exiles. And there’s no evidence they broke any laws in their sojourn to Egypt. It was Herod who was lawless.
Herod sought to kill Jesus because he knew of the prophecy about a Messiah born in Bethlehem. His reasons for infanticide were political and religious. The Holy Family were fleeing religious persecution. Yet, oddly, claimants of a political Christmas never reference global religious persecution. They prefer talking points about USA immigration and welfare policies, whose remedies are always statist. That Herod, and Rome, were the ultimate statists does not usually occur to the advocates of political Christmas.
The Methodist bishop offered this remedy for his version of Christmas politics:
The answer to our current politics of destruction and dysfunction is God’s Christmas politics of compassion and justice. We most properly celebrate by
acts of mercy and justice toward the poor, vulnerable, and powerless
welcoming the outcasts and strangers
caring for the sick and frail
comforting the grieving and dying
visiting the imprisoned and lonely
practicing forgiveness in a culture of vengeance
living and demanding honesty and integrity
trusting the power of love over coercion and domination
cultivating confidence in the ultimate triumphant of God’s love!
God’s Christmas politics WILL win!
Of course Christians should be busy in all these acts of charity and mercy. And our focus should be on our own obligations and the church’s, not always defaulting to government action, which itself can become Herodian.
But the focus can’t be on just the material and social. The Incarnation of God in Jesus isn’t simply a call to charity and niceness. It’s political because it reveals Christ and not Caesar or Herod is Lord. Even more fearfully, it reveals we ourselves cannot be Lord. God came to earth not just to dethrone tyrants but to dethrone each one of us from our captivity to sin.
Exponents of political Christmas don’t like to dwell on Jesus as Savior come to redeem all of sinful humanity. They prefer focusing on wider societal injustices without reflecting on our own personal contributions to the world’s evils.
Jesus as Savior requires more than correct political attitudes. He requires personal repentance and holiness, which is far more discomfiting. Traditional Christmas unlike political Christmas means we can’t be victims and sanctimonious judges. Instead, it is we who are justifiably judged, and also mercifully saved, which is the best news of all.
Political Christmas is temporal and materialistic. It’s partly true but in a very meager way. Traditional Christmas is eternal and cosmic. Its indictment of ourselves is more challenging but also more truthful than the blame game of political Christmas.
Traditional Christmas offers an endless bounty of divine grace from a Baby Jesus who’s not homeless or immigrant but God in the flesh, Judge and Savior equally to all. Political Christmas seems grim and mechanical by comparison. Real Christmas was joyful in Bethlehem and is for us now and forever.