Christmas

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Michael F. Bird

January 3, 2020

Christmas vs Empire?

Does Christmas signify revolution against “empire?”

A Christmas Eve Washington Post column asserted so. The author, a distinguished Australian theologian, notes:

Christmas is the story of God’s promise to defeat evil powers, Jesus born to rescue people from tyrants, resistance to imperial powers and faithfulness in the face of empire.

And:

In particular, the various songs and prophecies uttered by characters in Luke’s nativity make explicit that God’s purposes in Jesus, summarized as “the kingdom of God,” entail social and political liberation from exploitative foreign powers.

And:

Mary’s famous Magnificat could be the manifesto for a Marxist guerrilla group. She celebrates how, “God has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53).

And:

Christmas is intended to be a bold political profession by Christians to trust God and to resist empire.

Well, yes, Christmas does signify God reclaiming His fallen creation. It’s a reconquest, achieved not through obvious political or military might. The reconquest is launched through a baby born to obscure parents in a backwater. God’s power is manifest through earthly instruments typically viewed as weak.

And, yes, this reconquest profoundly threatens tyrants of all sorts who disregard divine order to enthrone their own self-serving power.

As the author rightly notes:

For the faithful, Christmas is a celebration that God is for us, God is near us, because God was one of us. God comes to us, in the vulnerability of child, to save us from our sins, and to rescue us from the evil forces that oppress us.

And:

Christmas promises us that the despots of this age, political or spiritual, are living on borrowed time. The Christmas story is God’s answer to all the evil, injustice, brutality, suffering and death that we see around us.

Yes, absolutely!

But “empire” is not necessarily synonymous with evil, injustice, brutality and suffering. Some pacifist Christian polemicists increasingly equate empire with all government and the force it necessarily deploys in its ordained functions. In this perspective, all states, especially if powerful, are the Biblical Beast, especially the United States.

This author doesn’t share that view. But his rhetoric invites some confusion. Is God opposed to all empires in every situation? The author’s own Australia originated with the British Empire. Australia is by nearly every measure a relatively happy and just society. Does the message of Christmas argue against Australia?

Undoubtedly the British Empire as a whole included many injustices and oppressions. But it also contributed economic development, social uplift, and concepts of political liberty to many cultures. The United States was born in revolution against that empire, while also owing much of the best of its core identity to the British.

The author notes:

Christmas for the evangelists marks the beginning of God’s revolution to make things on earth as they are in heaven all through the son of Mary.

Indeed. But this divine revolution doesn’t in any way resemble the manifesto of a Marxist revolutionary group, whose materialistic grab for arbitrary power is a dark parody of God’s Kingdom. (The author undoubtedly would agree.) Divine redemption of the world, even in its political ramifications, is far more comprehensive and usually much more subtle.

Baby Jesus undoubtedly threatened rulers in His day. Herod tried to kill Him in infancy. And Rome did kill Him in adulthood. Yet the early church in no way advocated political revolution against Rome. The apostles and their successors would never have spoken of their attitude towards Rome as politically revolutionary.

Early Christianity’s long-term goal towards Rome was its redemption, reformation and Christianization. As Pascal later observed, the empire that crucified Christ also built the roads over which the Gospel evangelized the world. God used Rome to achieve His purposes, earthly and spiritual.

Ultimately the Emperors themselves yielded to Christianity and strove to rule under its principles. Most Christian critics of empire lament this imperial Christianity. It certainly had its corruptions. But it also launched a new political order in which biblical principles of human dignity at least entered into political discourse, with revolutionary and ultimately elevating impact for humanity.

So God doesn’t just challenge or oppose or overturn empires. He also sometimes works through them to achieve His redemption of the world. The author cites the “anti-empire script of Christmas.”

But it’s more accurate to speak of Christmas authorizing a script against injustice, tyranny and ungodly dehumanization. As the author rightly describes, Christmas reveals “how God will triumph over the pagan powers.” Rome was pagan in the time of Baby Jesus. Thanks to that infant, it would not remain so. And even when pagan, it still had providential and even some just purposes.

This point is important if Christians are to understand the political implications of their faith. It’s also important for non-Christians to understand Christianity’s political purposes, rightly understood. It’s not opposing empire per se. It’s advocating a just political order in which all persons are treated equitably as image bearers of God. Such advocacy may occasionally include political revolution. But more commonly and preferably it prevails through gradual and peaceful reforms.

Christmas politically is not so much about revolution, against empire or any other political order, at least as the world understands it. It’s about redemption, as God in Christ reclaims His creation, usually slowly, but inexorably.

Mary’s Magnificat may superficially echo Marxist revolutionary rhetoric. But its call to divine order and grace, rather than power and vengeance, directly rejects the ambitions of most professed political revolutionaries. It’s an empire of itself but one of gentleness and peace.


6 Responses to Christmas vs Empire?

  1. A welcome respectful dialogue. Thank you!

  2. JR says:

    I don’t disagree with the overall point or most of the specifics. One item did jump out at me, though:

    “The apostles and their successors would never have spoken of their attitude towards Rome as politically revolutionary.”

    I don’t think that’s true of most the apostles. There were some of the opinion that Jesus was going to be the Messiah, and therefore be a ruler on the ground. And by hitching their wagon to him, their station would be elevated dramatically.

    That is one of the reasons that Jesus keeps telling them that they don’t understand what is going to happen – they don’t see Jesus as a sacrifice, but as a political and religious leader who is going to be elevated to earthly glory.

    By default, that would mean they were “politically revolutionary”.

    • Joe Kilpatrick says:

      The discussion you quote, between Jesus and his apostles, was before the Spirit filled them. Where is the political revolutionary speech in their letters afterward?

  3. William says:

    Why do people these 2000 years hence continue to struggle with the meaning of Messiah in his First Coming? And, what do they not understand about his Second Coming?

    Matthew 26:52-54

    52 “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. 53 Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”

    John 19:10-11

    10 “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”
    11 Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.

  4. td says:

    I’m curious if you have permissuon from conception abbey in missouri to use the photo you posted. It is a photo of one of the murals located in their basilica. Perhaps permission is not required, but it seems a citation should be offered.

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