Monday, December 24, 2007

The politics of Christmas

The piece below can also be found on the Guardian's CiF website

The single most important fact about the birth of Jesus, as recounted in the Gospels, is one that receives almost no emphasis in the modern festival of Christmas. The child who was born in Bethlehem represented a drastic political challenge to the imperial power of Rome. The nativity story is told to make the point that Rome is the enemy of God, and with the arrival of Jesus, Rome's day is over.

However, in modern times, religion and politics are too often seen as occupying separate spheres. The nativity story has become spiritualised and sentimentalised - it has therefore lost its political edge altogether. The baby Jesus has been universalised, removed from his decidedly Jewish context, and the narrative's explicit critiques of imperial dominance and of wealth have been blunted.

The nativity story in the Gospel of Matthew focuses on King Herod's determination to kill the baby, whom he recognizes as a threat to his own political sway. The Romans were an occupation force in Palestine, and Herod was their puppet-king. To the people of Israel, the Roman occupation, which preceded the birth of Jesus by at least 50 years, was seen as defilement.
The Jewish resistance was steady - the historian Josephus records that after an uprising in Jerusalem around the time of the birth of Jesus, the Romans crucified 2,000 Jewish rebels. There is no doubt that Herod felt vulnerable and insecure on his throne. In order to pre-empt any challenge from the rumoured newborn "King of the Jews", Herod murdered "all the male children who were two years old or younger". Joseph, warned in a dream, slipped out of Herod's reach with Mary and Jesus. Thus, right from his birth, the child was marked as a political fugitive.

The Gospel of Luke puts an even more political cast on the story. The narrative begins with the decree of Caesar Augustus calling for a world census - a creation of tax rolls that will tighten the empire's grip on its subject peoples. It was Caesar Augustus who turned the Roman republic into a dictatorship, a power-grab he reinforced by proclaiming himself divine.
His census decree is what requires the journey of Joseph and the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem, but it also defines the context of their child's nativity as one of political resistance. When the angel announces to shepherds that a "saviour has been born" those hearing the story would immediately understand that the blasphemous claim by Caesar Augustus to be "saviour of the world" was being repudiated.

Today the Roman Empire is recalled mainly as a force for good - those roads, language, laws, civic magnificence and order everywhere. The US also understands itself as acting in the world with good intentions, aiming at order. "New world order" as George Bush put it. That Americans have this in common with Rome is captured by the Latin motto that appears just below the engraved pyramid on each American dollar bill, "Novus Ordo Seculorum" - "The new order of the age". However, it is conflicts like the one in Iraq that should remind us all that such order comes at a cost and that it is far more than a dollar. Too often the real price is paid in the blood and the suffering of the unseen nobodies who are the innocent victims of persecution and oppression.

It is perhaps worth reflecting that it is their story that is really being told at Christmas


Colin Campbell said...

Interesting take on the all too prevalent Christmas message. I often wonder how the contemporary US will be judged in a few hundred years.

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Jeremy Jacobs said...

"The Romans were an occupation force in Palestine, and Herod was their puppet-king".

I believe you have got things wrong here. It was the Romans who called the Palestine. (Something to do with the ethnic cleansing of Jews)