Thursday, December 22, 2005


This from Glynn Cardy (who has also contributed the fine "Why the Lion Isn't Safe" Narnia piece on Ekklesia). It arose from a dialogue with a New Zealand journalist, who was astonished that he could think that Jesus might legitimately be linked to any kind of subversive political impulse. On which, see Jonathan Bartley ("Putting which Christ back into Christmas?"), from whom Glynn borrows at one point. Of course this also looks forward to Holy Innocents later this month...

In an inscription from 9 C.E. found in Asia Minor, Caesar is spoken of as “our God” and “saviour” whose birth was “good news” to the world. Around the time of 1st century the festival of the Emperor as “Saviour of the World” began to be celebrated. Rome’s public relations machine made much of these claims in order to legitimate its regime of suppression and exploitation (so called ‘law and order’).

In Luke 2 some shepherds watching their flock by night are surprised by an angelic announcement: “I bring you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah the Lord…” And the angelic choir declared: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favours.”

Forget the tinsel, wings, halos, and other paraphernalia. These subversive angels were deliberately using Caesar language, the language of power. They were challenging the sovereignty of Caesar. The theme of two sovereignties is central to the biblical tradition as a whole. Who will we follow – Caesar or Christ, the mighty emperor or the humble prophet, the rich and powerful or the poor and powerless?

In Matthew’s account of the birth we are introduced to King Herod. In 37 B.C.E. the Romans appointed Herod as King of Judea. The Jewish populace saw him as a Roman puppet, and a ruthless puppet at that.

Herod built up his bank balance and built up his kingdom. Architectural projects, many of them exhibiting engineering excellence, sprang up. These included the port of Caesarea, the walls of Jerusalem, a royal palace, and the Temple. Ostensibly to win the hearts of his subjects, the building programme was financed by severe taxation and the forced labour of ordinary Jews.

Twice a day the Temple priests were paid by Rome to sacrifice on behalf of the Emperor. Herod controlled the priests by placing a lackey in charge. In any of his appointees was foolish enough to displease him, Herod killed him and replaced him with another.

Herod established an enormous secret police force, using mercenaries and spies, brutally killed anyone suspected of plotting against him, and created Roman peace by slaughtering all dissidents. And there was plenty of dissent.

In Matthew’s Gospel, King Herod, in his fear and need for control, kills all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under. He hopes that Jesus, the alleged new king, will be killed along with the other innocents.

Last week a Wall Street Journal columnist, Sonya Brundidge, stated, “Yet this young child [Jesus] who was the epitome of love and peace was not a threat to Herod. And that same young child poses no threat today.”

Such ignorance is astounding. Of course he was a threat. That’s exactly why Herod killed people. Even if you doubt the historicity of slaughtering all the babes, the intention of Matthew was to leave us in no doubt that Herod should be afraid of Jesus. Jesus’ vision was of overturning everything Herod believed in – power, privilege, violence, and the morality that went with it.

Despots, dictators, and other bullies in any age have good reason to fear Christians who take the message of Jesus seriously. By and large, throughout the last twenty centuries, Christians haven’t been killed on a whim. They have been killed for good reason. They have died for holding up, believing in, and working towards an alternate vision for the world.

There are two Christmas stories. There is the nice one, with the odourless stable, the tranquil Mary, and the smiling newborn. Like in a C.S. Lewis novel you might meet Santa there too, handing out generosity and encouraging everyone to do the same. This is the Christmas package for the populace, apolitically appeasing, and something that we all can enjoy. Throw in supporting the retail industry, a sumptuous feast, and a happy family myth, and we have it: ‘Christmas just as it’s always been’ [sic].

When politicians talk about putting Christ back into Christmas this is the Christ they usually mean. [This is an excerpt. The full article, and more, is here]

Pic: No, that's not Christ, it's Herod. Point made.

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

No comments: