By Will O’Brien
Among the many manifestations of his project to “make America great again,” President Trump has frequently and pompously declared that “We will be able to say ‘Merry Christmas’ again!” When he spoke at last fall’s Values Voters Summit, this vow garnered the most boisterous applause. For many conservative Christians, Trump is the conquering hero who waged battle against secularism in the annual “war on Christmas” – and finally won the war. Like many Trumpisms, this would be simply pathetic were it not for the fact that it is part of a treacherous national vision.
The narratives of the birth of Jesus are among the most egregiously misread and misunderstood parts of the New Testament. The Church, often in thrall to a patriotic submission to the nation-state, regularly accepts a distressingly domesticated version of what are downright incendiary political stories.
“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree,…” The opening words from Luke’s story, with their almost iconic familiarity, evoke a warm feeling in us. What we miss is Luke’s pointed political purpose in using Caesar’s worldwide census as the context for Jesus’ birth. The traditional reading of the text interprets the census as the narrative mechanism by which Joseph and Mary end up in Bethlehem, so that the prophecy of the Messiah’s birth can be fulfilled. But it’s hardly so innocent.
Any original Jewish hearer or reader of the story, steeped in the biblical world, would have immediately detected a tension in the tale: 2 Samuel 24 recounts the odd and often forgotten story of the usually good King David doing something which turns out to be not so good. He decides to take a census of Israel – in response to which God gets furious and punishes him and all Israel with plague. Part of the problem is that David’s census is clearly part of a consolidation of his military power. More broadly, the census represents an arrogant effort at imposing human control in defiance of God’s sovereignty.
It’s a persistent theme in the Hebrew Bible, and Caesar shows himself to be yet another in a long line of arrogant human monarchs. He dare thinks he can count – and by implication, control – the whole world! But the tension runs deeper still, and more historically immediate. Luke knows, as does his original audience, the ramifications of this particular census. Why would the emperor want such a count? For two obvious purposes: military conscription (just like David in 2 Samuel) and taxation. These are no less than the linchpins of the “pax romana,” the vehicle by which the Roman empire imposed its control over conquered territories. That simple reference to a census evokes a politically freighted historical context: the Jews of Palestine at the time of the New Testament detested the harsh military rule and oppressive taxation of Rome. These were the catalysts for countless guerilla uprisings and militant resistance movements among nationalist Jews, as well as widespread public grievance. (Later, in chapter 3, Luke’s John the Baptist will specifically address two groups of persons: tax collectors and soldiers. He gives them ethical admonitions which function to slowly loosen the tenacles of empire.)
Luke further judges Casear’s imperial pretensions by the poignant and painful detail of Joseph and Mary becoming virtual refugees, homeless, and in a precarious situation – the grassroots human suffering at the boot end of Rome’s supposed justice. But he doesn’t stop there. The politics of his nativity are further underscored by the appearance of angels to proclaim the birth. Here, the evangelist shrewdly wields language to tighten the screws of political tension: Those oh-so-familiar words – “good news,” “peace on earth” “a savior is born” – are all brashly plundered from the Roman imperial lexicon. Again, we miss what would have been obvious to the original hearers of Luke’s story. Roman propaganda announced evangelion, “good news” as an official declaration of such significant events as a military victory – or the birth of a new emperor. The emperor himself was seen as a savior of the world, literally a son of God who brings peace and prosperity to all people.
And just in case we’ve missed the point, we are then presented with a “host” of angels – a Roman military term for a formal guard that might accompany the Emperor. But instead of court officials and the socially powerful hearing this evangelion, it’s one of the most socially marginalized groups possible – shepherds. (Don’t think quaint pastoral and idyllic figures, think low-paid non-union garbage workers like the kind Dr. King came to Memphis to defend in 1968; think undocumented migrant workers; think sweatshop laborers in Hong Kong.)
Luke’s angelic proclamation is nothing short of political mockery of Roman imperial ideology. Moreso, through the entire narrative, Luke is throwing down a gauntlet to his readers: Who is the true savior of the world – purple-robe Caesar with his legions, or some poor infant from a displaced family born in a cave on the fringes of empire? Which of these two can truly bring peace to the world?
This version of the Christmas story speaks to a people under oppressive and violent rule. It prophetically exposes and delegitimizes the arrogant pretensions of Rome while declaring that a new saving and liberating power is on the scene. In the proclamation of the young Jewish maiden pregnant with Jesus (another Christmas text usually overlooked), God has “brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble; God has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (1:52-53). A few chapters later (4:16-19), Luke will present Jesus giving his “inaugural address,” outlining his alternative political program – that of the reign of God: good news to the poor, freedom for the captive, release to the oppressed, sight to the blind, a Jubilee of economic redistribution for God’s people. (Sounds like he learned his momma’s lessons well!) A far cry from the pax romana – but evangelion, indeed!
Far from the quaint Hallmark card version of the crèche scene that is foisted on us each year, Luke’s Christmas story is a call to allegiance: It challenges us to make a stark choice between the reign of Caesar or the reign of God.
And that’s just Luke. If anything, Matthew’s birth narrative is an even more blatantly political piece of political agitation. Rooted in an historical realism about the age of Herod the Great, it is marked by state-sponsored terrorism (the “slaughter of the innocents”), political displacement and refugee, and a plaintive hope for an Exodus-like liberation from oppressive power.
Perhaps it is understandable why the forces of domination want to tame these stories into harmless sentimentality. Our world today is no less rife with power-hungry Caesars and Herods wielding military and economic control to protect the interests of the elite while those at the bottom of the social rung struggle for survival. We too are bombarded with false ideologies promising ersatz security and peace – while ignoring the realities of the poor, the refugees, the displaced, the vulnerable. We too need a social vision that protects the lowly, feeds the hungry, empowers those on the margins, and brings good news to the world’s millions of poor children of God. In the age of Trump, the church desperately needs to resist the domestication of these stories and instead grasp their liberation power – so we know how to proclaim and embody the way of Jesus for our broken world.
Will O’Brien coordinates The Alternative Seminary, a grassroots program of biblical and theological reflection in Philadelphia. He is doing a public presentation on these themes on December 9 in Philadelphia. For more information: https://www.facebook.com/events/510360252683243/