Politics at Christmas 12/24/2017
In 2009, a group of Palestinian Christians released a document colloquially called “Kairos Palestine.” The document, which was modeled after a 1985 South African Document, called on Christian leaders throughout the world to recognize the plight of Palestinian people in general and Palestinian Christians in particular.
Walls have been erected, the document read, on Palestinian land, turning towns and cities into prisons. The war in Gaza in 2008 and 2009 had cost civilian lives. West bank settlements had pushed Palestinians out of their homes and restricted Palestinian access to water and agricultural land. Families had been separated, and daily movement was inhibited.
The goal of the Kairos Document was to describe the situation on the ground, the daily reality of Palestinian life, and to argue that such a situation runs contrary to Christian faith. The authors argued, if the church does take sides, “it is with the oppressed, to stand beside them just as Christ our Lord stood by the side of each poor person and each sinner, calling them to repentance, life, and the restoration of the dignity bestowed on them by God and that no one has the right to strip away.”
Admittedly, the Kairos Document was not universally popular. Many Christians in the US were uncomfortable with its explicit criticism of Israel. The Anti-Defamation League called it “toxic.” But it raises important questions for those who follow Jesus. What does it mean to follow a man who was anointed by God to preach good news to the poor, release to the captives, and freedom to the oppressed?
Considering the sentimentality of the Christmas season, it can be tempting to remain reticent on such volatile topics. It can be tempting to think about holiday blockbusters instead of politics. This temptation is understandable. The Christmas season invites us to reflect on important virtues like love, joy, and hope. It invites us to gather as families, and to give a little extra to salvation army buckets outside grocery stores. Christmas is one of the few places where secular and religious virtues overlap in profound ways. It is the place we go in our cultural imagination to remind ourselves that self-giving and generosity triumph over greed and individualism. Such an understanding of Christmas is overwhelmingly important, and the last thing I would want to suggest to you would be that these aspects of Christmas are unimportant. But this isn’t the whole meaning of Christmas.
The stories of Jesus’ birth are perhaps the most political passages in the NT. In both Matthew and Luke, world leaders act in ways that prove God’s ultimate authority in the world and confirm Jesus as a royal heir, confirming therein that wordly authority is at least limited, if not illegitimate. In Matthew, Herod’s attempt to kill the foreseen king causes Joseph and Mary to flee to Egypt with their new born son, thus fulfilling the prophesy recorded in Hosea, “Out of Egypt, I have called my Son.” In Luke, August Caesar’s decree that all the world should be counted insured that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem, the City of David, the city of Kings. To believe such things and to write them down in order that others might also is more than just a religious or spiritual assertion. It is an assertion about how the world ought to be structured.
All this takes place within the context of occupation. Rome had controlled the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, what we would call Israel/Palestine, since 63 BCE, when the Roman General Pompey sacked Jerusalem. Since then, Rome ruled Judea through a series of client kings, the most notable of whom was Herod the Great, who was known for his impressive building projects, like a massive expansion of the Temple that included a Roman garrison, and his immeasurable cruelty: according to one account, he had 1000 people killed while he was on his death bed so he could ensure that there would be weeping when he died.
Judea’s strategic importance to Rome cannot be overstated. For centuries, the Jordan River basin functioned as a thoroughfare for Eastern empires like Babylon and Persia as they attempted to reach Egypt. Egypt was the bread basket of the Mediterranean world. Egyptian wheat fed anywhere from half to two-thirds of Rome’s population. Rome’s primary interest in Judea was to secure the eastern flank of its most important natural resource against the aspirational Parthian Empire, an ancient kingdom in modern day Iran. Rome invested heavily in ruthless leaders like Herod in order to leverage strategic advantage against their opponents.
Jesus was born in the midst of this great contest of global powers. The circumstances of his birth are telling. He is not born in a palace, but is instead born among animals, wrapped in rags, and cradled in a feeding trough. His birth doesn’t register among Roman officials, but he is a perceived threat to Herod. In response, Herod launches a violent campaign in Bethlehem to ensure his continued power.
Jesus is born to unwed parents who have been told that there is no room for them. They are left outside, and they flee political persecution. Jesus is visited by agricultural workers and astronomers, probably an apocalyptic Daniel sect from Babylon.
The scandalous nature of Jesus birth would have been as apparent then as it is today. “How can this be?” Mary’s initial question to the angel Gabriel might as well be our own. This child of unwed refugees, not Herod is the true king of the Jews. This child born among the manure and flies of barn animals, not Augustus Caesar, is the Son of God. How can this be?
Indeed, the very reason we celebrate Christmas brings politics to the very heart of the season of holiday cheer. At the center of the Christmas season, we find questions concerning violence, oppression, and political rivalry. Could there be a more inappropriate time to be reticent on such volatile topics?
And yet, at too many times and in too many places, the church of Christ has been restrained on Christmas Eve, as if the words of Silent Night referred, not to the quiet of the barn, but instead referred to our failure to speak out against injustice.
Mary’s question comes to me again, “How can this be?” The followers of this child have found comfort within the sentimentality of the season. Our church has found quarter in affluence and refuge in cultural relevance. Warmed by the heat of fresh cookies and family dinners, the church has found room for itself within the world of politics and power.
There are plenty of people, however, for whom there is no room within the world of politics and power. As I said before, I don’t want to diminish the importance of the sentimentality of the season. Instead I hope to remind you that the sentiment we associate with Christmas emerged at a time when such virtues of hope and peace were counter cultural and often found among people outside this world of power and politics. The prophetic words that looked forward to the Christ event were penned by poets living under military occupation or fleeing their homeland in search of safety. In fact, the history of Israel is a story of a people continually caught in the windstorm of global power struggle. The Israelites are a people continually left outside the world of politics and power: they are enslaved, displaced, and deported. Yet among them, the seeds of hope had been sown for generations that despite all the evidence to the contrary, these were people blessed by God.
To these people a child is born in the City of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. His sign will be that he is wrapped in cloth and lying in a manger because there was no room for him and his family. Jesus is born to all people who told that there is no room for them. Jesus is born to Rohinga Muslims. Jesus is born to sub-Saharan African migrants. Jesus is born to Syrian Refugees. Jesus is born to central American immigrants. Jesus is born to Palestinians as well as to Jews.
“This, this, is Christ the King whom shepherds guard and angels sing.”
Today, Bethlehem is surrounded by walls. Tanks decorate Manger Square. Shell casings twinkle in the star light. The Silent Night of Bethlehem today is the silence of a temporary ceasefire: an uneasy silence, the kind one might describe as too quiet, soon to broken by the sound of gunfire and the same voice Matthew recorded after Herod killed the children of Bethlehem, a voice that was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted because they are no more.
As the great drama of global political struggle continues to play, the document Kairos Palestine reminds us that the church must take sides, and when she does, she must stand on the side of the oppressed. Kairos is a Greek word, one of two Greek words for time. The other word, chronos, refers to time in a more general sense. Kairos, refers to a special kind of time, an appointed time, as if to say the time is now.
The time is now, the authors of the document suggest, to realize our calling as Christians and give up our quarter among affluence and our refuge in cultural relevance, as Vincent Harding observed, when Christianity is culturally relevant, it denies itself, and make our home with those on the wrong side of walls, for whom there is no room in the world of politics and power.
The Christ event reminds us that the safety of the inn is fleeting when it is guarded by military might and political strength and there is only room for the affluent and the powerful. Herod’s kingdom crumbled under his sons’ rule. Even Rome had its last day.
Jesus reminds us, however, in John 14, in the house of God there are many rooms. The great hope of the Christmas story is that God makes room for those who have been left outside. This challenge to make room for the world’s forgotten has been passed to us, the church of Christ. Our call on Christmas is to welcome the unwelcome in order that our Silent Night may be the silence of hope realized. The kind of quiet that comes from real and lasting safety and a full stomach for those whom the powers of the world have deemed unworthy of such things.
The time is now. Christ is born.