Saturday, December 24, 2011

Political Musings on Christmas Eve

I intended to work on another writing project this morning but this Christmas Eve headline set me on another path: 'Russia will be free': Huge rally increases pressure on Vladimir Putin:
“Moscow: Tens of thousands of demonstrators on Saturday cheered opposition leaders and jeered the Kremlin in the biggest show of outrage yet against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's 12-year rule.”
The news reminded me of the struggle going on in the fragile democracy of Taiwan from which Connie and I have just returned. My old friend, Dr. Peng Ming-min, is chairing a new international committee calling for free and fair elections on January 14, 2012:  
“We have only one sincere but strong demand — that the Jan. 14 elections should be conducted fairly and properly, as fair elections are the minimum requirement for a democratic society and the polls come as a great challenge for Taiwan,” said former presidential adviser Peng Ming-min (彭明敏).
Many Jewish people continue to celebrate Hanukah (December 20-28) and recall how in the 2nd Century BCE a small band of faithful Jews defeated one of the mightiest armies on earth, and drove the Greeks from their land. Many Christians are gathering for Christmas celebrations praying for peace and goodwill. Religious and non-religious alike are likely aware of political struggles for freedom and human dignity throughout the world.

Christians may be surprised by what can be known about the politics of that first Christmas. The earliest church seems not to have celebrated Christmas for its first two hundred years. Why was Christmas not celebrated earlier?  That's a matter for conjecture, not proof.  The fact is, scholars tell us, there is a conflict in the historical settings provided in the only two Gospel accounts we have of the birth of Jesus.  The Gospel of Matthew sets the birth at the time of King Herod. (2:1ff.)

The account in Luke sets the birth when Augustus was Emperor of Rome, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.  In spite of its scenes of angels singing to shepherds peacefully watching their sheep in the hills, it was a world of political conflict and human suffering. The birth of Jesus coincided with the census of Quirinius.  This was not like our every ten year censuses: the purpose of this census was to identify people so that even heavier taxes could be levied by Rome and so that Judean men could be identified for conscription into Caesar's army. 

Although we get no sense of it in Luke's story, we know from sources outside the Bible that this very census provoked an armed uprising by Jewish patriots against Rome.  A guerilla war against Rome began which would continue throughout Jesus' life and would end with the destruction of Jerusalem by Roman armies thirty or so years after Jesus' crucifixion.   This census meant that Mary and Joseph had to be on the road, away from their family support systems, at precisely the time for the birth of their first baby.   

The correlation of Jesus' birth with the beginning of this war of resistance against Rome was not coincidental.  The world was moving according to Caesar Augustus.  Caesar claimed to be "Savior" of the world.  A "savior" was one who delivered or liberated people.  It is in response to that claim that Luke has angels announce news of "good news" and "joy" to the shepherds in the fields. To almighty political power Luke’s message was that the real "Savior" was being born in tiny Bethlehem; "the Messiah," was "Christ the Lord."  The legions of Caesar Augustus sought to enforce the "Peace of Rome" on this subject people.  Against the claims of the mighty power of Caesar, the little birth story flings back the reply that salvation and peace are not finally in Caesar’s hands. And this unsettling thought is a threat to tyrants in every age and place.

Cynics (or “realists” depending on whether you are one or not) may argue that Caesar won. Thirty plus years later Caesar’s administrator, Pontius Pilate, had Jesus crucified on the charge of insurrection. In 70 AD (or CE) Caesar’s legions defeated the Jewish Zealots (including, no doubt, some Jews who believed Jesus to be the Messiah), destroyed the Temple, and razed Jerusalem. And in the fourth century, when Caesar Theodosius 1 made Christianity the religion of the empire, Christians’ belief that Jesus was “Savior of the World” was used as a club against Judaism and other religions, eradicating most religions in the empire, and providing the ideology for persecution of Jews for the next millennium and a half. We are right to be sobered by these events.

But Caesars’ of the world always think they’ve won. If we listen carefully to the backstories told at Hanukkah, Christmas, and freedom stories in other traditions, we are reminded that the Vladimir Putins, Hu Jintaos, Bashar al-Assads, and even the Wall Street tyrants are not invincible. And that’s good news!

Happy Holidays and a Wonder Filled New Year!

- Milo  

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