For those seeking a respite from the political turmoil of our world, the Christmas stories of Matthew and Luke offer no help.
Matthew’s account features the King Herod’s bloody massacre of “all children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.” He took this action because he feared that the child visited by the “wise men from the East” would be a rival to his power. Indeed, his fear was on the mark. And baby Jesus escaped only because his parents made a night-time dash to Egypt just ahead of the killing.
Luke’s account doesn’t mention Herod’s atrocity but portrays Jesus’s arrival in such overt political terms as to make it seem like street theater. William O’Brien, writing in Evangelicals for Social Action’s December 2013 edition of ePistle, draws our attention to many of these references.
· The context is framed by a Roman census, the purpose of which was military conscription and the collection of taxes to support the Empire’s activities. Much of Jewish resistance to Rome (and to Herod) was rooted in opposition to these two activities.
· The angelic proclamation of Jesus’ birth used language straight out of the Empire’s propaganda: “good news,” “peace on earth,” and “savior.” A “host” was a military term for a formal guard accompanying the Emperor. “Luke’s angelic proclamation is nothing short of political mockery of Roman imperial ideology,” writes O’Brien.
· The Emperor would never appear in public without his entourage. Neither did Jesus; he was surrounded by shepherds (a very socially marginal group of that time) and barnyard animals.
As O’Brien puts it:
“Through the entire narrative, Luke is throwing down a gauntlet to his readers: Who is the true savior of the world—purple-robed 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?”
Why do Matthew and Luke frame Jesus’ birth in political terms? Because within the context in which they wrote (just a few years after the Empire’s destruction of Jerusalem and the deaths of over one million people), they understood him to have inaugurated a new kind of power into the earthly equation, a power that challenged existing rulers and elicited their violent opposition.
The implication of these stories for today’s practitioners of Jesus-focused peacemaking is sobering. They suggest that our nearly exclusive focus on enemy-love and reconciliation reflects a diminished understanding of his life and message. Before he taught us to turn the other cheek and to love our enemies, Jesus was a dissident and a resister of the Empire. In such a context, enemy-love and reconciliation are alternative forms of political action.
When we look at the guiding statements of any Mennonite group committed to peacemaking, we see no hint of political resistance, not even a whiff of political dissidence. Why not? Because that would be divisive and unbecoming of Jesus-followers; we aspire to live above political agendas.
Yet that’s not where Jesus lived. So why do we think we can live otherwise?