by Berry Friesen
Again this December, I heard Simon and Garfunkel singing Silent Night over an August 3, 1966 broadcast of the evening news. It is an audio icon for people of my generation and has stamped us with an ironic view of Jesus: the much heralded Prince of Peace who failed to bring peace.
It’s long past time to disavow this irony, this alleged contradiction between promise and performance. Christmas tells us God is not giving up on Earth, on human history, on you and me. It tells us the loving justice of God not only endures, but measures all things. It tells us the light will continue to shine in the darkness, revealing the evil committed there.
Do you find this to be weak tea? Do you think I’m trying to salvage a great disappointment? Please, stay with me a little longer.
The “irony” of Christmas is rooted in a false image of god that goes back to the very beginning of the Bible when the fantasy lives of David and Solomon captured the imagination of the Israelites. It was a deception, a falsehood from the beginning. There never was a great Israelite kingdom and the god Israel claimed to worship never wanted one. But no matter; people fell for the story hook, line and sinker. “Our god rules and so will we. Then there will be peace!”
Yet early on, another part of the Bible described this god another way, as the One who made a fool of kings and made a different kind of promise to everyday people like you and me.
This is the One of whom the prophets spoke, carefully avoiding triumphalist metaphors. Amos spoke of rebuilding “the booth of David,” Hosea of “living in tents again,” Micah of resisting the terrible Assyrian army through the leadership of “seven shepherds.” Zephaniah said the same thing, but without figures of speech: “I will remove from your midst your proudly exultant ones, and you shall no longer be haughty in my holy mountain. For I will leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly” (Zeph. 3:11-12).
But the fantasy lived on with its images of powerful perfection. And it lives still in Simon and Garfunkel’s iconic recording.
Drawing on the work of John Caputo, Samford University professor B. Keith Putt describes the god of the prophets as “an event who disrupts grandiose theories of power, prestige and brutality.” It is “the power of a weak force, a force that does not plot but promises, does not exploit but entices, does not violate human freedom but vitiates . . . oppression through the power of powerlessness and the seduction of divine suffering.” This god-event does not crush oppressors, but persistently deconstructs their pretenses and “never allows injustice, violence, oppression, suffering and dehumanization to exist unperturbed and unrestrained. The weak force of the event of God is in reality the Spirit of God as a messianic nuisance and a prophetic irritant.” *
This is the One to whom the birth of Jesus bears witness. It is the “weak force” of steadfast resistance, persistently witnessing to justice and truth.
Recently, I heard a woman from my congregation speak of her journey to Nigeria where she became acquainted with a faith-based group building relationships of trust and solidarity between Muslims and Christians. During her visit, a bomb in a local market killed several people. She felt despair at this news until she spoke to one of the leaders of the community group, who said: “We expect provocations–the shedding of blood to trigger sectarian violence. Our purpose is to interrupt the escalation the bombers are counting on. It’s why we do what we do, so these provocations do not escalate.”
This is the prophetic, pro-active “peace” of Christmas. It does not impose peace, nor does it despair at imperfection. Instead, it initiates and invites as it persistently subverts the structures of evil. We see this peace at work in our own country, revealing the hidden purposes of the U.S. torture program and subverting its power to use the lies elicited from innocent men to justify U.S. wars of aggression.
This is the light that has come into the world in Jesus, the light the darkness will never extinguish. This is who and what we celebrate at Christmas!
* Putt, B. Keith. “Depravatio Crucis: The Non-Sovereignty of God in John Caputo’s Poetics of the Kingdom” in Peace Be With You: Christ’s Benediction Amid Violent Empires, edited by Sharon L. Baker and Michael Hardin. Cascadia Publishing House, 2010.