Warning: this Christmas article is not for children, nor was the story of Jesus’ birth. The biblical narrative of his birth is a clash of worlds, of empires, of political wills and armies. It continues a bold and dangerous rewrite of human history going back 3200 years to the salty mists of the Red Sea where the wheels of hoarded resources and violent seizures bogged to a halt and the voice of might-makes-right and winners-take-all drowned in eerie silence.
The real Christmas war began with the paranoid pronouncements of Pharaoh. Wealth and power cannot be shared so it requires “more bricks, less straw” and the extermination of the innocent. Hebrew midwives spawned the resistance by stealth, and it culminated with a baby swaddled inside a tar-smeared basket camouflaged by bulrushes. An obscure god, not of imperial fortresses and gold-plated idols, but of nomads’ jagged dwellings, boldly yet absurdly declares war: “Let my people go.”
The wilderness mountain god, YHWH, fights dirty, turning lust of power against itself his readied conniving strategy. With the slavery of his own reasoning, Pharaoh believes he is casting out the riffraff . Cunningly lured to the seas edge, Pharaoh discovers too late that it was not he who cast the Hebrews out, but YHWH who brought them out. Those being brought out walk on dry ground even amidst threatening walls of water. Those who cast out bog down in the mud of their relentless grasping.
That war began in a dark era of societal collapse on a global scale that lasted over 400 years. Those uprooted by it outnumbered the ones clinging to land and resources. One group of “border-crossers” (the meaning of the word Hebrew) called themselves “Israel” and precariously settled in the land of Canaan. From there and with them, YHWH established a beachhead and entrenched for a protracted conflict.
Israel, the people who struggle with (and at times against) God, has always been a mysterious union of harsh human realities with an Other reality of justice, rightness, truth and mercy. The union of God and humanity not only exists, but doggedly insists on world conquest. The Hebrew word for this dogged insistence is hesed, most often translated into English as steadfast love.
The ancient story of Israel is that other history, the one most humans have lived even up to today. As with Israel’s fathers—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David—and mothers—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and “the wife of Uriah”—and with countless people today, the other human history was conceived in flight. Nobody, then and now wants to uproot and to wander in strange and hostile territory. Flight is that last ditch response thrust upon people faced with lethal force against them. Violence is the bedrock of the history we teach in schools. That history is made of an endless stream of cause and effects wrought by wars, political alignments and monopoly of resources.
The other history, the one not taught in school but that most global inhabitance have lived, is that of the conquered. That history, expressed more by prophets, poets, artists and writers, is of the losers of history who pay for the power and prestige of others with the brunt force trauma of slaughter or confiscation of land, family and livelihood.
Coming from the perspective of those who fled Pharaoh’s greedy logic, Israel ensconced in their stories, their rituals, their laws and social institutions an ethic of mutual responsibility, shared resources and a deep-seated suspicion of wealth and power. They believed in a God who did not suspiciously look like and act like emperors, wealthy merchants or powerful military leaders. For sure, they believed their God was a great king, but insisted on His invisibility precisely so he would not be confused with imperial divinities made by human hands. Imperial gods are always covered in gold or silver. Imperial divinities whole-heartedly endorse the upward flow of tribute due to ruling elites. These gods tell their stories in a variety of versions, but the outcome is always the same. Tribute moves upward into the hands of the few. The rod of retribution motions downward and makes it so. This is normal, the way its supposed to be.
Israel attempted a resistance movement in the shadow of mighty empires—first the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks and finally Rome. For the most part, they failed, succumbing to the very thing they so resisted. “Your wealth,” their prophets of resistance bitterly adjure, “has made you forget.” The sword of empires is fearful indeed. Amazingly, miraculously even, the resistance did not die.
They met in communities still scattered in defeat throughout the empire still singing their songs, telling their stories and reciting their neighborly ethic. They still insisted on the anti-religious God who scoffs and mocks at the puffed up self-importance of mighty gods.
For reasons mysterious, an obscure group of Jews claiming to follow a man named Jesus who was executed as an imperial imposter by the Romans, but whom the Christians claim rose from the dead, revive the ancient conflict. Actually, they claim their ancient god YHWH is instigating a new invasion. Absurdly, they revive the ancient, counter-narrative at the very point where it seems most radically defeated, when the Romans destroyed the Jewish temple. They tell the story of a king’s (Christ) coming out (mas, from the Latin maesse meaning to go out). They insist that even in the burning rubble of Jerusalem and endless rows of crucified inhabitance, the decisive point in the war occurred nearly 70 years prior. They insist, even under threat of sword, that Jesus is Lord, not Caesar.
Then, at the dawn of a new millennium, yet another Pharaoh now called a Caesar issued his paranoid pronouncement. “Count the people,” Augustus demanded in order to claim ownership of huge swaths of land and insure the upward flow of tribute. Once again as before, wealth and power cannot be shared, and as always, requires the extermination of the innocence. Power and prestige are paid for in floods of silent tears.
Once again a resistance by stealth culminates with an infant swaddled in the feeding trough of working animals camouflaged by the jagged dwellings of the displaced. Here that obscure wilderness god of old boastfully insists on His unstoppable hesed, steadfast love, and persists on His rude intrusion into imperial agendas. He demands his presence in the midst of harsh human realities. He not only reiterates His millennia old war declaration, but now absurdly declares his assured victory. “A king has come,” and in his arrival “the powerful are cast down from their thrones.” The high places are leveled and boastful hoarding put to flight.
The conflict is of cosmic proportions and invisible forces muster for battle. A fearsome messenger brings tidings (report from the battle front) to an unmarried pregnant teenager and homeless, shelterless, laborers working overtime through the night shift. Even though the odds are stacked and the armies appear grossly disproportionate, the decisive shift in the battle has occurred.
Once again, the preferred war strategy is to turn lust of power against itself. Those resistant to the union of God and humanity fall by their own cunning. They and their gods are blind, deaf, and dumb. They rage in delusion when they realize they have once again been outwitted by their own conceits. They think they are casting out the necessary waste of empire building. All the while, hesed is bringing them out. Those being brought out are guided by terrestrial intelligence. Those who cast out are consumed by their own rage.
And as it was when YHWH first declared war, the other human history, the one shut out from the gates of power, is conceived in flight. It must walk on dry ground even as it finds refuge in the land of perpetual work.
Today on the eve of yet another Christmas, I find myself resistant to the gross distortion that it has become. Borrowing from the God of Israel’s war strategy, empire-building gods and their human cohorts have co-opted its radical message.
In the worse kind of distortion imaginable, those most enamored to imperial gods, insist that enemies are attacking their bloated, perverted and subverted distortion of the Christmas message, over and over again de-fanging its power.
By its absurd and superficial candy-coated celebration, Christmas has turned gift into “a deal.” Its radical declaration of war and its even more bold victory shout is drowned out in drunken reveling, bolstering the bloated coffers of paranoid Pharaohs even as they demand “more bricks, less straw” from those who reel from over-work. Ironically those put to flight by the fluctuations of the "free market" imitate the over-consumption of those who still require the upward flow of tribute.
Even so, the God of Israel and of Christians, the “Mighty One of Jacob,” will not retract his declaration of war and its assured victory. The union of God and humanity not only exists, but doggedly insists on world conquest. Even now and even still, mid-wives, pregnant teenagers, day laborers, betrayed husbands and wanderers forced to flight connive a resistance by stealth. They understand the war strategy of their God.
Under heaps of schlock, gross over-consumption, trickle down greed and ever more ingenious ways to repackage the never ending demand for tribute, the war declaration and its assured outcome sneak its way into the halls of gold-plated gods.
The Lord (Pharaoh, Caesar, President) is come.
Peace on earth and mercy mild. God and sinners reconciled.
Glory to the new born king.
Mary did you know, that your baby boy would one day rule the nations.
O come, O come Emanuel (God with us) and ransom captive Israel.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining, til he appeared and the soul felt its worth.
The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.
There is nor has there ever been a war on Christmas since the real declaration of a war against the powers that want to rule by fear of lethal force began with a small group of slaves and their rebel god in Egypt at the close of the Bronze Age. The story of an insignificant Jewish child named “Yahweh will save us” (Jesus) born in a cave under Roman occupation is merely the reinvigoration of the on going conflict of human histories.
Christ is born. Try and stop it!