Slouching Toward Bethlehem

T’is a season of ambivalence.

Alabama barely averted electing to the Senate a man who preyed on young girls. Eighty percent of white evangelicals still voted for him though. Congress just passed a tax bill that benefits the wealthy, even as the health insurance of vulnerable children expires. Many of those voting for the tax package profess to be Christian. As we approach Christmas, that gives me pause.

How did the faith of a refugee child, a common laborer living under a colonial empire, a prophet who proclaimed love and justice become what asserts to be evangelical Christianity under Trump?

In many ways, the story of Jesus is a contemporary one. The Roman Empire wanted an accurate registration of its occupants. Angels proclaimed good news of great joy for all people, but the first act of empire was self-preservation and the deaths of children.

Against this backdrop of imperial power and economic struggle, Jesus came to understand himself and his calling. The story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness shows us his struggle to determine what kind of person he would be. The tempter offered him power and wealth, and Jesus rejected them. He chose God’s community of love and welcome rather than the kingdoms of the world.

When Jesus began teaching, his message was clear: the greatest commandments were to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. He also pointed out that we were to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us. He demanded justice for the poor and oppressed, and he said that God’s community belonged, not to the powerful and the rich, but to the poor, the merciful, the meek, the pure in heart, the peacemakers.

In the end, his message of love and justice was so threatening that the Romans killed him. Certainly many religious leaders of his day colluded with the Romans to bring about his execution, but only the Empire had the power to carry out the death penalty, and, for the Romans, fear of a revolution by the oppressed was enough. For those who held power, the political, economic, and religious implications of Jesus’ message were clear. Had Jesus spoken only of an other-worldly kingdom, the earthly powers would have felt no threat, but his message was one of the in-breaking of God’s community in the here and now, and that message called for transforming current systems of power, privilege, and oppression.

As we approach Christmas this year, many on the so-called Christian Right have lost or erased that message. They have turned the good news of great joy for all people into an unrecognizable grab for political power at any cost, including the obliteration of the very message of Christmas itself.

In Jesus God became known in a particular way, as part of the poor, the vulnerable, the displaced, the colonized.

Now we hear the phrase, “Merry Christmas,” weaponized against the very people with whom Jesus identified, and the war on Christmas is the one waged by Trumpian evangelicals who reject Jesus’ message of welcome, acceptance, love, mercy, and justice in favor of political power and triumphalism.

No wonder declining numbers of Americans celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. The distortion of Jesus’ message and the overt arrogance, hypocrisy, and clannishness of Trumpian evangelicalism obscure the religious meaning of Christmas. For those victimized by Trumpian evangelicals’ white nationalism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, Christian exclusiveness, xenophobia, and Islamophobia, the declaration of Christmas is one of exclusion, pain, discrimination, and hatred. Unfortunately, this is the face of Christianity that is often most visible in the age of Trump.

Still, for those Christians who strive to follow the radical love of Jesus, this is nonetheless the season of Advent. Hope continues. A child will be born. Even among the cacophony of sexual harassment, tax reform, contested elections, voter suppression, gerrymandering, and investigations into Russian meddling in the election, many still hope for the angel’s proclamation: peace on earth, good news of great joy for all people.

Somehow, the extremes of the Christian Right have co-opted this story of inclusive hope and joy for political ends and have turned this season into a reminder of the ugliness of religious and political divisiveness. Still, the gospel story doesn’t end with the triumph of empire and political power. Love wins out.

So maybe, just maybe, as we move toward Christmas day, that faint hope can take hold despite the bigotry and violence and hatefulness. Perhaps that story can act on those of us who claim it as a narrative of identity so that we embody its message of absolute love, inclusion, and justice, even in the face of an exclusionary and divisive political climate.

And so, we make our way toward Bethlehem.

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