The Christmas story is a political story

The New Testament opens with a story of conflict. It is a political conflict.

By any standard, King Herod was a vicious ruler. Yet in Matthew’s Gospel, he is frightened. He feels threatened – not by another ruler, not by an army, not by his masters in Rome. He is frightened of a baby.

Herod tries to fool a group of astrologers (not three kings) into passing on information about Jesus, but they are warned and outwit him. They proclaim Jesus, not Herod, to be king. In his desperation, Herod inflicts the unimaginable horror of a massacre of children. But Jesus survives. Mary, Joseph and Jesus become refugees in Egypt.

The story has been distinctly odd even before Herod appears. We have a Jewish couple who look set to break up when Mary becomes pregnant. But Joseph is told that Mary is pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Instead of feeling shame or outrage, he trusts her and goes through with the marriage. Social and family norms are overturned. No “traditional family values” here. Jesus had two fathers.

We are presented with contrasting images of kingship. We have the worldly kingship of Herod, rooted in wealth, violence, deceit and political manipulation. Against that, we have the child of an almost-single mother who becomes a refugee. As the child grows up, he mixes with the marginalised, sides with the poor and exemplifies active nonviolence.

Since the fourth century, when the Roman Empire domesticated Christianity, many churches have shown more affinity with the sort of power represented by Herod than with the upside-down kingship of Jesus.

Few elements of Christianity have been domesticated more thoroughly than Christmas. Stories from Matthew and Luke have been welded together, mixed in with Pagan imagery and used as the sentimental background music to a festival of consumerism.

It is sometimes said that we are losing “the real meaning of Christmas”. I’m not sure that people in Victorian times or the Middle Ages were focused on the radical nature of Jesus’ message any more than we are – at least not if they were listening at the pulpits of state-aligned churches.

The nativity stories are among the parts of the gospels that scholars tend to regard as least likely to be factually accurate. I accept that judgement. Nonetheless, I suggest that these stories mean a lot because they are a microcosm of the conflict and choice that is at the heart of the gospel. The nativity story is not merely a romantic myth but an invitation to take sides.

Will we choose the kingdom of God or the powers of this world? The tyrant or the baby? One side has money and armies. The other has love and nonviolence. It’s up to us.

 

The above article is adapted from a piece I wrote for the December 2016 issue of Reform magazine, in which I was one of four people asked to respond to the question, “What does Christmas mean to you?”. Many thanks to Steve Tomkins, editor of Reform, for asking me to write this.

My latest book is The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, published by Darton, Longman and Todd. It costs £9.99 in paperback or ebook.

Cameron wants us to remember Jesus’ birth – but not his life

David Cameron has just released his Christmas message, calling on us to mark the birth of Jesus and to remember those who are hungry or lonely at Christmas.

I find Cameron’s message hard to stomach. David Cameron speaks of the meaning of Jesus even as his government wages class war on the poor and pursues endless war in the Middle East.

I do not claim to be a better Christian than David Cameron. I fail to live up to Jesus’ teachings all the time. I sometimes struggle to understand Jesus’ meaning. I do not assume that all my conclusions about Jesus are right.

This does not stop me expressing my revulsion when Jesus’ name is invoked to back up a government whose policies are geared to promoting the short-term interests of the rich and powerful.

Let’s have a look at Cameron’s message. It begins with these words:

“If there is one thing people want at Christmas, it’s the security of having their family around them and a home that is safe. But not everyone has that.”

Cameron goes on to talk of those living in refugee camps. Are these are the same refugees who the UK government has been so reluctant to welcome? He then adds, “Throughout the United Kingdom, some will spend the festive period ill, homeless or alone.”

Hunger and loneliness do not happen by chance but are due to inequality, capitalism and an individualist society. More people are hungry, more people are lonely, as a direct result of Cameron and Osborne’s policies. Rough sleeping in the UK has gone up a whopping 55% since Cameron became Prime Minister.

Cameron goes on to pay tribute to nurses, volunteers and others who work to support “vulnerable people” at Christmas.

I am happy to pay tribute to those who support vulnerable people, as well as those working to change the situations that make them vulnerable. More such workers and volunteers are needed as Tory policies increase poverty and remove support from people in need.

The Prime Minister then praises the armed forces, saying “It is because they face danger that we have peace”.

Cameron seems to think that peace is the absence of violence. UK armed forces are sent to fight in wars for commercial and strategic interests in which innocent people are routinely killed. War does not lead to peace any more than promiscuity leads to chastity.

The message talks of those who are “protecting our freedoms”. We are very fortunate to have a great many freedoms in this country. We have them because our ancestors campaigned for them, not because the powerful graciously handed them down.

Referring to peace, the Prime Minister says:

“And that is what we mark today as we celebrate the birth of God’s only son, Jesus Christ – the Prince of Peace. As a Christian country, we must remember what his birth represents: peace, mercy, goodwill and, above all, hope. I believe that we should also reflect on the fact that it is because of these important religious roots and Christian values that Britain has been such a successful home to people of all faiths and none.”

Britain is not, and never has been, a Christian country. Jesus did not call for “Christian countries”. He spoke of the Kingdom of God, in which “the first will be last and the last first”. This is a challenge to all the kingdoms, powers and hierarchies of this world.

Jesus sided with the poor, called on the world to change its ways and was arrested after leading a protest in the Jerusalem Temple. He was executed by the Roman Empire with the collusion of religious leaders.

Most of today’s politicians, had they been around at the time of Jesus, would have labelled him a dangerous extremist. Editorials in the Daily Mail would have demanded his crucifixion.

Jesus said, “To everyone who has will be given more; but anyone who has not will be deprived even of what he has.” Jesus was aware of the inequality and injustice in his own society, but it sounds like an equally good description of the UK government’s current policies.

My prayer at Christmas is that we will follow Jesus’ call to look into our hearts and that we will reflect on how we contribute to both justice and injustice in the world. In the light of this, I pray that we will end our subservience to systems of exploitation and war and follow Jesus’ example of resisting them.

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My new book, The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, has just been published by Darton, Longman and Todd.

Did Jesus believe in saving money?

David Cameron likes to describe people who work hard and save money as those who ‘do the right thing’. Cameron is a self-professed Christian and I would be fascinated to hear where he finds support for this approach in the teachings of Jesus.Upside-Down Bible

The gospels are pretty negative about saving money.

Take the ‘parable of the rich fool’, which you can find at Luke 12, 13-21. A rich man replaces his barns with bigger ones in order to store ‘all my grain and all my goods’. He then relaxes, knowing he has plenty of possessions on which to rely. God appears and calls him a fool, saying his life will be taken that very night. ‘And the things you have prepared, where will they be?’

Many Christians insist that it was not the man’s wealth that was the problem but his attachment to it. But the question at the end seems to be mocking the efforts he has made to accumulate it. Just afterwards, Jesus urges his disciples not to worry about what they will eat and wear. ‘Consider the ravens,’ he says. ‘They have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.’

Elsewhere, Jesus urges his listeners not ‘to store up treasure on earth’ but treasure in heaven. He told a wealthy man to give all he had to the poor. Urging people not to boast about their generosity, he encouraged them not to let their left hand know what their right hand was doing. It is difficult to imagine Jesus entering his daily income and expenditure on a spreadsheet.

Jesus was acting in a strong biblical tradition. When the Israelites fled Egypt – where food was stored in barns for the elite – they had to rely on ‘manna’, food sent by God on a daily basis that went rotten if kept until the next day.

I have recently been showing Jesus’ teachings to non-Christians who were new to the Bible (as research for my new book, The Upside-Down Bible). I was not surprised that some of them regarded them as over-the-top. Dunyazade, a Muslim, contrasted Jesus’ ‘extreme’ encouragement to give away everything with the apparently more realistic Muslim requirement to give a percentage of your income away. Carl, a left-wing activist, approved of Jesus’ words on the grounds that they support ‘the ideals of socialism’. Sally, a charity fundraiser, saw Jesus reflecting the reality that it is often some of the poor who give the most to charity.

The gospels imply that at least some of Jesus’ disciples lived in community, sharing a common purse. This may have removed day-to-day fears about having enough to eat while making things very uncertain and precarious in the longer term. This style of living was itself a radical witness to the Kingdom of God, contrasted with the kingdoms and values of this world.

I recently heard a politician suggest that financial advisers should be stationed in food banks, to help their users to manage money. Perhaps he thinks the sharp rise in food banks has been caused by an outbreak of financial mismanagement. True, charities provide a valuable service in advising people on looking after their finances, but this is different to seeing such matters as the cause of the problem. I have always been baffled by the common middle-class belief that the act of entering numbers in columns generates food.

The idea of saving money and looking after it is so venerated in today’s society that any rejection of it seems extreme. Perhaps it’s time for Christians to acknowledge that this is what Jesus’ teachings are: extremist.

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My new book is The Upside-down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, which was published by DLT on 26th November in paperback and eBook, priced £9.99. The above post appeared originally on the DLT Books Blog as part of a series of five posts looking at Jesus’ parables in the light of my research for the book.