December 17, 2017
The titles of the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus were: Divine, Son of God, God, God from God, Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, and Savior of the World. To use any of them of the newborn Jesus would be either low lampoon or high treason. And, since empires always know their opponents, Rome was not laughing.
–Dominic Crossan & Marcus Borg, The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth (New York: HarperOne, 2007), p. 63.
Luke’s Story: A Different Kind of Caesar
When we think of the Christmas story we think of this passage from Luke. Pregnant Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem, giving birth in a stable, wrapping the child in bands of cloth and laying him in a manger. Meanwhile shepherds are watching their flock when an angel appears to them. After the angel’s message, the shepherds go to Bethlehem, behold the child and his mother and return glorifying and praising God.
That is essence the Christmas story. I know that because that is the part that is read by Linus in the Charles Schulz cartoon, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The centerpiece of this Christmas story is the announcement by the angels to the shepherds:
Glory to God in the highest heaven,
And on earth peace among those whom God favors!
The shining light in the centerpiece of that message is this:
Peace among those whom God favors.
Christmas is about peace. Peace on earth.
We should ask about that phrase “among those whom God favors.” Does God have favorites? Does God favor some over others? Anyone living in the first century would surely know the answer. Of course, the gods favor the wealthy and the powerful. That is why they are wealthy and powerful. They have curried the favor of the gods.
When Caesar Augustus, the Savior of the World, the Son of God, or God for short, God from God, Lord, Redeemer, brought peace to the world in 31 BCE and ended the bloody civil war, he made a sacred temple and erected large letters in Latin spelling out his victory:
“He offered religious thanks to the war god, Mars, and the sea god, Neptune, for the war he had fought, for the victory he had obtained, and for the peace that had ensued.” Crossan, p. 64
This is Roman imperial theology: religion, war, victory, peace.
For whom peace? On those who god favors. Who does god favor? The victors.
I am not going to go into all of the business of Roman imperial theology this morning. It is after all getting close to Christmas. Family is here and everyone is dressed nicely. The children presented such a lovely gift to us.
But I do want to leave you with a provocative thought. Because I am hoping that provocative thought will lead to other thoughts. Perhaps those thoughts might gel into an “aha” and if enough collective ahas are heard in Whoville we just might turn the people of Earth away from the course upon which we are headed.
The provocative thought is this: the angels that announce to the shepherds and to Mary are counter-propagandists. They are announcing a world order that is quite different, opposite in fact, from the world order that we have been conditioned to believe is true. We are conditioned to believe that peace is the result of security that comes from victory and war.
The gospels, and it is especially made clear in Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus, declare a counter-gospel to Empire’s gospel. That message is this: Peace that comes through victory is not peace, just quiet. “They make a desert and call it peace.” That is what was said of the Romans. What will they say of us, the United States? Did the United States bring peace to Iraq? Afghanistan? Vietnam? South America? Korea? Syria? Libya?
The counter-gospel of Luke is that peace comes not from victory but through justice.
Those two visions are at our disposal and have been there throughout human history. Peace through victory or peace through justice. The peace that the angels announce to Mary and to the shepherds is the peace that comes when the bounty of earth is distributed fairly, when no one goes hungry, when there is shelter for all, when as Mary says in her song, the lowly are lifted up.
Peace through justice is a peace that comes when all of us work collaboratively with each other and with God. It involves telling the truth. Even when the truth is scary as hell. Listen for truth. Tell the truth. Work for justice. Then peace. No shortcuts. No violence necessary.
As Martin Luther King Jr. put it, the fruit of violence is bitterness. The fruit of non-violence is reconciliation.
Do you believe that?
Can you believe that?
Is it possible to put aside the propaganda of present-day empires that dismantle civil rights and put us in a perpetual state of fear and instead put our trust, and our lives in the promise of a true peace that comes when we work toward justice?
I vote for that candidate this Christmas.