For the past decade it's become a trite saying: What Would Jesus Do? Christians of all stripes have had bracelets or necklaces or other adornments with the "W.W.J.D.?" on them. Unfortunately, for too many people, Jesus' position on any given issue just happens to coincide with what the bracelet's wearer would like to do.
This vanity is a human one. It is not liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat.
However, when it comes to the public square, the vanity is often attributed exclusively to social conservatives; witness the warning cries of "christianists" and "theocracy" that crop up almost daily.
But former Catholic priest James Carroll reminded us Christmas morning that on occasion those on the left too like to claim that child born 2,000 years ago for use as a cudgel on their political enemies. [via Newsbusters]
It is hard to imagine now, when Christmas is the ultimate feast of domesticity, but the sweet tale of the coming of this child was, in its origin, an act of political treason. The Christmas story began, in the scholar John Dominic Crossan's word, as a "counterstory." People who first gathered to tell it to one another, as a way of saying what the memory of Jesus had come to mean to them, were signing up for revolution.
The baby Jesus, after all, is explicitly identified as an antagonist to no one less than the emperor of Rome. "Now at this time Caesar Augustus issued a decree . . . " (Luke 2:1) Augustus, claiming to be a god, was said to have been born of a human mother and a divine father. When a peasant woman from the opposite end of the social order is "found to be with child through the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 1:18), a direct rebuttal is being issued to the self-idolatrous emperor.
When the magi arrive to offer their gifts and bow, they are identifying the baby as a king, when the only king is Caesar. When angels sing of peace, they are defining the character of the kingdom that this child will initiate. Roman violence is challenged and rejected. When Herod, the emperor's agent, fails in his attempt to murder the newborn, the theme is nevertheless being struck: Roman violence will pursue this child until it gets him. Mary is not afraid, but she is no fool. "A sword will pierce your soul," a prophet tells her.
This is all very interesting, but only as a sort of tertiary issue at best. Yes, Roman authorities were afraid of the birth of Christ, but only as a political issue. They believed that Jesus would be a conventional politician or warrior who would somehow challenge their rule.
But they were wrong, that wasn't what Jesus was here for. Jesus didn't come to change the government, he came to change people's hearts. Jesus didn't come to impose a new social order, he came to teach people how to love. Jesus didn't come to make the world a fair and just place, he came save a broken humanity.
Pondering these things in her heart, Mary understands. Even within the nativity story, it falls to her to say what the events of Christmas actually mean. "My soul proclaims the greatness of God," she begins. God "has routed the proud of heart. God has pulled down princes from their thrones and exalted the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things, the rich sent empty away" (Luke 1:46-53).
Wow. Just wow. There's a hint in the attribution, but Carroll has Dowdified (changing the meaning of a quote by use of elipsis or, in this case, reconstruction of the quote) and taken out of context this bit of scripture to fit his narrative. To say that it is dishonest is perhaps an understatement. The full context:
39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah's home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!" 46 And Mary said: "My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me-- holy is his name. 50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers." (Luke 1: 39-55)
This isn't about what her child is going to do with his life, it's a testament to the power of God.
The birth of Jesus is the reversal of the imperial order. The story of that birth is told and told again because the imperial order is always attempting a comeback, always needing to be challenged.
This is the same man who once told his followers to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's?
Empire lives in the United States of America, and, despite assumptions of many Christian Americans, Christmas still rebukes the empire. The implications of Mary's statement for contemporary politics are obvious. Violence marks power as much as ever. Hunger and poverty among masses of people are inevitable byproducts of a market system that rewards the few.
Where it says "Mary's statement" it should read "Carroll's beliefs." So, Jesus was opposed to the market system and in favor of what? Central planning? Socialism? I'm curious to how Carroll would reconcile
Mary's Carroll's "statement" with Jesus' parable of the Talents.
When economic inequity becomes so extreme as to turn the global social order into an effective state of permanent war, which side is God on? The shepherds tell us, and so do the kneeling kings. Above all, Mary tells us.
Umm...I don't get it. I'm thinking that God is on God's side. I'm also of the opinion that God's first concern is the state of a man's soul, not on their place in the social order or the size of their bank account. I also think that a fair reading of the Bible wouldn't support Carroll's apparent belief that poor necessarily is good and rich is necessarily evil.
Finally, to demonstrate how differently the media treats religion when it debates public policy -- pretend that Carroll's anti-capitalist screed was instead anti-abortion.