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Tuesday, December 21, 2004

'Rome's day is over.'

Ah, Christmas: a reprieve from politics! Except, wait — I guess everything is political now. Oh yeah, and there's also the fact that the earliest stories about the birth of Jesus were politically explosive from the start. James Carroll writes in his Boston Globe column that we tend to gloss over or ignore the explicitly political dimension of the Nativity:

The child who was born in Bethlehem represented a drastic political challenge to the imperial power of Rome. The nativity story is told to make the point that Rome is the enemy of God, and in Jesus, Rome's day is over.

The Gospel of Matthew builds its nativity narrative around Herod's determination to kill the baby, whom he recognizes as a threat to his own political sway. . . .

The Gospel of Luke puts an even more political cast on the story. The narrative begins with the decree of Caesar Augustus calling for a world census — a creation of tax rolls that will tighten the empire's grip on its subject peoples. It was Caesar Augustus who turned the Roman republic into a dictatorship, a power-grab he reinforced by proclaiming himself divine. . . .

When the angel announces to shepherds that a "savior has been born," as scholars like Richard Horsley point out, those hearing the story would immediately understand that the blasphemous claim by Caesar Augustus to be "savior of the world" was being repudiated. . . .

In modern times, religion and politics began to be understood as occupying separate spheres, and the nativity story became spiritualized and sentimentalized, losing its political edge altogether. "Peace" replaced resistance as the main motif. The baby Jesus was universalized, removed from his decidedly Jewish context, and the narrative's explicit critiques of imperial dominance and of wealth were blunted.

Read the whole thing. ("The Politics of the Christmas Story," James Carroll, Boston Globe 12.21.04)

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 21 December 2004 at 6:06 PM

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