The politics of Christmas
The bright lights of Christmas should be seen against the larger political darkness from which they emerge. The less popular narration provided by Matthew may be part of what Mahmoud Abbas recently divined as Jews being "really excellent in faking and counterfeiting history and religion" – yet 2,000 years later, the narrative continues to compel and revive global humanity besieged by political darkness ranging from the profound threats of genocide to the mundane weight of government taxes. According to Matthew, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus endured the full range of these political circumstances, including poverty and immediate obscurity.
Matthew 2: 13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Get up," he said, "take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him."
14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: "Out of Egypt I called my son."
That this Jewish family fled from Nazareth to Egypt is ironic. They would be safest to return to the origins of Hebrew bondage in the African state of Egypt. The desperate flight of this young family against a vicious swirl of political intrigue reminds listeners that political circumstances can always change. No matter how desperate the present condition, the beloved community can survive, and God can redeem seemingly irreparable political savagery.
That hope is vivid among the 10% of Egyptians who are Christian. They face daily harassment that extends to extravagant acts of genocide that would make King Herod proud. This past week, Islamic supremacists stormed a Christian church to tear it down and prevent the government from offering a building permit to a place of worship fifteen years old in Cairo. Not far away in Syria, Christians once again celebrate Christmas in the aftermath of the defeat of genocidally driven ISIS. It is important for intellectuals to confess: the refusal to actively condemn Islamic supremacism around the world is Islamophobic. Hezb'allah, Hamas, ISIS, and Shia supremacists do not love Muslims. No one is killing as many Muslims as these radical groups. The bodies at the morgues of Mosul cry out against the same injustices found in Matthew 2. Thousands of Muslims slaughtered in the name of ISIS' supremacist vision. We must develop a consistent anti-genocide ethic against the Islamic supremacists for the sake of all people.
The present American and global fascination with Christmas tends to surpass and cause greater attendance than the more theologically significant holiday of Easter, where Jesus's slaughter by the machinations of the State are conquered by his resurrection. The appeal of Christmas is its political idealism. No matter how cruel the State, no matter how desperate the flight, no matter how cruel the poverty and meanness of estate – there is a higher sovereign coming with Good News. There are angels and light. There are humble couriers of favor like the shepherds, hiding but emerging from the shadows cast by enduring political evil.
Christmas is a political reset. It is a euphoric chorus of delightful sound after an era of disturbing silence.
The annual return home for Christmas will cause most minds to think of how the hurts of the past might be forgotten and the hope for the future renewed. The friction and anger of politics remain our present darkness today, and this holiday continues to beckon with a piercing light. We wish for our own wise men to cleverly evade the plotting of persistent tyrants. With those sentiments in mind as intoned by Jewish author Matthew, we do well to wish one another a Merry Christmas.
Ben Voth is an associate professor of corporate communication and public affairs and director of debate at Southern Methodist University. He has written two books that grapple with these issues: The Rhetoric of Genocide (2014) and James Farmer Jr.: The Great Debater (2017).