The Politics of the Christmas Story


Richard Moore


Published on Tuesday, December 21, 2004 by the Boston Globe 

The Politics of the Christmas Story 

by James Carroll 

The single most important fact about the birth of Jesus, as
recounted in the Gospels, is one that receives almost no
emphasis in the American festival of Christmas. 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 Romans were an
occupation force in Palestine, and Herod was their
puppet-king. To the people of Israel, the Roman occupation,
which preceded the birth of Jesus by at least 50 years, was a
defilement, and Jewish resistance was steady. (The historian
Josephus says that after an uprising in Jerusalem around the
time of the birth of Jesus, the Romans crucified 2,000 Jewish

Herod was right to feel insecure on his throne. In order to
preempt any challenge from the rumored newborn "king of the
Jews," Herod murdered "all the male children who were 2 years
old or younger." Joseph, warned in a dream, slipped out of
Herod's reach with Mary and Jesus. Thus, right from his birth,
the child was marked as a political fugitive.

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.

His census decree is what requires the journey of Joseph and
the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem, but it also defines the
context of their child's nativity as one of political
resistance. 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.

When Jesus was murdered by Rome as a political criminal --
crucifixion was the way such rebels were executed -- the
story's beginning was fulfilled in its end. But for contingent
historical reasons (the savage Roman war against the Jews in
the late first century, the gradual domination of the Jesus
movement by Gentiles, the conversion of Constantine in the
early fourth century) the Christian memory deemphasized the
anti-Roman character of the Jesus story. Eventually, Roman
imperialism would be sanctified by the church, with Jews
replacing Romans as the main antagonists of Jesus, as if he
were not Jewish himself. (Thus, Herod is remembered more for
being part-Jewish than for being a Roman puppet.)

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.

This is how it came to be that Christmas in America has turned
the nativity of Jesus on its head. No surprise there, for if
the story were told today with Roman imperialism at its
center, questions might arise about America's new
self-understanding as an imperial power. A story of Jesus born
into a land oppressed by a hated military occupation might
prompt an examination of the American occupation of Iraq. A
story of Jesus come decidedly to the poor might cast a pall
over the festival of consumption. A story of the Jewishness of
Jesus might undercut the Christian theology of replacement.

Today the Roman empire is recalled mainly as a force for good
-- those roads, language, laws, civic magnificence, "order"
everywhere. The United States of America also understands
itself as acting in the world with good intentions, aiming at
order. "New world order," as George H.W. Bush put it.

That we have this in common with Rome is caught by the Latin
motto that appears just below the engraved pyramid on each
American dollar bill, "Novus Ordo Seculorum." But, as Iraq
reminds us, such "order" comes at a cost, far more than a
dollar. The price is always paid in blood and suffering by
unseen "nobodies" at the bottom of the imperial pyramid. It is
their story, for once, that is being told this week.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe. His
most recent book is " Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War ."

© 2004 Boston Globe 

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Richard Moore (rkm)
Wexford, Ireland

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