christmas

Not My King(s): Re-Politicizing Christmas

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It is both fitting and advantageous that we should celebrate the birth of one king before we inaugurate another. Let’s examine each in turn.

Why is it fitting?

2016 held an interesting election cycle. The consensus seemed to be that nobody was satisfied with the major party candidates that were offered. Regardless, many people pressed into their candidate of choice, fearing the alternative. Meanwhile, looming Supreme Court nominations and fragile race relations raised the perceived stakes. Thus, many of my Christian friends voted out of a concern over failing national righteousness, and many of my minority friends voted out of a concern over failing national justice. As a Christian who is also a person of color, I sympathize with both.

In the wake of the election, there have been some who have objected: “Not my president!” From their perspective, their fears and frustrations have only been affirmed by the election results. This was destined to be the case for one constituency or another in such a polarized election. We are frustrated with all of our leaders.

Enter Christmas.

Authors have pointed out often enough that we have de-politicized Christmas. The national concerns of 2016 are not unique. Long before the baby was in the manger, there was an outcry against sinful, abusive leadership: “…he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!”[1]

One bad leader after another. No desirable options, rampant injustice, rampant sin. The prophet Ezekiel captures this powerfully in the prophecy against the “shepherds” of Israel. At the climax of the indictment, God says, “…Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep.”[2] The most important part is that the Lord promises to rescue the sheep by setting a son of David over them as a shepherd and king.[3] This promise was realized on Christmas day.

In the promise of Christmas, God says, “Not my King!” to all of the rulers of Israel.

This plight and solution is not for Israel only. While Matthew presents this newborn king face-to-face with Israel’s pretender-king (Herod), Luke situates the birth of the promised king within the context of the Roman Empire, and the leaders of the free (and not-free) world: first, Augustus Caesar, then Tiberius Caesar, “son of the divine Augustus.”[4] Jesus is presented as an alternative king for weary and abused citizens in the midst of terrible options.

In the promise of Christmas, God says, “Not my King!” to all of the rulers of the nations.

It is fitting to celebrate the birth of one king before the inauguration of another because Christmas is political.

It is fitting to celebrate the birth of one king before the inauguration of another because the birth of the king is God’s answer to everyone’s deepest national fears and frustrations.

It is fitting to celebrate the birth of one king before the inauguration of another because the king in the manger was always meant to be understood vis-à-vis the kings of the earth, especially whoever is recognized as the leader of the free world.

It is fitting to celebrate the birth of one king before the inauguration of another because, in the promise of Christmas, God says, “Not my King!” to the rulers of the nations.

Jesus is the King for whom everyone has been longing.

Why is it advantageous?

This means that the Christian understanding of Christmas, rightly grasped, should appeal to those with unmet national-political longings, regardless of party affiliation. The incredibly political nature of Christmas affords Christians the opportunity to sympathize with those who have these fears and frustrations, and show how the birth of Jesus is God’s direct response to those fears and frustrations. In this way, the tale of two kings offers a very current, compelling way of talking to your neighbor about Jesus—which is a welcome gift at a time when the question, “If you died tonight, are you sure you would go to heaven?” does not seem to get you as far as it once did.

We have the opportunity to:

  1. Affirm the affirmable in people’s political fears, frustrations, and longings.
  2. Show the political shape of Christmas.
  3. Point them to the hope of Jesus.

What’s more, you need not look farther than our favorite Christmas songs for a good conversation prompt:

Hark! The herald angels sing
‘Glory to the newborn King…’[5]

Come they told me Pa-rum pum pum pum
a new born king to see Pa-rum pum pum pum
Our finest gifts we bring Pa-rum pum pum pum
to lay before the King Pa-rum pum pum pum[6]

Joy to the world the Lord is come
Let earth receive her king
Let every heart prepare him room
And heaven and nature sing[7]

Jesus is the King for whom everyone has been longing. His regime will bring justice, righteousness, prosperity, and peace, and it is an advantage to be reminded of this right before our inauguration.

It is advantageous because it is an opportunity to explain why the Christian—armed with weaponized hope—can live faithfully and submissively under any regime (of course, in order to be credible, we must do just that).

It is advantageous because it leverages the very active political imagination of our neighbors, in order to show how the Christmas story has always answered the most pressing and anxious questions of our day.

Justice. Righteousness. Regime. All there in the manger. May we speak sweetly and convincingly to our neighbors.

[1] Isaiah 5:7b

[2] Ezekiel 34:10, italics added

[3] Ezekiel 34:22-24; 37:24

[4] Matthew 2; Luke 2:1. For more on Tiberius as “son of the divine Augustus” and the imperial cult, see N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, vol. 4, Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 336.

[5] “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”

[6] “The Little Drummer Boy”

[7] “Joy to the World”

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  • christmas
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James Ford

James Ford is the is the operations director for Acts 29 North Atlantic. He is a husband to April, father of Gabriel, and a graduate of Southeastern (M.Div., Th.M.).

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