The Politics of Christmas
Christmas is seen as a time when politics stops. This report argues Jesus’ birth was a highly political event and should be seen as such. (2011)
After a year heavy with politics and displays of arrogant power, Hannah Rich reflects on the real power at the heart of the Incarnation.
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Another tumultuous year for the world. It feels as if that has been the repeated refrain not only of 2017, but of the last few years too. Despite the promises of strong and stable government, national and global politics have seemed perpetually unstable. We have seen stories of sexual harassment and scandal emerge about the rich and powerful in almost every sphere of public life and culture. For many, it is something of a relief to reach that late December lull and the start of a holiday from politics – except perhaps the politics of who gets the last chocolate in the tin.
But in fact, Christmas is nothing if not political – as Stephen Holmes discussed in a report for Theos, The Politics of Christmas. The Christmas story, even if you believe it to be nothing more than that, is one of power turned on its head and reimagined in a way the world of 2017 would do well to remember. After she is visited by the angel at the very beginning of the Christmas narrative in Luke’s gospel, Mary accepts her role in the story by acknowledging not only what God has done, but also what it means for the social and political order: “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble…” (Luke 1:52).
Power as conceived of by the current US president is about shouting the loudest online. The American political narrative and the rise of ‘fake news’ has shown us the apparent power that untruths can have if they make the most noise. At times, it has felt like almost any statement at all can be taken as fact if it is tweeted with enough capital letters.
But at Christmas, truth itself is announced humbly and mildly, a baby born in a stable. John 1:10 reminds us that, “he came into the world, and though the world was made through him, it did not know him.” This is power so confident in itself that it did not need to arrive loudly and triumphantly enough to ensure the whole world immediately recognised it. Even the angel carrying the good news to the shepherds and wise men visits them each personally rather than issuing a grand public declaration of the sort encouraged by social media. None of the leaders we hear today shouting about their own power can claim to have been instrumental in the creation of the world itself yet they go to great lengths to make sure their achievements are known. The God of the Christmas story instead comes gently, without the desire to be instantly recognised as powerful.
Closer to home, much of the chaos in UK politics over the last couple of years has resulted from a series of political miscalculations. Decisions about snap elections, leadership challenges and the Brexit referendum have all been guided to some extent from a desire to hold onto power. The scheming of Westminster was doubtless matched by that of first century Israel. The rulers of that day must also have had their own teams of special advisors jostling for position and whispering in the ear of power.
We learn from the Christmas story, however, that power does not belong to those with the best laid of plans, wisest of advisors or most cunning of plots. For all his scheming, power ultimately lay not in the hands of King Herod but in the arms of a new mother. It found its home in a barn with a refugee family, not in the palace of the one from whom they were taking refuge.
Maybe this year more than ever, we need the Christmas story to remind us that power is not always deployed in 280 characters, well–orchestrated plots or big red buttons. Power does not always even have to shout loudly to establish its own legitimacy. Sometimes, it looks just like a newborn baby in a manger.
Image by Matthias Stom from wikimedia.org available in the public domain
Hannah joined Theos in 2017. She is a Researcher exploring the relationship between church growth, social action and discipleship, together with Church Urban Fund. She has previously worked for a social innovation think tank and a learning disability charity.
Posted 21 December 2017
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.