I tried to make this Christmas a little more spiritual this year. I started reading my bible a few weeks ago and meditating on the story of Christ’s birth, as well as his subsequent ministry on earth. I don’t really observe Advent, though not for any particular reason besides the fact that growing up my family never did. We’re Protestant converts from Catholicism, and I think that my parents/grandparents were especially vigilant in maintaining a wide distance between themselves and their Catholic past. I think this is less true of mainline denominations, but certainly evangelicalism (and to a certain extent the Pentecostal tradition) really hollows out the liturgical and ritual aspects of Catholic practice, mainly (and unfortunately) by demonizing it. Without these ritualistic anchors, we succumbed to capitalism’s commodification and ruthless commercialization of Christmas over the years. I feel like the pandemic has slowed these forces down significantly, and I’ve been able to reflect on what this holiday really means for me, whether or not observing it is actually necessary to my Christian identity and practice, or whether I want it to mean anything at all.
(Re)reading the gospels, one thing seems pretty clear: Jesus’s soteriological/redemptive significance is largely, if not exclusively, based on him being a kingly figure, an alternative ruler to the Roman emperors. I remember reading something in seminary by a progressive (and I think feminist) theologian who suggested that the language of kingship and lordship used in reference to Christ reflected a reproduction of patriarchal logic, thus undercutting the liberatory value of Christ’s ministry and his very existence as a messianic figure. I remember agreeing whole heartedly with that assessment at the time, but now I think it might be an uncharitable interpretation which actually misses many key elements of the story, zooming in on that one particular aspect of Christ’s personality while shutting out the rest of the wider picture and political context which frames this (allegedly) problematic language.
I’m sure that there are genuine instances throughout the bible where imperial logic is reproduced without any kind of reworking or reconfiguration. But Christ is the king of justice, mercy, and the reversal of fortunes. His status is recognized by Herod and the magi while still a baby in a manger. Not only is he Caesar’s rival, he’s his benevolent opposite. I think Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem in Matthew 21:5 most vividly illustrates this idea of a righteous alternative to the kings and rulers of empire: “Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.” It’s a powerful juxtaposition of humility and power set in the recognizable scene of an imperial procession. It has the effect of reducing traditional personas of rulership while exalting the type of individual who is seemingly unworthy, disqualified, or normally excluded from that opportunity.
I guess my question is what or who is responsible for the wholesale discounting of Christ/Christianity’s alternative political project. Certainly radicalism is appealing in the sense that yes, ideally there would be no empires or patriarchies or other hierarchal forms of oppression, but this doesn’t de facto mean that anything else is automatically a weakening of egalitarian commitments. Is it white feminism that focuses too narrowly on masculine structures of leadership and governance to the exclusion of the complex realities and/or material conditions of the marginalized groups to which Jesus was politically meaningful? We’ve thoroughly rejected white forms of heroism and saviour-like promises, which undoubtedly constitute another type of power play—but again, is that what’s actually happening in the gospels? Does it make a difference if that saviour figure comes from the oppressed community he’s trying to save? Maybe Rome has strangely claimed the king in the manger, and maybe we can no longer tell the difference between their respective kingdoms.