The holiday season is tormented this year. Terrorism here and abroad piles anxiety upon anxiety for many people. Racist and fear-mongering politicians capitalize on those anxieties to promote themselves. The Christmas decorations in stores and restaurants, the drone of holiday carols and songs over MUZAK systems—all seem strained, as if we were trying to deal with an ugly stain on the wall by splashing it with new paint.
Despite the fact that you and I are roughly sixteen times more likely to die in a car accident than in a terrorist attack (check it out at “Ask the Odds.com”), some people are falling all over themselves to rush us to war in the (false) name of “national security.” The politicians’ rhetoric of fear, war, bigotry, and retaliation ramps up the anxiety in the air. So much for “peace on earth, good will toward men.”
Do the legends surrounding this season, the Hanukkah story of the eight days of light and the Christmas story of the stable and the angels and shepherds, offer us any real comfort in these times? I think they might, though not the sort of comfort we usually associate with the season. It’s not a year for sentimentality. But perhaps it’s a year for some understanding, even compassion.
Forget Hanukkah’s miraculous, never-ending lamp oil. Ask instead, what were the circumstances during which that miracle took place? It was an insurrection, a revolt against the Seleucid rulers of Judea, triggered by the Seleucid decree that the Jews worship the Greek gods in their Temple in Jerusalem. The rebellion was led by a farm family, Mattathias and his five sons, later called the Maccabees (after the oldest son, Judah, whose nickname was “the hammer,” which in Greek was “Maccabeus”). The rebels formed a guerilla militia of about 22,000 men. They took on a larger army and after many years of struggle, eventually won independence for Judea (which lasted around one-hundred years, until the Romans came to town).
Hanukkah celebrates that victory and the purification of the Temple in Jerusalem. But it is a story curiously similar to what is going on in our world: One group imposing their religious beliefs on another, and the other resisting violently. Looking back, we call the Maccabees “freedom fighters.” The Seleucids called them terrorists.
One lesson of Hanukkah, then, may be that naming a group or a person “terrorist” depends entirely on one’s point of view. If you are fighting the dominant power because you believe it has polluted your religion and is destroying your culture, you call yourself a freedom fighter, a maccabbee, a hammer of your enemy. On the other hand, if you belong to the dominant power and feel threatened or afraid of these maccabees, you call them terrorists.
Either name arouses enormous passion, and it’s that passion that leads to the ruthless commitment of the rebels to tear down the dominant power and the dominant power’s obsession with destroying the terrorists. The last thing either side intends is dialog. The last emotion either side feels is compassion. Is there any hope in this scenario?
Perhaps. Think about the Christmas story’s circumstances, as they are portrayed in Luke’s Gospel, the gospel most people consider somewhat historical. I’ll ignore the fact that the property tax census that forced Joseph and Mary to travel three days to Bethlehem did not happen in the years when Jesus was likely born. I’ll ignore too the fact that the Romans conducted their censuses and collected taxes at people’s homes, not at their ancestors’ birthplaces (the property on which the tax was assessed existed at their homes, not at their ancestors’ birthplaces). Finally, I’ll ignore the fact that to require everyone to travel to their ancestors’ birthplaces would have created chaos across the Empire. The Romans were ruthless, but they weren’t stupid. (If you want to read more about these facts, go here.)
In any case, whether in Bethlehem or Nazareth, Joseph was an artisan, probably a carpenter. At that time, as John Dominic Crossan has shown, using the work of Gerhard Lenski, artisans were probably the second-poorest groups in Judean agrarian society, one step away from homelessness. Ironically, by the time of his public preaching, Jesus had indeed become effectively homeless, an itinerant teacher.
Dean Snyder makes the point that, whereas the Magi are the stars of Matthew’s nativity story, it’s shepherds who come to see the baby. He notes (also following Lenski) that shepherds belong to the lowest class in the Roman world, the “expendable class,” too poor to even afford a home of their own. These shepherds were hired hands, living in the fields with their flocks (which belonged to wealthier farm owners).
In short, Jesus was born into poverty, beautifully symbolized by the story of the stable and the manger, surrounded by shepherds. But poverty and oppression by an occupying empire are two of the conditions that frequently “radicalize” young men. Keep in mind that throughout his life, Jesus was quite familiar—everyone in Judea was—with terrorist groups such as the Zealots and the Sicarii (“dagger-men”), who kept up a guerilla war against Rome for more than 70 years, using violence and assassination. There had been a revolt against Rome in Joseph and Mary’s province, Galilee, in 4 B.C.E., when Jesus most likely was a little boy. Terrorism (if you were Roman) or freedom fighters (if you were Jewish) would have been a fact of life for Jesus. However, he chose, and later preached, neither. He did not fall into the trap of name-calling (“I’m a freedom fighter,” “No, you’re a terrorist”). Instead, do you remember what he said?
You have heard it said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matt. 5:43-44).
Perhaps there’s a message there for this tormented time, torn apart by fear and grief and their inevitable followers, rage and hatred. Of course, some will remind me, that’s naïve. After all, Jesus was crucified.