“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” Galatians 4: 4-7
Paul tends to get shorted around Christmas. We hear words from ancient Prophets echoing anew into our world, yearning for redemption. We tell stories of a small child born in a barn in Roman backwater to wayfaring Jewish parents. Now, with our Christmas liturgical season just underway we may well benefit from returning to the most prolific early Christian writer, Paul.
There has been a long-standing tendency in Pauline studies to read ‘law’ in reference to the customs and regulations of first-century Jewish life. However, along with a growing number of New Testament scholars, not least among them my teacher Brigitte Kahl, I hear in Paul’s rhetoric a reflection of his ambivalence toward Roman imperial ideology and emperor deification.
As an example in Galatians 4:8-9, Paul asks his audience, “Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again?” Paul is speaking to persons on the other side of a dramatic liberation from forces that once held them captive. Reading this exclusively as an anti-Jewish, anti-legalist rhetoric misses the true drama of Paul’s Christological imagination. Paul views the slavishness of people under the law as their general willingness to acquiesce to the options available to them, to play by the rules prescribed by the prevailing systems. To only work within the world as it is rather than to struggle together for a future that exists only in their imaginations and dreams.
Christ’s birth is the moment that God hitches the material world onto this liberative motion out of bondage. To engage the world as children of God who are recipients of and participants in this process of redemptive liberation commits us to a imaginative and visionary political theology. One in which all Christians not only think about the political issues facing them theologically but imagine possibilities outside the existing political narrative. If we limit ourselves to talking about politics using the language and categories given to us by the political apparatus, then the conversation is already to small. Paul exhorts us to understand that, as Children of God, we have been torn from slavish adherence to common discourse and given the capacity to imagine that other worlds are possible.
Entering the full swing of a Presidential election season it is easy to fall onto political teams. How can we as theological voices retain autonomy? How can we practice the audacity to propose our own questions to those in power? How can we hold our radical visions alongside the uninspiring political quarrels we will undoubtedly be subjected to soon. Christ is born, may the profound meaning of this in-breaking not be lost in another news cycle.
John Allen is a Protest Chaplain at Occupy Wall Street. He is a Master of Divinity Student in New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies from Davidson College. He is an ordination candidate in the United Church of Christ Metropolitan Boston Association.