Politics of Epiphany

Essays, The Politics of Scripture

Herod was scared of a newborn baby. This basic fact of the Epiphany story bears the key to understanding its political implications. Herod’s fear reveals something of the anxiety that accompanies absolute power. In the political context of the Roman Empire, which supported Herod’s control of Judea, the continuance of power depended on the political elites capacity to convince people.

[This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture, focusing on weekly preaching texts. We also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and popular literature, film, and artistic expression. Inquiries and submissions may be sent to david.true@wilson.edu.]

Herod was scared of a newborn baby. This basic fact of the Epiphany story bears the key to understanding its political implications. Herod’s fear reveals something of the anxiety that accompanies absolute power. In the political context of the Roman Empire, which supported Herod’s control of Judea, the continuance of power depended on the political elites capacity to convince people.

that their power alone was legitimate. Whether through actually beneficial policy, propaganda, or the terror of gladiatorial games and the cross, and usually some mixture of all three, the imperial state presented itself as the only legitimate political power, the only entity with the capacity to protect citizens from foreign armies and the dangers of nature.

So a newborn that three foreign men called a king suddenly becomes a massive threat, not to Herod’s life or his infrastructure or his military, but to the image he has cultivated as the sole ruler, the only king. Noting his terror at the birth of a child-called-king, this text demonstrates a keen insight into the true location of imperial power: dominance of public rhetoric. The mysterious men from the East visit Herod and become the repositories of his anxiety and fear. He seeks to enlist them to help carry out his violent repression. But the wise men are converted, warned in a dream the collude to defy Herod’s order and protect the infant Jesus from state violence. While this story is almost certainly belongs more in the realm of myth than history, it expresses something that the early Christian community felt to be true about Jesus and his family, they were political refugees from a regime that sought to kill them. That Jesus was, from the moment of his birth, an ideological threat to political power.

Those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus then are called to be in solidarity with those whose ideological vision poses a threat to oppressive power. In recent history this has been embodied by Christians who stood in solidarity with the Base Communities of Latin America as they were

massacred a disappeared in the name of defeating communism. Today, it means standing in solidarity with Palestinians whose homes are bulldozed all with the consent of the Americans and the support of multi-national corporations profiting off the people’s pain. It means aligning ourselves with the refugees that arrive, like the holy family in Egypt, at our borders and shores seeking escape from lands that promise violence and death. Epiphany calls us to journey out into the world, seeking those places where nascent radical visions are being birthed among us, where liberation is incipient, and align ourselves with the rebels, the outcasts, the tiny children born in poverty who imagine the possibility of a new reign of peace and justice. And no matter what the demands of powerful kings, support their vision and refuse to collude with repression.

John Allen is a Master of Divinity Student in New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and a chaplain to the Occupy Wall Street Movement. He 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.

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