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The Politics of Scripture

A Prophetic Response to the Ethics of Empire

When we work towards the eradication of structures that perpetuate poverty in our communities, those that divide us, systems that perpetuate classism or any form of caste system, we each become the light that others see around them. This is also how we embody the glory of God as was experienced by the shepherds in the Lukan narrative.

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Luke 2:1-20

Empires only have validity by forcing their worldview onto other people’s cultures, economies, traditions, and epistemic heritages. They do not exist without the active and sometimes passive agreement by those who are at the center of its narrative constructions. By this, I simply mean that empires need bodies to validate and perpetuate their visions, ethics, and principles. Their centers can sometimes shift, but wherever they shift to in the dynamics of othering of those whom they fix their gaze on, they re-strategize themselves to allow for new peripheries to come to be, while their centers continue to assert themselves.

An example of this is the Roman Empire. The passage from the Lukan Gospel states categorically that all inhabitants of the Roman Empire had to go to their homelands to be counted (2:1-3). Empires demonstrate their power over people and resources by reducing them to tools to be used to generate wealth. The Roman Empire under Augustus Caesar was not different. As Glory Dy rightly notes, “censuses were a favorite of Caesar Augustus. Taxes helped keep the Roman army healthy, build roads, and finance army campaigns to keep conquering the world. Plus, he was a very luxurious emperor” at the expense of the conquered lands and people.[1]

While Rome became the center of the mechanism for creating peripheries of death, desolation, and colonialism in other lands, the shift of the imperial seat of power from Rome to Byzantium continued the initial ideology of domination of other lands, cultures, and peoples. Though Byzantium may be seen as a restart of the agenda of the Roman Empire over the lands and peoples conquered as an attempt to articulate a more refined Pax Romana, the fact remains; it was a Pax Romana of exploitation and a proximity to resources that were needed to satisfy the greed of those at its center.[2]

Furthermore, to validate their agenda, empires create their own worldview that most often expresses the idolatrous mirroring of ethics of illusion that is presented as a tool for civilizing those it has othered as barbarians without the intent to instill in them citizens that embody the ethics of flourishing. Empires create a deliberate mindset of scarcity and fear needed to perpetuate a constant embrace of the embodied experiences of scarcity, whether related to natural resources, cultural production of knowledge, or political consciousness.

Reflecting on the readings for the Nativity of Christ, one immediately notices the descriptive markers of empire ethics articulated above. It is the very nature of empire to displace that which it has defined to be constitutive of otherness. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “at the end of 2021as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations or events seriously disturbing public order, 89.3 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced.”[3]

One immediately notices how this reality of displacement plays out in the events described in the Lukan narrative of the nativity of the incarnate Christ. What is most interesting is that the displacement caused by empire creates an anthropology of scarcity that perpetuates a behavior pattern that is inherently inhumane. One would expect that the correct way of being human is to express hospitality towards others, especially those who are in most need of it.

Here is Mary, a pregnant woman and in need of a place to stay in order to give birth to her child. In Bethlehem, her hometown, she experiences a form of existential rejection from those she should naturally consider to be her kinspersons. No one is willing to welcome her into their home to go through the ritual of giving birth to new life. This is to be expected, especially when inhabitants of empire appropriate the exploitative culture of empire and perpetuate and embody the scarcity mindset that prevents them from sharing their resources with others who may be less privileged than them.

When people are displaced, the established balance in social interactions are disturbed, thus leading to such crisis as houselessness.[4] One immediately notices that the birth narrative of the incarnate Christ has parallels to the contemporary experiences of houselessness. Today, houselessness has become a global pandemic that is brought about by systems that diminish life. The United Nations Human Settlements Program states that globally, around 1.6 billion persons live in inadequate housing and over 100 million persons are themselves houseless.[5] These estimates do not even factor in the current global Covid-19 pandemic that has further decimated national economies and thrown more persons into poverty. Currently, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, low-income countries, though, did not experience high mortality rates from the pandemic, the current global economic system has increased their pre-covid-19 poverty rate of 0.2% to 2.7%.[6] Many of these countries are in Africa and other parts of the global south.

Through unjust economic systems, embrace of unhealthy individualism, structural racism, xenophobia, epidemic of global violence, and the enthronement of classism, houselessness has been systematically given validation in our world. The paradox of it all is that the era when houselessness has become the norm is the era in human history when rapid industrialization, and wealth production has increased the most. Rather than embrace a philosophy that perpetuates the flourishing of all, our world has enthroned a fearful imagination that validates erasures of those who cannot advocate for themselves.

It is the nature of empire ethics to create classism and the hierarchy of beings in our world. In fact, empires only survive by perpetuating such a mode of existence, even when they pretend to promote egalitarian societies. The displacement of people only occurs to those who are not at the apogee of the hierarchy of beings that empires produce and validate. The story of the nativity has a prophetic twist to it. It is both a revelatory narrative shedding light on the pathologies inherent in empire ethics, and an invitation to societies to learn the correct way of how to use one’s positionality in the world. The story does not deny the fact that power exists in our world. Rather, it offers an ethical way of using power to further and embrace radical solidarity with all.

In today’s world, class has radically defined our collective social imaginations. As psychological manipulation plays itself out in our shared spaces that tend to also produce a culture of endless consumption of goods, the Lukan account of the nativity offers us a new way of using our power and wealth to help us focus on that which is truly authentic – solidarity with others. No power or glory is above that of God. Yet, what does God do to show God’s solidarity? Luke locates the shepherds within the midst of the gift of the nativity. In a world shaped by class and wealth, shepherds exist at the peripheries of such a world. Randy Alcorn captures this perfectly well when he points out that at the time the Lukan account was written, “shepherds stood on the bottom rung of the Palestinian social ladder” – the peripheries of society.[7] Yet, it is at the peripheries that the Glory of God – God’s ultimate epiphany of God’s power, understood as divine solidarity – is experienced.

Again, God’s encounter with those at the peripheries of a world defined by social hierarchies is itself a summon for us to embrace a new way of being human in the world. This invitation is expressed through a divine command – do not be afraid! The fallen humanity of Adam and Eve is a humanity defined by the emptiness of fear; a clinging to a fragmentation of memories of self and the othering of both the self and others in a way that the pathologies of death become the modus vivendi. A turn to the inherent content of the divine command, “do not be afraid” is an invitation to embrace surplus visions – a connection with the self and an embrace of otherness.

Think about it. Each time this command is expressed in the biblical texts, its intended audience experiences a new way of being in the world. They are comforted. They are coherent in their steadfastness to their calling. They become ready for the gift of the Spirit. And above all, they embrace an orientation of sharing the new life they have received through the divine command with others in a manner that is radically convincing.

Luke reminds us of how this command becomes the first source of evangelization through sharing of one’s experience with others. Those who take the lead at this are the ones who live at the peripheries of our world – the shepherds. Christmas is about sharing! Before we misconstrue what sharing means, it ought to be stated clearly that the Christmas virtue of solidarity through sharing is intended to permeate all aspects of our social existence. It is not intended to simply exchange words of felicitations and then return to our old ways of being in the world. It involves embracing a new orientation that constantly defines one’s life in a manner that what one has received through the incarnate Christ, one constantly expresses in all places one’s life manifests itself. Hence, the Lukan account concludes with the following words of witness to a new way of being – “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”

It is through this lens that the Christian community reads the prophetic words of Isaiah when he proclaims the following words, ones that we ought to remind ourselves of: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined” (Is. 9:2). Each of us is the light for each other in a very real and practical manner.

To embrace a life that is not fragmented by fear is itself God’s invitation to us to become the epiphany of God’s light in the world. This is not to be understood in an abstract manner. Rather, it is an invitation to be the source of life for others in our communities. When we work towards the eradication of structures that perpetuate poverty in our communities, those that divide us, systems that perpetuate classism or any form of caste system, we each become the light that others see around them. This is also how we embody the glory of God as was experienced by the shepherds in the Lukan narrative.

[1] Glory Dy, “What Did the Census Accomplish at the Time of Jesus’ Birth?” Christianity.com, December 14, 2021, https://www.christianity.com/wiki/holidays/what-did-the-census-accomplish-at-the-time-of-jesus-birth.html

[2] Donald L. Wasson, “Constantinople,” World History Encyclopedia, April 9, 2013, https://www.worldhistory.org/Constantinople/

[3] “Figures at a Glance,” UNHCR/USA, June 16, 2021, https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance.html

[4] See Danyelle Solomon, Connor Maxwell, and Abril Castro, “Systemic Inequality: Displacement, Exclusion, and Segregation. How America’s Housing System Undermines Wealth Building in Communities of Color,” Center for American Progress, August 7, 2019, https://www.americanprogress.org/article/systemic-inequality-displacement-exclusion-segregation/

[5] See Ruff Institute of Global Homelessness, https://ighomelessness.org/about-us/

[6] Daniel Gerszon Mahler, Nishant Yonzan, Christoph Lakner, R. Andres Castaneda Aguilar, and Haoyu Wu, “Updated Estimates of the Impact of Covid-19 on Global Poverty: Turning the Corner on the Pandemic in 2021?” World Bank Blogs, June 24, 2021, https://blogs.worldbank.org/opendata/updated-estimates-impact-covid-19-global-poverty-turning-corner-pandemic-2021

[7] Randy Alcorn, “Shepherd’s Status,” Eternal Perspective Ministries, March 11, 2008, https://www.epm.org/resources/2008/Mar/11/shepherds-status/

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