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The Politics of Scripture

The Prophet, Pigmentation, and Pottersville

When we think about Christmas, do we associate it with charity or justice? Christmas certainly appears to be associated with charity in our larger culture. In contrast, Isaiah 9:2–7 reminds us that the lectionary readings for the season consistently focus on justice.

2The people who walked in darkness
   have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
   on them light has shined.
3 You have multiplied the nation,
   you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
   as with joy at the harvest,
   as people exult when dividing plunder.
4 For the yoke of their burden,
   and the bar across their shoulders,
   the rod of their oppressor,
   you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors
   and all the garments rolled in blood
   shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6 For a child has been born for us,
   a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
   and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
   Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 His authority shall grow continually,
   and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
   He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
   from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Isaiah 9:2–7

When we think about the coming of Jesus Christ at Christmas, do we associate it with charity or justice? Christmas certainly appears to be associated with charity in our larger culture. People donate toys for children. Meals are given to families in need. Volunteers show up in greater numbers at shelters. In popular media, television commercials, shows, and movies emphasize empathy and generosity.

A famous example is “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens. In this classic, first published in 1843, Ebenezer Scrooge becomes a better person through dramatic, ghostly encounters. As the story ends, his transformation is demonstrated by a donation to a worthwhile charity and an extension of tangible favor to Bob Cratchit and his disabled son, Tiny Tim. This story has been made into at least fourteen film versions since 1901.

This emphasis on charity and individual empathy is important. It has its value and its place, to be sure. When we turn to Holy Scripture, however, we do not find much about charity in the biblical passages traditionally read at Christmas. Instead, we see a consistent focus on justice. This is evident in the famous text from Isaiah 9, a lectionary reading offered every year for Christmas Eve. Yet, when we read Isaiah 9:2–7, we often jump to the attributes of the predicted king, missing the accompanying pronouncement of justice also promised in his coming.

Before we move to the explicit theme of justice in Isaiah 9, we must first attend to an implicit issue that can color our interpretation. We see this in how the passage begins with the poetic contrast of “darkness” and “light” in verse 2. We understand that this imagery is metaphorical, with darkness representing disobedience and judgment (8:16–9:1), and light representing God-given joy and deliverance (9:3–7). While we understand the intent of this figure of speech, we must also be self-aware about how it might be heard in our modern, racialized context in the United States.

Too often such imagery has converged with our socialization around black and white skin color, with black as something negative and undesirable, while white is positive and preferred. We can see this in the images of our sanctuaries. If Jesus is presented in our churches with a painting or in a stained glass, he most likely looks like someone from England or Germany, not someone from Southwest Asia, where skin pigmentation was black, brown, and olive. Accordingly, we must be conscientious about the ways we interpret skin color as a tacit indication of goodness, safety, and worth, on the one hand, or corruption, danger, and unworthiness, on the other hand. If we are not careful, our socialized imaginations will corrupt our reading of Holy Scripture. (On this issue, see Wilda Gafney here.)

We are also socialized to miss the biblical condemnation of injustice. But Isaiah 9:2–7 presents it clearly. Verse 3 tells us that there will be rejoicing. Then verse 4 gives us the cause of that joy—God will break “the yoke of their burden, the bar across their shoulders, and the rod of their oppressor.” Verse 5 continues: “For all the boots of the trampling warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.” Now, to be sure, in the original context of ancient Israel and Judah, this language referred to a foreign army, particularly Assyria’s conquest in the first half of the eighth century BCE.

In modern America, Isaiah’s words also evoke the injustice of abusive policing. In fact, for many Americans in our poorest, predominantly black communities, “the boots of the trampling warriors” are not a foreign army, but a local police force that too often violates their rights, arresting them into a labyrinthine system of jail, fines, fees, and parole. Moreover, the imagery of “garments rolled in blood” points to the tragic fact that nearly one thousand people are killed every year by police, with a disproportionate number of them marked by darker skin. The issue of police abuse of power is not limited to skin color, however. It is also marred by economic class. Indeed, too many lower income whites are also abused and killed by police.

Yet, police violence is only one piece of the puzzle. Our society is also corrupted by an unconscionable homicide rate compared to other rich, industrialized nations. In addition, our schools are terrorized by repeated, senseless mass shootings. These also occur at a much higher rate than those in comparable nations. Moreover, when violence is not taking life, we have reached a record high for the number of people taking their own lives by means of a drug overdose. If Isaiah of Jerusalem were prophesying today, certainly he would describe our world as one marked by oppression as violent and lethal as that in his own day.

When we read the concluding verses in Isaiah 9:2–7, we know all too well the names given to the promised deliverer: “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6). But we usually disconnect these names from the end attached to them. Verse 7 says his authority will grow to the point of creating endless peace. Moreover, he will establish and uphold his throne “with justice and with righteousness.” Verse 7 ends with the promise, “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.”

Christians traditionally read these words as ultimately pointing to Jesus as Savior and Lord. Yet, these words should not be divorced from the larger prophetic context in which we find them. For instance, later in the book of Isaiah, in chapter 58, God’s people are chastised for performing worship without attention to injustice (58:1–14). This is a repeated motif in the prophets (Micah 6:6–8; Amos 5:18–24; Jeremiah 7:1–15).

This prophetic emphasis on justice is carried forward into the gospels with the coming of Jesus Christ. When Mary praised God for her promised son, she proclaimed, “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52–53). When Jesus spoke in his hometown synagogue, he announced that he was anointed to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free (Luke 4:18–19).

Do Christians internalize these words in meditation and worship at Christmas? Is there a Christmas proclamation for those whom Jesus identified as “the least of these?” Or are Christians under the threat of judgment because we have not paid sufficient attention to them? (Matthew 25:31–46) These questions are important because Christmas is not just about the birth of the Savior. It is also about how Christians reflect what we confess about Christ’s coming, particularly how Christ should transform our sense of responsibility for justice in the world around us.

In the classic 1946 film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the character George Bailey learned that he had made an impact on countless people. He had saved his brother’s life, and that in turn led to his brother saving hundreds. But he also had another, larger impact. He stopped his hometown of Bedford Falls from becoming “Pottersville,” a city marked by violence and debauchery because it had fallen into the avaricious hands of a real estate robber baron, Henry Potter. This movie’s critique of how greed can ruin the social fabric of an entire community is often overlooked. In fact, most modern viewers would be surprised to learn that the film was originally investigated by the U.S. government as Communist propaganda.

Indeed, we miss that point in the movie just as we miss it in Holy Scripture. But we can refocus our eyes this Christmas. We can realign our emphasis with the best tradition of justice in the biblical passages we read and proclaim at this time of year. We can take the coming of Christ so seriously that we do not stop with the good works of individual empathy and charity. We can be so moved by the divine command that we work to eliminate the kind of spiritual and social death we find in so many contemporary examples of “Pottersville.” May God empower us to listen afresh as we sing these words from “O Holy Night.”

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and his gospel is peace.
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we;
Let all within us praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! O praise His name forever!

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