The Politics of the Baby Jesus
It’s always helpful when theological truths find their direct echo in events of history and in our daily lives. The man whose birth we celebrate today told us plainly, “The truth will make you free.” Now we know that His primary meaning was spiritual, not political: By learning God’s real plan for us, we can set aside false gods and worldly idols, and order our lives correctly in accord with His will to save us.
That’s the real point of Christmas: The God who made us good, and mourned our Fall, rebuilt a bridge for us, so that we could travel to join Him in eternal happiness: He took on our flesh, then spent His life among us and shared our sufferings. He told us the Truth, and embodied it in His life, which He offered in reparation for our sins. Jesus became that bridge, which stretched from one arm of the cross to the other, connecting earth to heaven across the abyss of death.
Compared to that, it almost seems banal to bring up the political effects of Christianity. But the Incarnation teaches us that nothing is banal, or ever will be again. Not after this. Christ came into our flesh to sanctify it, to heal and redeem every stick of human furniture, every parking lot and convenience store, every courthouse and legislature. He didn’t tell us that earthly life is evil, that our natural drives are hopelessly corrupt, or that we should renounce our inbuilt cravings for love, freedom, peace, order, and progeny — then instead go hide in a cave and wait for death. That was the despair spread by the Gnostics, who tried to hijack the Church even in the age of the apostles, and have persisted ever since. But it wasn’t Jesus’ teaching. And it wasn’t His example: His very first miracle was catering a wedding.
So it’s good, right, and proper to look back to earth, and follow all the ripples that shook our little pond when the Son of God came down. We will see in their shapes innumerable mementos of Our Lord — lessons about ourselves and what He wants for us, in this life and in the next. Because, in fact, we are shaping what we’ll be in eternity right here, right now, at 2 p.m. in Panera, at 2 a.m. on the Internet, at work and at play as at prayer. We begin to build the Kingdom right here, in our families and our republic.
The incarnation of Christ made possible political and economic freedom. In fact, it made them for the first time even desirable. Before the epiphany of the greatness of the human person that came with Jesus Christ, no one even thought to desire these things — not for everyone, not as inborn human rights. Outside the noble but self-segregated world of our Jewish forefathers in faith, we have no pre-Christian record of any notion that each man’s life is sacred.
Certainly, various tribes, nations, or political castes held their members’ lives as precious, and protected them against enemies. Roman senators, Spartan citizens, and Aztec priests each looked out for their own. And every human mother clutching her newborn child felt that he was supremely precious. But there was nothing to connect those two realities — the fierce self-defense of a group asserting its interests, and the worldwide primal goodness of human life itself. Of a random, anonymous baby, like the thousands that Romans discarded on the walls of their gleaming city, which Jews and later Christians would furtively go and rescue. Like the Babe in the manger. His halo, which we see in so many exquisite paintings of the Nativity, would spread across the world, lighting the head of every child born to woman, forever after.
If human life is sacred and may not be stolen without the threat of eternal punishment, then tyrants and slavemasters must always walk in fear. A greater, juster Master holds the upper hand, and He will hold them accountable for their cruelties. To that Master slaves can make their prayers, and it’s His standard they wave when demanding liberty. There’s a thin, exquisite, unbreakable golden thread that links the Hebrews fleeing Pharaoh and Southern slaves praying for freedom, Polish workers faced by Communist bayonets and college students shivering on sidewalks praying outside abortion clinics. That thread runs straight through the straw and the dung of Bethlehem.
When medieval Englishmen saw their lords assert feudal rights against tyrannical kings, they probably weren’t conscious of how Christianity goaded their revolt, underscored their particular rights, and extended them implicitly to serfs as well as warriors. But the seed was planted, and the Magna Carta that was written to protect the privileges of barons now defends even hostile Muslim migrants from abuse at the hands of police. When monks scrawled copies of Roman Law in the hope of preserving order in the wrack of collapsing empire, they might not have fully realized the mischief that Christianity had made with that pagan law: A code that aristocrats had written to strengthen the State was leavened now by the rights of walking images of Christ. It would rise to undreamed of heights: international law, and the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights have their roots not in sharia or Confucianism, but in Roman, canon law.
So when you pray before the manger today, don’t think of the next election. Think of the fact that we have elections, and constitutions, and an adversary system of justice that starts by assuming our innocence, and tests every criminal case before a jury of our peers. He built that. He planned and planted it by waking in this manger, and walking the way to the cross. Merry Christmas, one and all.