People do not instinctively associate Christmas with politics or economics. Indeed, if there is any association it is an inverse one: Christmas is the one time of the year when we can legitimately close our door to these grim, worldly pursuits.
According to a recent poll from Theos/ ComRes, five in six people (83 per cent) agreed that “Christmas is about spending time with family and friends,” and three in five felt that it was “a time when we should be generous to people less fortunate than ourselves.” Over two in five thought “Christmas is about celebrating that God loves humanity,” and about the same number said they thought that it was “a good excuse for taking time off but doesn’t really have any meaning today.”
By contrast, only a third thought “Christmas is a time when we should challenge poverty and economic injustice,” and less than one in five agreed that “Christmas is a time when we should challenge political oppression around the world.” The message was clear: domesticity and charity yes, religion and leisure maybe, politics and economics no.
This is perfectly understandable and, in some ways, admirable. Generosity is better than parsimony, and many families are in desperate need of the time and space that Christmas (sometimes) affords. But it is also somewhat ironic, given that the narratives on which the Christmas story is based comprise some of the most pushily political passages in the New Testament.
Matthew’s retelling is the subtler of the two. His opening genealogy emphasises Jesus’s political descent, but also mentions four foreign women, with vaguely scandalous histories – a triply unusual feature for genealogies of the time. His story of the Magi and the escape to Egypt, taking place around the murderous paranoia of Herod, the supposed king of the Jews, continues the theme. God is not on the side of the powerful in palaces, Matthew is saying, but rather to be found among foreigners and refugees.
Luke’s gospel is more direct, repeatedly juxtaposing the might of the powerful empire and plight of its powerless subjects. The holy family is pushed around so that the Roman Empire can put its taxation records into order. (The fact that Luke appears to have confused Quirinius’s local census of Syria and Judea in 6AD with Augustus’ general censuses, held in 8BC and 14AD, doesn’t change his point: taxation and debt were bitterly controversial subjects at the time).
Caesar Augustus’s decree immediately gives way to story in which shepherds, the lowest of the social low, are the first to hear about the birth of a “Saviour” who will bring “peace”. The fact that Caesar was widely known the “Saviour” who brought peace through his brutally efficient armies is instructive.
Luke makes a similar point a little later when he scrolls forward to the start of John the Baptist’s ministry. Luke carefully – and unnecessarily – dates this from reign of Tiberius Caesar and Pontius Pilate, King Herod, Philip the tetrarch, Lysanias the tetrarch, and the high priests Annas and Caiaphas, before going on to say “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness”. God moves not among the rulers, Luke implies, but out there in the wasteland.
Mary’s famous song, the Magnificat is, of course, the most visibly political moment of the story. “[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”: a message that even the beauty of evensong has not been able to dull.
Christmas is, and will remain, a time when most of us down tools and try to close the door upon the world. The decision to move it into midwinter makes that more or less inevitable, particularly in northern climes. But that does not change the fact that the story, which still provides the contours of the season, challenges us to take questions of social alienation, political oppression and economic injustice very seriously indeed.
Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos. “The Politics of Christmas” can be downloaded here.