The lighting of the Christmas tree in Manger Square last Sunday was quite the event. The night began with the Palestinian national anthem played by the local scout troop’s bagpipe band (yes, bagpipes, played by scouts swathed in tartan, a remnant of the British occupation). We heard speeches from the mayor of Bethlehem, Vera Baboun, among others. Various musicians serenaded us with Christmas carols in English and Arabic, and the tree was blessed by the patriarchs of the Catholic and Orthodox churches.
The next day, I got caught in the edge of a tear gas cloud in Bethlehem. Israeli soldiers were using tear gas to disrupt a protest in the Aida Refugee Camp (about a quarter mile from where I was—they must have set off an amazing amount of tear gas). The activists later collected the spent canisters and used them to decorate another tree in Manger Square. USAID is one of the sponsors of the Christmas festivities in Manger Square; the signs decorating the tear gas tree explain that the canisters offer a different view of US aid, as the canisters were made in the USA and used by Israeli soldiers against Palestinian protestors.
Christmas and politics go hand-in-hand here. The mayor’s speech on Sunday linked the peace of the first Christmas with the need for peace in Bethlehem today; the tear gas tree is a visible sign of, and protest against, the lack of peace in Palestine and Israel. The politicization of Christmas makes sense: why not capitalize on the international attention on this city in this season? But the contextualization of the Christmas message in the current situation of Bethlehem is also part of the first Christmas. Jesus was, after all, born in an occupied territory, and in Matthew and Luke, the birth narratives are stories of political protest.
Think of the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1. It’s easy to get lost in the ‘begats,’ but in fact this list is quite fascinating, retelling the story of Israel by selective highlighting of key people and events—Abraham, the exile, the scandalous (and savvy) mothers. One of the main purposes of the genealogy, of course, is to show Jesus’ descent from David. The attentive reader starts to wonder if this Jesus might be the king we’ve been waiting for, the one who will restore God’s people to their former glory by freeing them from the Roman oppression.
The political implications of Jesus’ kingship take center stage in Matthew 2. Foreign dignitaries come to honor the new king, and Herod—the Idumaean Jewish king ruling in Jerusalem for the Romans—attempts to assassinate the potential threat to his crown. “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel” (Matt. 2:6; Mic. 5:2): in other words, Herod’s reign is illegitimate. The true king is born to a morally suspect mother, honored by foreigners, and endangered by the politicians of the day out of fear for their own power.
Matthew’s Gospel contextualizes Jesus’ birth within the local political scene; Luke’s Gospel broadens the lens to include the entire Roman Empire. In Luke 1, the songs of Mary and Zechariah present the births of Jesus and John the Baptist as the start of a revolution against the oppressive power of Rome. But instead of a call to war, chapter 2 begins with a display of that oppressive power when the emperor, Augustus, demands a census of his empire. A census in those days was not a chance to learn about the peoples of the empire, but rather a chance to improve the imperial coffers. The census takers would be counting people and valuing property to ensure that enough taxes were collected from Augustus’s subjects.
According to Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.1-6, the census taken by Quirinius sparked a mini-revolt against the Romans (though note that Josephus and Luke disagree as to the date of the census). Whatever the historical reality of the census, Luke’s readers would understand that the hints of revolution in chapter 1 meet the harsh reality of Roman rule in chapter 2: the Roman emperor, the master of the known world, uses his power to enrich his own treasury at the expense of his subjects. As it turns out, though, this census gets Mary to Bethlehem just in time to give birth to Jesus, the descendant of David, the hoped-for king. In effect, Luke’s story makes Augustus the puppet of God, undermining the power of the empire with the birth of one little baby.
The challenge of imperial power continues in the story of the shepherds. The angelic announcement to the shepherds is remarkably, and I would say deliberately, like the Priene inscription, a proclamation about Augustus himself (9 BCE):
Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, […] and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him… (translation from Craig Evans, “Mark’s Incipit and the Priene Calendar Inscription: From Jewish Gospel to Greco-Roman Gospel,” Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 1 , 67-81)
Good news, savior, peace: the angels reapply this imperial language to Jesus. If that’s not surprising enough, the announcement is made to shepherds, the social outcasts of the empire. As in the song of Mary in Luke 1:46-55, the traditional social status and power of the empire is upset by the inclusion of shepherds in the story of the birth of a king. Luke 1-2 is a bold declaration of revolution, and the comments of Simeon and Anna drive the point home: this baby is God’s salvation, the redemption of Jerusalem, the upsetter of the oppressive pax romana.
It’s easy to miss the political implications of the birth narratives in the Gospels. Christmas cards, decorations, and carols encourage us to interpret the birth of Jesus as other-worldly, as heavenly glory that shines on – but somehow doesn’t ultimately change – the darkness of the earth. Silent Night, Away in a Manger, O Little Town of Bethlehem: not only are these terrible theologies of the incarnation, but they also cover up the subversive message of Jesus’ birth. There is no silence in political occupation, not in the first century and not in the twenty-first. There is no peaceful slumber without justice. The tear gas tree, decorated as an act of political protest, carries on the message of the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. The tree reminds us that the world still needs the message of Christmas, especially in places where political power oppresses and the violence of war kills.