Deliberations and Resources on Radical Christianity

Life Since Then… and Reflections on a Radical Christmas

I scarcely even know where to begin, now that I have finally sat down to work on my first article for The Progressive Prophet in 15 months. I have been meaning to return to writing for a while now, but through the cares and troubles of life in general, as well as possessing a lack of discernment on where best to pick up old habits, this has taken me a bit of time to build up to.

Some of you will know that I spent a large part of 2008 to 2009 with the Jesuit Volunteer Community in the UK (a programme I recommend wholeheartedly to anyone within the age bracket of 18 to 35), where I was living in community with four other Christians and working within Manchester-based charity projects to advocate for social justice, particularly on campaigns relating to local poverty issues and engagement with asylums seekers, refugees, and migrant workers. Though I regret in some ways that I didn’t maintain my blog during that time, it was reasonably intentional. I felt that my experiences and reflections during this period of missional work would be quite personal to me, and for that reason I sacrificed my commitment to The Progressive Prophet. There are many stories I have to tell from this time, however, and which I hope I will be able to convey in the future in both engaging and relevant ways.

Since finishing this time, I have remained in Manchester and remained busy, currently working for SPEAK, a predominantly UK-based prayer and campaigning network which engages groups of Christians in lobbying for social justice, particularly in areas of corporate accountability, climate change, and government support of the international arms trade. My involvement with this network stretches back to 2006, before the time I even began this blog, and it has remained an important part of my own faith journey. I am happy now to continue that relationship in a different way, and to return to my concerns for global issues (without sacrificing my equally-fervent concern for the local), where my role involves working with SPEAK members and groups in the city to provide them with support, facilitation, and training. I have also had the pleasure of being able to meet many prominent individuals in Manchester working in faith and campaigning circles, and I hope that from these relationships will emerge tangible ways of working together to promote justice and holistic discipleship.

As ever, my continuing work brings me to reflect upon the expression of my own Christian faith, as well as the expressions I would like to see from those within the wider church. One particular theme I have been reflecting upon is that of the combination of “charity” and “justice.” To my mind, these two concepts are equally important, but many seem to confuse their meanings and employ the terms somewhat synonymously. I offer what I feel is an adequate (if not exhaustive) outline of the two:

1.) Charity is the provision of relief, aid, and healing to those who are in a state of need. In Christianity, charity has been known as “giving alms,” the state of donating to or else being directly compassionate to the poor and disadvantaged.

2.) Justice is the promotion, upholding, and advancement of the qualities of fairness, equality, equity, and rights. It might also be considered the undermining of unequal relationships, and the restoration of those relationships to equality. The definition of justice has traditionally applied to human beings, but in recent decades has been extended to encompass creation and animals as well, i.e, through ecological/environmental justice and through the advocacy of animal rights.

Thus, the distinction is not only real and important, but actually relatively simple: If charity is the mode of actively caring and welcoming those who are suffering, oppressed, and in need, then justice is the mode of addressing and undermining the very things in the world which either cause or exacerbate that very suffering in the first place. I passionately believe that one should not exist in favour of the other, and that both combined form a full expression particularly of the mission of Christians in the world. The proclamation of the Gospel, the “good news,” is precisely the coming of the Kingdom of God into the world, which welcomes the poorest and undermines the elite.

Indeed, in the work of campaigning and lobbying, I have often felt a difficult (but necessary) tension between my belief that Christians are called to embody an alternative culture to the systems and structures of the world and my equally passionate belief that those very systems and structures, as well as the injustices they perpetuate, nonetheless need to be engaged with. Indeed, this is a tension which emerges from the Biblical narrative; of prophets and martyrs who eschewed any notion of relationship to or involvement with oppressive powers, while at the same time warning those very powers of God’s judgement if they did not effect justice and fairness to their subjects (The Exodus confrontation between Moses, Aaron, and Pharoah being a prominent example of this). My own personal analysis of the type of work SPEAK commits itself to, for example, is that while it might be appealing to government to effect structural change, it is also nonetheless an invaluable witness to what the Apostle Paul calls “the principalities and powers.” [1]

Particularly within this Christmas season, when we find ourselves overpowered by strong societal themes of “peace on earth” [2] conflated with heavy consumerism, emphasis on the exchange of expensive gifts, and family meals with enough helpings to feed a small community, the calling we have to both charity and justice can be all too easily forgotten. Before I come across as being overtly condemning of society in general, I should hasten to add that I don’t write this as someone who is completely immune to these cultural mores. I myself expect to be spending Christmas with a couple of old friends, and for there to be a good thankful supply of food and drink to hand.

Certainly (and especially as an Anglican!), I would never suggest that Christmas should not be celebrated at all, but it is precisely during this season when we are actually best placed to be reminded of the calling to both charity and justice. There is, anchored in a real world context, the very real problem of those people and families for whom “peace on earth” is a far-fetched fantasy, from many in the UK: the homeless, the destitute, the working poor who must decide whether it is more prudent to be fed or heat their homes, those with no families or even friends to visit, etc, to many around the globe: in extreme situations of poverty, famine, sickness, malnutrition, suffering the tangible effects of war and oppression, fleeing from natural disasters caused by climate change, and a whole list of human terrors too numerous to either list or imagine.

Then, of course, there is the reminder of the central figure of Christmas, the baby Jesus Christ, placed in the midst of a world torn between rampant consumerism, materialist endeavours, imperial conquest, and everyone else caught in the crossfire thereof. So, is this truly a time when we are drawn away in the peace and stillness of our hearts, away from the world’s troubles, to reflect upon that sombre night of nativity when the “gentle baby Jesus” was born in the midst of shepherds, kings, and friendly farm animals?

Actually, this bastardised version of the Christmas story popularised within school and church nativity plays is a far cry from the all too disturbing portrayal of events. The birth of Jesus, the Christ, was from the very beginning plagued by corrupt political intrigue and the mysteriously terrifying prophecies of a hope that would come to unfold from this event. According to the Gospel of Matthew, King Herod, fearing that this newborn Messiah would be a threat, launched a genocidal campaign to wipe out all children in Bethlehem under the age of two, a mass tragedy from which Mary and Joseph successfully fled. At his very birth, Jesus had become a refugee fleeing from state-sanctioned genocide [3].

The famous “wise men” of the Matthean narrative, who encountered Herod, were in fact pagan travellers from a distant land. In his recent article “Putting the class (war) back into Christmas,” Ekklesia editor Jonathan Bartley makes the terrific point that that, over the ages, these wise men became “kings” even though the narrative never once refers to them as being even anything remotely of the kind, and that this later amendment reflected the close association of religion with the elite, rather than offering a challenge to it. [4] In reality, the wise men are referred to as Magi, meaning they were likely Persian astrologers from the Zoroastrian religion, which also believes in a messiah figure. That they would be visiting Jesus to worship Him reflects an underlying theme that God would welcome and include people of all nations and ethnicities, including “Gentiles,” who were considered inferior to the Jews in ancient Palestine.

The unfolding of events in Luke offers a somewhat different version, where Herod’s genocide is not mentioned and instead the antagonist of political oppression comes in the form of the Roman Empire. Here, Mary and Joseph make their excursion to Bethlehem due to a decree from Caesar that all people should be registered by census, as a means to extend control and further the grip of taxation on the Jewish people. [5] It is within Luke’s Gospel that we find the traditional image of baby Jesus in a manger due to no room in the inn. What we often miss from this, is the sheer ridiculousness of the Messiah, the Son of David himself, being born in the midst of mud in poor surroundings, especially with Caesar opting for a throne. Add onto this that among the first visitors to greet the newborn Christ were not kings, as popular hymns and carols would have us believe, but shepherds; among the working class of their time, not only considered peasants, but also classed as “unclean” under Hebrew purity laws due to the nature of their work. And here they are welcoming and worshipping God in the flesh!

Of course, even before Jesus even emerged visible from the womb, His mother knew full well what kind of child He would be. When Mary, the poor handmaiden, fully realised the news that she would give birth to the Son of God, she sang the Magnificat, prophesying that:

“he has brought down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.” [6]

Let us make no mistake about it: the Christmas story is deeply, deeply offensive, and it is also deeply, deeply hopeful. At the centre of our celebrations, is the promise that not only will the poor be shown justice, but that kings, rulers, and the rich will be sent away empty handed. And the central character of it all, the baby Jesus, remains the infant refugee, both Palestinian and Jewish, laid to sleep in an impoverished manger with the dark and sinister shadow of Roman control and state-endorsed assassination following him even from his birth. In a profound foreshadowing of His future as the man crucified as an insurrectionist against the Empire, Jesus comes into this world as its light and hope, not only giving us the promise of a cataclysmic and mysterious salvation, but also turning our grandiose cultural dreams of power, materialism, imperialism, and riches completely on their head. God in Christ comes to show us a far different kind of power; one which shows charity and solidarity for the oppressed, while actively undermining the very systems and structures of oppression.

So this Christmas, as you sit down to your meal, as you give thanks, and as you enjoy the exchange of gifts, I would encourage you to remember, as I will, those with whom Jesus still identifies and shows solidarity even in the here and now, for the poor and oppressed both locally and globally, and appealing to those empires and kings who still loom over the ruins of the broken world they have helped to create; to remember that, in Jesus, we have both a promise and a calling to ensure that things will not remain this way forever, that kings will be dethroned and that the hungry will be filled; and that, through all of this, you will join with me in proclaiming:

“All hail the baby Palestinian refugee of Nazareth!”


Sources:

[1] Ephesians 6:12. Also, the “Powers” trilogy by Walter Wink has done extensive work on the subject of principalities and powers.

[2] Interesting to note that our modern slogans of “peace on earth” and variations thereof originate from Luke 2:14, when a whole multitude of angels announce “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!” It was, understandably, a terrifying thing for the observing shepherds to experience, and not a particularly “peaceful” one at that.

[3] Matthew 2:16-18

[4] http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/blogs/jonathan_bartley/christmas_class_war

[5] Luke 2:1-5

[6] The Magnificat in full is found in Luke 1:46-55

6 responses

  1. Adam, this is a brilliant write up.

    It is thoroughly refreshing to see a (well-cited) scholar in the Christian blogosphere.

    As you put it, the difference between Justice and Charity is slight but pertinent.

    We serve a God who is both full of Love and Charity, and fully Just. As His followers, we are called to both restore immediate brokenness (Charity) and unearth the cause of such pain (Justice).

    Thanks for drawing such a clear picture of the two in my mind.

    As an aside, I appreciate your comment on my site RE: Brandt Russo. I spent a few minutes responding. Would love for you to see.

    I’ll continue following your blog for sure. Thanks, brother.
    Grace and Peace.

    December 13, 2009 at 8:33 am

  2. Hi again, Chase. Thank you for leaving such kind and encouraging words here, I am glad this was a read you found helpful. As you will have gathered, I’m returning to blogging after a long hiatus, and hope that I can get back into a decent rythm. I also look forward to seeing more on your own blog.

    Thank you also for adding to my expositions on charity and justice in such concise and poetic words. Always a blessing to encounter a fellow Christ-follower committed to similar visions of ministry!

    Grace and peace to you,
    Adam.

    December 13, 2009 at 3:40 pm

  3. Raleigh

    Hey Adam,

    I’m glad to see that you are writing again. I always enjoy the level of depth, care and precision that goes into your writings. You back up what you have to say with credible sources, which help strengthen your point.

    I have been reflecting on both the Luke and Matthew narratives of the Christmas stories, and have more acutely noticed the differences between the two, as well as the differences between the way they are portrayed in hymn, play, and through nativity scenes.

    I am sure that working with the Jesuit Volunteer Community has aided you to live out your commitment to the poor and outcasts of society.

    Peace be with you this Christmas,
    Raleigh

    December 15, 2009 at 4:43 am

  4. Thank you for your contributing, Raleigh, it’s always appreciated when I receive support from another brother in Christ who has similar gifts and passions. I would love to hear of your thoughts on the differences in the Christmas narratives sometime if you would be willing to share. Or perhaps this will be a future blog post of your own?

    I hope to come back into the blogging loop a bit more now, with one step at a time. I have read Sword of Peace here and there, and still very much like all that I see. Great job🙂

    Blessings and shalom to you,
    Adam.

    December 15, 2009 at 10:51 pm

    • Raleigh

      I don’t know if I have much to say about the differences in the Christmas Narratives. I went to a lecture given by Will O’Brien of the Alternative Seminary, who uses mostly Ched Myers’ work in his classes. He presented the differences between Herod and Magi in Matthew and Caesar and Shepherds in Luke. He also touched on the idea that St. Francis was somewhat responsible for our conception of the Nativity scene, which is a conglomeration of both the Matthew and Luke stories. He emphasized the point that even though both stories were different, they had a focus on subverting empire by making a mockery of it.

      Maybe I’ll post on it someday.

      December 18, 2009 at 4:00 pm

  5. mountainguy

    And when I thought you had lost your hands, or had you forgot how to type??

    just joking, I love this reflection. your “I have often felt a difficult (but necessary) tension between my belief that Christians are called to embody an alternative culture to the systems and structures of the world and my equally passionate belief that those very systems and structures, as well as the injustices they perpetuate, nonetheless need to be engaged with.” is very common among many of us.

    I wish you happen a merry christmas and have a lovingful 2010 full of blessings.

    Sebastián

    December 16, 2009 at 10:19 pm

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