What would happen if everyone who celebrates Christmas in the U.S. agreed to forget the presents, the stockings and the parties, and instead use the day to act on the actual message of the Christmas story?
For Christians in the U.S., December 25 is widely described as a holiday of “comfort and joy,” but if those of us who celebrate this holiday actually sit with the Christmas story that we’re supposed to be celebrating, we may find ourselves thrown into a deep and productive discomfort — a commitment to accept the risks and messiness of acting in solidarity with those who face the most structural violence in this country, and acting in resistance to all that impedes justice and human flourishing.
That people in the U.S. rarely see Christmas in this way is a testimony to the extent to which Christmas has been domesticated. It’s not because U.S. Christians focus on the Nativity stories to the exclusion of Jesus’s ministry; these stories have their own radical sensibilities. For example, Mary’s Magnificat imagines a world in which the winners and the losers change position. What would that change look like in our society today? This is not a question most U.S. Christians ask at Christmas because we are too busy focusing on materialism and individual pleasure.
Given the challenges of life in a society that worships money, rewards the few and punishes everyone else, the desire for a holiday of “comfort and joy” is understandable. But Christmas has an untapped potential to shake up Christian communities if reimagined as an invitation to embark on the same work Jesus did, in our time and place.
If we think of Jesus as a miracle worker, a great teacher, a philosopher or as God in the flesh, we miss one of the main things we know about the actual person: He was a member of an oppressed and exploited community, and organized them to resist their Roman oppressors. He did this by offering an alternative understanding of reality that helped the oppressed and exploited know themselves to be beloved and valuable, rendering them both braver and more compassionate.
At the heart of this resistance was Jesus’s understanding of the “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven.” We do not live in an era of kingdoms, but Jesus did and the kingdom he imagined was in direct contrast with the kingdom of Caesar. In Jesus’s day, Caesar’s kingdom was physically violent, politically oppressive, economically exploitative and spiritually dehumanizing. God’s kingdom, as Jesus experienced it, was nonviolent, politically liberating, economically just and radically humanizing. Jesus worked to co-create this kingdom by tending to the sick, feeding the hungry, sharing his ideas, eating with anyone and everyone who would join him (in resistance to the status hierarchies of dining in 1st-century Judea), and offering hope and guidance to the devalued and oppressed.
Love, for Jesus, was at the heart of the holy domain: love of God, self and neighbor, and love of enemy. Love meant treating others as one would wish to be treated. Love involved compassion and kindness, even toward enemies, but love was not primarily a matter of feelings; it required making decisions (serving God instead of wealth, for example) and taking radical action to help those most in need.
Jesus seems to have seen himself as a prophet in the lineage of Isaiah, bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives and freedom to the oppressed. Rome and the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem both burdened the Jews of Judea, and Jesus’s actions addressed both types of burden. In one story of Jesus casting out a demon, the demon referred to itself as “legion” (the term for a Roman military unit) and was expelled into 2,000 pigs (the most unclean animal according to Jewish understanding at the time) who drowned in the sea, surely a “Romans go home!” message if there ever was one. While in Jerusalem, Jesus interrupted the business of money changers outside the central Jewish place of worship, thereby challenging a practice that was economically exploitative of the poorest Jews.
Jesus also expected his followers to show their love of God and neighbor by taking care of the poor and those in need, and went so far as to suggest that when nations (not individuals but societies) take care of the poor and those in need they are tending to Jesus himself, while nations that fail the poor and those in need are failing Jesus.
This last point returns us to our own time and place, where our society fails the poor and those in need on a regular basis. Our society is as physically violent, politically oppressive, economically exploitative and spiritually dehumanizing as Roman Judea ever was, even if the details are dramatically different.
For example, we do not live in a kingdom, so the idea of the “kingdom of God” may not have the same instant resonance of spiritual and political resistance today that it did when Jesus proposed it. Other terms have been offered, such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “beloved community,” theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’s “kin-dom of God,” or the terms I often use, “love’s domain” and “love’s realm.” A pastor friend uses the term, “the economy of God,” which might also be rendered “the polity and economy of love” for those who do not find traditional God language helpful.
At its best, Christmas offers an opportunity for those who celebrate it to take up our own part in resisting the powers that be and birthing an alternative vision of society.
We can reject economic violence and political oppression and work toward a society in which everyone has the same access to power in all its forms — political, social and economic.
We can reject exploitation and work to reimagine and then change how resources are developed and shared.
We can reject dehumanization and seek to encounter all people, even our enemies, as fully human.
To build practices of resistance into Christmas, we must reject materialism in favor of generosity and compassion, and reframe the holiday around communal labor in solidarity with those who face oppression of all kinds. These practices, especially if taken up broadly, would move our society closer to justice and to an opportunity for all people to flourish.
This communal labor of solidarity could take many forms. Those who celebrate Christmas could deliver water for migrants on the U.S. side of the southern border. Christians who are not targeted by racism in this society could put our bodies on the line at protests against racist police/vigilante violence. We all could join striking workers on picket lines. Or we could participate in vigils and other actions against mass incarceration and particularly against executions, remembering that the person whose birth Christmas celebrates died of state-based capital punishment.
There are a wide range of ways to develop such practices of resistance, individually, among our families and social networks, in political movements and in religious settings. What all of these approaches have in common is a dramatic change from our emphasis on comfort to a commitment to discomfort in the service of solidarity and resistance.
To make Christmas an opportunity for resistance, those who celebrate it need to move from comfort and joy to discomfort and joy.
The discomfort of working to bring a just society into being is not joyless. There is joy in community, joy in labor, joy in hope, joy in struggling less or in watching people who have struggled find new ease. There is joy in the new gifts that people can offer those around them when they finally have what they need and are treated with respect.
If we want December 25 to become what it never has been — the “most wonderful time of the year” — then our work is before us. May all who celebrate Christmas choose to take it up.