The Christmas story is very subversive and in fact offensive, not just to left wing secularists, but also to a certain kind of modern conservative. Some might publicly associate with the traditional trappings of Christmas, attending carol services and proclaiming support for a Christian basis of society. But they are appalled when vicars draw attention to the apparently left wing theology of Mary who, after being told by the angel that she is to bear the Son of God, praises the revolutionary action and redistributionary economics of a deity who “has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty”.
Luke sets his story in the context of the rule of a human being with unprecedented power (“in those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree…”). The author contrasts this with a nativity tableau of a carpenter, his lowborn fiancée and a baby lying in an animal feeding trough, attended by shepherds (low paid nightwatchmen). We the readers of the story have privileged access to the secret truth: it is in this child, heralded by angels that the real power lies, not the Roman emperor. The theme is continued throughout the Gospel, showing that God in his mission to save humanity appears to ignore the rich and powerful, and demonstrates in Jesus a ‘bias to the poor’ of which Jeremy Corbyn would approve.
Similarly, Matthew contrasts the inherent divine authority of the child who receives the tribute of worldwide nations (symbolised by the three wise men) with the devious, cruel and violent kingship of Herod. With the advent of Jesus there is going to be a change to the status quo – those in power will lose it, and the meek will inherit the earth. But first Mary, Joseph and Jesus suffer oppression and displacement – like so many today in the Middle East region, they too were refugees fleeing from a hostile environment.
This aspect of Christmas is uncomfortable for most of us as we enjoy our huge plates of food, abundance of gifts and think of planning our foreign holidays in the summer. But the story of Him who was rich but became poor for our sake is a powerful motivator for generosity. For every modern Scrooge who avidly scans his December share portfolio statement while refusing to give to help the (in his mind) ‘feckless’ poor locally or overseas, there are hundreds who share their resources and who volunteer to assist the most needy at Christmas time.
But if the Christmas story contains challenges to those on the political right, it is not a manifesto for socialism. In fact, in many ways it is not politically correct at all. Firstly, the blue blood. We are given Jesus’s ancestral line at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, of 42 generations, of who fathered whom from Abraham to Jesus. This is to show that although at the time of his birth the family had fallen on hard times, going back through the generations he came from royal parentage. But also, it shows Jesus’s identity as a real person with a family history, not a remote deity. Western children of the enlightenment, following Descartes’s dictum “I think therefore I am”, believe that personhood, identity as a human being, resides in the mind of the individual in the present. More conservative societies know not only that each one of us is a body-mind-soul unit, but that we come from a line stretching back, a series of male-female partnerships (usually marriages) and reproduction in the past which have made us who we are today, and which have the potential to be carried into the future.
Secondly, the Christmas story does not picture human beings achieving freedom by throwing off oppressive old authorities and starting to create their own utopia from year zero. In fact the opposite. The Bible locates the root cause of humanity’s problems in the refusal to acknowledge the proper authority, established since the beginning of time, and replacing this ruler in our minds with another – ourselves. In the recent debate about the ban on the Lord’s Prayer in cinemas, more than one commentator has pointed out that saying “our Father in heaven” is not a wishy washy prayer for peace but a counter-revolutionary reminder to rebels of who is and has always been in charge. Similarly, at the first Christmas the song of the angels was very politically incorrect:
“Glory to God in the highest”. It is the unelected God who is the highest authority. There is a greater power than human power structures, formal or informal, and to whom we are all ultimately accountable.
Thirdly, Christmas does not follow the equality agenda. “Peace on earth to those on whom his favour rests”. No eternal existential wellbeing for everyone, then, but only those in God’s good books. Isn’t that totally unjust? Isn’t God’s kingdom about full inclusion? Well, no – only for those who qualify. The Christian Gospel does not say “all must have prizes”; instead it is very clear that the crowns will go to some and not to others. And while salvation is not necessarily for the powerful and rich, nor is it based on a meritocracy. It doesn’t go to those who work the hardest, nor is it a “right” which is especially deserved by the “victims”. Instead, God’s Kingdom is inherited by family members, which according to the familiar final reading of the Carol Service (“In the beginning was the Word…”) tells us we can only join through believing in a person and receiving a gift.
God’s values displayed at Christmas should challenge and even outrage us all. Deeply conservative, yet hinting strongly at social justice. Not interested in human power structures, but very concerned about submission to the proper authority. If taken seriously, leading to individual freedom and societal transformation, but not of the politics of left, right or centre.