Senatus Populusque Americae?

Readers of this blog may know the following things about me:

  1. I’m not a fan of George W. Bush
  2. I’ve compared the U.S.A. to the Roman Empire
  3. I believe in a strict interpretation of the just war doctrine that proscribes
    war in most cases.
  4. I didn’t agree with the invasion of Iraq. In fact, I participated in a large anti-war rally in Pittsburgh.
  5. I dislike the fact that the Church co-opted pagan winter celebrations with Christmas in a bid to gain more converts.
  6. I loathe the commercialization of Christmas by Christians. Let the pagans, heathens, and faithful of other religions spend their money how they please. We should be following the examples of Christ and His apostles.

Knowing these things, a reader might be led to believe that I’d agree with the conclusions
presented in “The
politics of the Christmas story” by James Carroll of the Boston Globe
That reader would be wrong.

THE SINGLE most important fact about the birth of Jesus, as recounted in the Gospels, is one that receives

almost no emphasis in the American festival of Christmas. The child who was born in Bethlehem represented a

drastic political challenge to the imperial power of Rome. The nativity story is told to make the point that

Rome is the enemy of God, and in Jesus, Rome’s day is over.

The single most important fact about Jesus’ birth is His opposition to Roman imperialism?!? What Church does

this guy go to? First of all, God is a lot bigger than Roman or Palestinian concerns. Secondly, the most

important fact about Jesus’ birth is that He can to save all mankind by reconsiling us to Himself. Satan is the

enemy of God and even he is only a fallen angel and no real match. Rome was but a minor annoyance. The Jews

expected the Messiah to be a warrior king who would lead them out of oppression and establish an indestructable

Jewish state. They were thinking too small.

The nativity story was not told to villify Rome and celebrate its impending doom. It was to spread the good

news of Jesus Christ. Remember, both gospels were written after the destruction of the temple in AD 70.

Freeing Israel from Rome (or the next conquering people to come along) was basically a lost cause. Besides, at

this point, those who were disciples of Jesus knew He didn’t come as a warrior king and He wouldn’t return as

one either.

The Gospel of Matthew builds its nativity narrative around Herod’s determination to kill the

baby, whom he recognizes as a threat to his own political sway. The Romans were an occupation force in

Palestine, and Herod was their puppet-king. To the people of Israel, the Roman occupation, which preceded the

birth of Jesus by at least 50 years, was a defilement, and Jewish resistance was steady. (The historian Josephus

says that after an uprising in Jerusalem around the time of the birth of Jesus, the Romans crucified 2,000

Jewish rebels.)

This much is basically true, but an important point was missed. God didn’t want to the Hebrew people to be

governed by kings. They begged and He relented. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, there are those who would have God’s

will done and others who ask God for enough rope to hang themselves. Jesus’ birth was the herald of a new

kingship and the end of the Jewish monarchy. Rome was just another captor in a long line of them. God used

conquering peoples to put Israel back in line after they’d turned from Him.

Herod was right to feel insecure on his throne. In order to preempt any challenge from the

rumored newborn “king of the Jews,” Herod murdered “all the male children who were 2 years old or

younger.” Joseph, warned in a dream, slipped out of Herod’s reach with Mary and Jesus. Thus, right from his

birth, the child was marked as a political fugitive.

There’s nothing glaringly wrong about this paragraph, but I’m uncomfortable with putting such a narrow label

on the Savior of the World. We’re not talking about Trotski, here.

The Gospel of Luke puts an even more political cast on the story. The narrative begins with the

decree of Caesar Augustus calling for a world census — a creation of tax rolls that will tighten the empire’s

grip on its subject peoples. It was Caesar Augustus who turned the Roman republic into a dictatorship, a

power-grab he reinforced by proclaiming himself divine.

To me this doesn’t seem to be political motivation on Luke’s part, but a desire to set a historical backdrop

and explain how Jesus, a Nazarene, came to be born in Bethlehem (the Messiah was prophesied to be born


His census decree is what requires the journey of Joseph and the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem, but

it also defines the context of their child’s nativity as one of political resistance. When the angel announces

to shepherds that a “savior has been born,” as scholars like Richard Horsley point out, those hearing

the story would immediately understand that the blasphemous claim by Caesar Augustus to be “savior of the

world” was being repudiated.

Again Carroll tries to force Jesus into the political pigeon hole he’s used to. Jesus is neither general nor

politician, and yet He is king. I doubt the Jewish shepherds that heard the good news ever really entertained

the possibility that Caesar was the savior – theirs or the world’s. Neither did Jesus ever attempt to rule men

in the earthly way Caesar did. When Pilate asked Him if we was king of the Jews, He replied that His kingdom is

not of this world. The annunciation to the shepherds was not propaganda but evangelization.

When Jesus was murdered by Rome as a political criminal — crucifixion was the way such rebels

were executed — the story’s beginning was fulfilled in its end. But for contingent historical reasons (the

savage Roman war against the Jews in the late first century, the gradual domination of the Jesus movement by

Gentiles, the conversion of Constantine in the early fourth century) the Christian memory deemphasized the

anti-Roman character of the Jesus story. Eventually, Roman imperialism would be sanctified by the church, with

Jews replacing Romans as the main antagonists of Jesus, as if he were not Jewish himself. (Thus, Herod is

remembered more for being part-Jewish than for being a Roman puppet.)

Jesus was a political criminal? Perhaps He was in the eyes of the Jewish authorities, but to Rome He was

just a nuissance. Pilate didn’t want to crucify Him. He’d broken no Roman laws. If the Jewish priests hadn’t

threatened to “tattle” on Pilate to the Emperor (who was already mad at Pilate), Jesus probably would

have only received a beating before being handed back over to the Jewish authorities. Gradual domination of the

Jesus movement by Gentiles? Jesus is Savior of all, not just the Jews. This was revealed to the apostles by

God, all of whom were Jewish. If “the Jesus story” had such an anti-Roman character, Simon the Zealot

would have convinced Jesus to change His tune. He didn’t. Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection weren’t about

earthly power. The Jews had been freed from physical bondage several times before and learned little from it.

Jesus came to free them, and all of humanity, from their sins. When it was safe to follow Jesus openly, the

Church adapted to the prevailing culture, which at the time was Roman. Imperialism was never sanctified by the

Church. The Kingdom of Heaven is not a country, province, or state. The empire the Church desires to cultivate

consists of faithful hearts, not subjects, slaves, or vassals.

In modern times, religion and politics began to be understood as occupying separate spheres, and

the nativity story became spiritualized and sentimentalized, losing its political edge altogether.

“Peace” replaced resistance as the main motif. The baby Jesus was universalized, removed from his

decidedly Jewish context, and the narrative’s explicit critiques of imperial dominance and of wealth were


Geez, the way this guy writes you’d think the gospels were propaganda tracts rather than catechising tools.

While I agree that the story of Christ’s birth doesn’t have the same “punch” it probably once have,

I’d argue that it was never meant to be something so narrow as mere resistance to imperialism and wealth. The

Jews expected a conquering hero. They expected an earthly kingdom, wealth, freedom from earthly oppression,

power, and a kindgom that would never end. What they got was so different and so much more. They got the King

of Kings and Lord of Lords, who conquered death, gives us wealth of grace, freedom from sin, and power to work

miracles, and everlasting life in the Kingdom of Heaven.

This is how it came to be that Christmas in America has turned the nativity of Jesus on its head.

No surprise there, for if the story were told today with Roman imperialism at its center, questions might arise

about America’s new self-understanding as an imperial power. A story of Jesus born into a land oppressed by a

hated military occupation might prompt an examination of the American occupation of Iraq. A story of Jesus come

decidedly to the poor might cast a pall over the festival of consumption. A story of the Jewishness of Jesus

might undercut the Christian theology of replacement.

At last it comes out. The whole point of this article was to make a point about politics in America in the

21st century, not in Jerusalem in the 1st. I’m not going to debate whether we are or are not an imperial power.

I will, however, refute the suggestion that the U.S. is hated by all Iraqis. There is a loud minority, not

unlike the crowd that shouted for Jesus’ crucifixion, that is ungrateful for the removal of a despot. I do

agree that Christmas has become a festival of consumption. However, the nativity story alone will not do much

to change that. It’s true that Jesus was born in a stable and placed in a manger (a feeding trough for animals

– foreshadowing of the Eucharist), and that the good news of His birth was announced to lowly shepherds rather

than the elite and powerful. It’s also true that three magi visited Him and lavished Him with gifts of gold,

myrrh, and frankinsense. The shepherds gave what offerings they could and so did the magi. If you want to

combat consumerism and commercialism, look to Jesus’ adult life. There’s plenty of ammunition there.

Today the Roman empire is recalled mainly as a force for good — those roads, language, laws,

civic magnificence, “order” everywhere. The United States of America also understands itself as acting

in the world with good intentions, aiming at order. “New world order,” as George H.W. Bush put


While I don’t doubt people admire Roman art, architecture, and thought, I don’t think the general consensus

is that Rome was a “force for good”. I think most educated people understand that Rome was wrong for

conquering people and “civilizing” them “for their own good”. The Bushes and others may see

America as duty-bound to establish democratic order across the globe in Roman fashion, but what does Jesus’

birth have to do with that? Why did we just read ten paragraphs of bad history, bad exegesis, and bad theology

to learn about that which we could find in any liberal newspaper or on any liberal news station? I’ve read

better comparisons of America to Rome and better criticisms of Republican Christianity. To paraphrase Billy Madison: Everyone who reads the Boston Globe is now dumber for having read your article. I award you no points,

and may God have mercy on your soul.

That we have this in common with Rome is caught by the Latin motto that appears just below the

engraved pyramid on each American dollar bill, “Novus Ordo Seculorum.” But, as Iraq reminds us, such

“order” comes at a cost, far more than a dollar. The price is always paid in blood and suffering by

unseen “nobodies” at the bottom of the imperial pyramid. It is their story, for once, that is being

told this week.

I have another Latin phrase that describes this last paragraph: non sequitur