Tuesday, December 13, 2011

John Dominic Crossan on Angels and Christmas Narratives: Christ or Caesar

"Christ Before Pilate," School of Hieronymus Bosch, 16th-Century, Princeton University Art Museum

Noted scripture scholar John Dominic Crossan writes at Huffington Post about the infancy narratives of the Christian gospels and their use of angels as directors of "narrative traffic" in the various infancy narratives.  He points out that in the Lucan narrative, angels give the new-born messiah titles parallel to those applied to the Roman emperor--but with a radically different vision of how both bring peace to the world:

The difference was not in the that of peace but in its how, not in the purpose and intention of peace but in the mode and method of its accomplishment. For Rome, as you can see clearly on the beautiful bas-reliefs of that above-mentioned Altar of Augustan Peace, the mode and method was: religion, war, victory, peace. Rome believed, as did every empire from the Assyrian to the American, that the future of civilization demanded peace through victory. But the messianic vision of the Jewish Jesus proclaimed a different program: religion, non-violence, justice, peace. Its mantra was peace through justice. Or, as Jesus told Pilate in John's powerful parable: God's Kingdom, as distinct from Rome's Kingdom, precludes violence -- not even to liberate himself from imperial power (18:36). 
Victory's violence establishes not peace but lull -- until the next and always more violent round of war. The Christian challenge of Christmas is this: justice is what happens when all receive a fair share of God's world and only such distributive justice can establish peace on earth. But how can we ever agree on what is fair for all? Hint: ask what is fair -- in first or 21st century--of the 99 percent of earth's people and not of the 1 percent.

Caesar or Christ: we like to imagine that that question has long since receded into the mists of history.  But perhaps it's still with us.  Perhaps, in fact, it's the most pertinent question around these days for Christians.

Though the face worn by Caesar today--the mask, the persona--as he makes his claims to establish peace through assault, war, domination, and extermination of "enemies" is significantly different from the imperial face we imagine as we look at ancient Roman imperial artifacts or read ancient texts.

Perhaps it's a contemporary face.  And who knows, it might even be there, posturing right in front of us  on the stage of our current political campaigns.  The mask might even be worn by the man (and the religious leaders backing that man) who claim they're standing up to Caesar while doing everything in their power to keep Caesar's imperial, exploitative, win-at-all-costs vision of "peacemaking," in which "peace" is built on the backs of the wretched of the earth, alive and well in the 21st century.

For all we know, we ourselves might be wearing Caesar's mask more than we realize, even as we talk endlessly about morality and Christian values, etc., etc.

Thanks to theologian Michael Iafrate of the catholicanarchy blog for linking to Crossan's article at his Facebook page (and thus bringing the article to my attention).

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