It was the most politically powerful man on earth who set in motion the events that sent Joseph and Mary wending their way towards the city of David. There a child would be born– just one of many among a vanquished population, for Israel was a vassal state, and a census of her people was undertaken for the purpose of supporting her conquerors.
The Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, intended to tax the subjugated peoples of the entire known world. And indeed none dared disobey. Not only was he the battle-hardened commander of a vast army that had helped him outmaneuver ruthless political enemies and unite an empire, but he was recognized as the son of a god, he being the adopted son of Julius Caesar.
Unknown to the emperor, two descendents of another king made the arduous journey to Bethlehem, for another decree had gone out, long before, granting dominion of the earth to an heir of King David. The child who was to be born there was also the son of a god.
And so it was that two kingdoms intersected in a backwater town.
Now, Caesar Augustus was the center of Rome, and Rome was the center of the world, so he would not have given a second thought to these things taking place in an inconsequential outpost. However his governor, Herod Antipas, was more in touch with reality. When wise men from the East came seeking the recently born King of Israel, Herod did what many before and since have done to protect a kingdom–he slaughtered any potential heirs to the throne. Who knows how many children he counted expendable?
It was probably the anonymity of the little family that allowed Joseph and Mary to slip away with the child unnoticed, though, of course we know one mightier than potentates had pre-ordained that all should go well. Even so, Jesus could have been any one of many children, and he grew into a man who could have been any one of a number of men. Like the vast majority of humanity, he was not able to rely on his wealth or status to protect him from the machinations of the powerful.
He lived as he had been born, among the common people, teaching, feeding and healing people who are for the major part unnamed in the gospels. The one connection he claimed was to his Father in Heaven, and out of that relationship flowed all the power, wisdom and strength needed to minister to the nameless, faceless crowds. His identity arose out of that relationship, and it was for this reason that he repeatedly withdrew from the crowds to seek out the presence of that great Unseen. Some of the greatest images in the Western imagination are of Jesus alternating between a public ministry and seeking solitude in prayer.
And yet, though he had a great public ministry, the total effect of his life was to elevate the status of the individual. For it was not those who held prestigious places in institutions of learning, legislatures or worship that he sought out. Yes, many from those influential circles came to find him, but it was mainly the individual, as such, with whom Jesus was concerned. Over and over again he admonished the elites of his day not to rely on spheres of influence or wealth when they should come one by one before the throne of God.
Likewise, our own acceptance among elites does not correlate to an acceptance before God. He admonishes us to seek him out, so that we too can know the Father, for Jesus came to identify with all, so that all might identify with him. Now we are known and called by name, no longer just one of the many, no longer faceless, or expendable–not to Him.
Jesus’ identification with his father allowed him to operate out of a conscience not influenced by group consciousness. He didn’t need or seek out the affirmation of the crowd, nor of the rich and powerful. From the Sanhedrin to Pontius Pilate, he maintained that they held no power over him. He was able to lay down his own life and to pick it up again through his relationship with his father.
The Christian concept of the inviolate conscience is fueled by the image of Christ alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, trembling, yet reaffirming his mission out of a unique love between God the Father and God the son. A love so great that he determined to risk and suffer all for the sake of helpless humanity. And so it is, that we Christians, too, have an intense awareness of ourselves standing before the searching eyes of our Saviour.
This sense of the unitary self is often decried by those who criticize Western Civilization and its Christian underpinnings. So distasteful do they find individuality that there are those who seek to abolish any idea that there might be some higher good than the Common Good, or that the individual’s identity really consists of anything other than that role played in the greater community. This view generally discusses the need to suppress selfish concerns for the benefit of society.
A closer look at this view however suggests that the true reason that individualistic societies are feared is that they foster independent thinking. A person with a unitary sense of self has a conscience that, if carefully guarded, is out of reach. This has got to be annoying to those who seek to impose their own ideas of government upon the world. From their point of view, the conscience has got to be abolished in some way.
There are those who seek to mandate the conscience by laws forbidding public speech that does not jibe with their desired opinions on morality, whether those regard homosexuality, abortion or other matters. Others wish to outlaw the preaching of the Gospel in the public square. The kingdom of God is just as dangerous as it was in the days of the Christ-Child, and its proclamation so threatening that the symbols of Christ’s birth, death and resurrection must also be legally banished. Public nativities of a helpless infant are deemed dangerous to civil life.
However, the real danger lies in that they serve as obstacles to someone’s kingdom by way of reminding us of the God-man who didn’t fear the kingdoms and rulers of this world. For that reason, a message is sent that those who persist in identifying with the things of Christ will be punished, either by means of the law, economic loss and/or by being shunned. In one way or another the individual conscience must be made subject to the judgments of a consensus.
Not surprisingly, these methods appear to be working. There are many sociologists and professors of psychology who have studied the human condition, and who know how to modify human behavior. Politicians have availed themselves of this specialized knowledge, as have powerful people who operate out of sight. They know how to appeal to people’s fears and desires. In turn, the masses strive to be accepted and affirmed by those they consider to be more influential and wealthy than they, even to the point of allowing themselves to be absorbed into the mindsets and opinions of their powerful masters. Really, one need not brainwash anyone. If one offers what is desired, and subtly threatens that which is feared, many people will brainwash themselves. All this is very well-known in certain circles.
From crony capitalists to political candidates, we see the majority gravitate toward the current spheres of influence like camp followers after the Roman army. Yet, they should take heed, for one mightier than CEO’s and governors is watching.
And presidents and legislators should take heed, for one mightier than they is about to judge the world. Those who make unrighteous laws will not be able to suppress the kingdom of God. The followers of Jesus Christ will always identify with the Messiah before society, and for that reason, they will obey God and not human-made edicts when the two clash.
Unrighteous rulers and their agents may punish Christians for preaching the Gospel and speaking the truth, but they will not stop the proclamation of the kingdom of Christ. Their decrees will only, like that decree sent out by Caesar Augustus over 2,000 years ago, bring us ever closer to the purposes of God, the Almighty One who has declared He will establish the Son on the throne forever and ever.
* Note: I posted this on Christmas day last year. This is a repost.