The stories told about the nativity – Caesar’s census order, Bethlehem, Herod’s threat, three kings, star, no-room-at-the-inn, manger, angels, slaughter, flight – do not aim to be historical, yet in its deeper meaning, the beloved Christmas narrative gives us a portrait of a person that squares with the most important features of the actual Jesus. He was a counter-force to the Roman emperor. He was of the poor and powerless. He conveyed his message by indirection – more by poetry than doctrine. At heart, his story is tragic. Yet it is a source of hope and joy, which is why his friends clung to his memory. The problem he addressed was violence.
Violence was overwhelmingly the normal condition of the world into which Jesus was born. Jerusalem and its environs had long been what the scholar John Dominic Crossan calls the “cockpit of empire,” a crossroads region that had been the scene of brutal imperial conflicts going back 1,000 years. The Jewish people had mostly lived as vassals of one foreign sovereign or another, with oppressive violence a steady note of the Hebrew situation. Survival of Jewish nationhood in this milieu was a marvel, and key to that survival was a conscientious wrestling with the problem of violence, the record of which is the Bible.
Rome, when it came, was the most brutal imperial force of all, and its violence peaked several times during the century of Jesus and his movement, beginning with the savaging of the region around Nazareth not long before Jesus was born, and ending with the final destruction of Jerusalem as the story of Jesus was assuming the form we know.
But Jesus was not a mere victim of this violence. Acting in his Jewish tradition, he confronted it, rejected it, and proposed a new way to think of it. His followers knew at the outset, and ever after, that they failed to live up to the standard he set, but that very knowledge shows that the myth of what Crossan calls the normalcy of violence is broken.
Humans have an inbuilt tendency to find the solution of violence in yet more violence, with the result that it spirals on forever. The victory of coercive force is inevitably the cause of the next outbreak of coercive force. Jesus proposed that the answer to violence is not more violence, but is forgiveness and righteousness – or, as we would put it, peace and justice. For 2,000 years, this program has been able to be dismissed as piety’s dream. But something new is afoot. Since 1945, the normalcy of violence is armed with weapons that will surely render the human species extinct unless a different way of thinking of violence is found.
That is the promise of Christmas.
A different way of thinking of violence has already lodged itself in human consciousness. This is not just a Christian phenomenon. The great religions of the world – Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism – and the no-religion of rationalism have all countered the normalcy of violence with assertions of compassion and loving kindness. In the history of Western Civilization, no figure has represented that ideal more resolutely than Jesus. His story offers a masterpiece expression of the possibility of forgiveness and righteousness not only as a saving program, but as the basis of an intensely personal relationship.
Because Jesus is understood by those who believe in him as offering not only a sign of what is needed, but a way to achieve it – “I am the way,” he said – he has survived even for those who regard him in purely worldly terms as an image of a hope that cannot be fully articulated, and that can never be exclusively claimed by any group, including Christians. In that sense, the observances of this week can belong to everyone who chooses to enjoy them.
James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe