John Dominic Crossan on “The Challenge of Christmas” or God’s Kingdom is a Kingdom of Peace, Not Violence
Below is an apropos, thought-provoking (and lengthy) excerpt from a Christmas reflection by John Dominic Crossan, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at DePaul University. You may access the article in its entirety here. I also highly recommend, “More Parables for Our Times: Not Your Grandmother’s Prince of Peace,” by Rev. James Martin, S.J.
“When Jesus is born in Bethlehem–ancestral city of David, the once and future king of Israel–an angel tells shepherds that, ‘I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord’ (2:11-12).
Angels direct, as it were the narrative traffic of both [Luke and Matthew] those infancy stories but there is one very special case of angelic intervention found only in Luke. This involves not just a single angel but the entire heavenly choir who descend to earth and chant in the reversed parallelism of typical biblical poetry: ‘Glory to God / in the highest heaven / and on earth peace /among those of [God’s] favor’ (2:14). But, since this is poetic parallelism, divine glory in heaven is human peace on earth. Not either, but both, or neither.
A lovely couplet of hymnic hope, to be sure, but where is the challenge of that first Christmas vision? To find it watch the titles already given to Jesus and to Caesar. Jesus was proclaimed as ‘Son of God,’ ‘Savior of the World,’ and ‘Messiah/Christ (1:32; 2:11). In between those titles appears the name of ‘Caesar Augustus’ (2:1). But, before Jesus the Christ was ever conceived, Caesar the Augustus had been already proclaimed by Roman imperial theology as ‘Son of God,’ ‘Savior of the World’ and ‘Imperator/Autocrator.’ Also, the vaunted Pax Romana was already incarnated and embodied in Caesar himself by the consecration of a magnificent Ara Pacis Augustae, the Altar–not just of Roman–but of Augustan Peace at Rome.
Granted Luke’s Roman matrix for this Jewish child, what precisely was the difference between those identical titles and identical proclamations of ‘Peace on Earth’? If the Roman Augustus had already established peace on earth, what was left for the Jewish Jesus to accomplish? How was the presence of Roman imperial peace different from that promise of Jewish messianic peace–on this one and only earth?
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.”