Putting Politics Back in Christmas

Preston Sprinkle

You’ve probably heard the phrase: “the gospel is not partisan, but it is political.” Typically, when we say “keep politics out of church” what we mean is, keep secular partisan allegiances out of the pulpit. (Though it is funny how often they slowly and subtly creep their way back in.) What we don’t mean, or shouldn’t mean, is that confessing Jesus as Lord has no implications for how we view immigration, warfare, the death penalty, marriage, sexuality, wealth and poverty, and so on. The good news that Jesus is Lord is riddled with political implications—or, one might say explications).

Christians didn’t invent terms like “gospel,” “peace,” “savior,” “hope,” or even “son of God.” These were familiar terms in the Greco-Roman world long before Christianity existed and they were invested with political meaning. In one famous calendar inscription discovered in various places throughout Asia Minor, the birth of Augustus is praised with language that sounds rather religious:

Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings (euanggelion) for the world that came by reason of him

The early Christians used the same language to declare their allegiance to Jesus as the Greco-Roman world used to declare their allegiance to Caesar. It’s no wonder that when Paul preached the gospel in Thessalonica, a mob incited a riot against Paul and his companions, saying: “These men who have turned the world upside down…are all acting contrary to Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king—Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7). 

The Thessalonians interpreted Paul’s gospel through a political lens—if Jesus is King, then Caesar must not be. And it’s not because they misunderstood Paul. They very much understood that when a herald announces a new king (basileus) while the present one is still alive, a revolution could be brewing. Preaching spiritual sermons about praying to God or reading the Bible don’t cause cities to riot. But preaching the gospel of the empire of Jesus threatens the legitimacy and power of all other empires on earth. Telling others that Jesus is King is a politically dangerous thing to do. At least it used to be. 

The biblical writers interpret the birth of Christ in particular as a politically subversive event. Luke goes out of his way to preface his birth narrative with a reminder of the Roman lords who thought they were ruling the world (Luke 2:1-2). Why mention the census? Censuses are for the purpose of taxation, and taxation was a primary way in which the empire reminded their subjects of who has the power. By calling baby Jesus “the Messiah (King), the Lord” (Luke 2:11) reinforced the same message Paul preached to the Thessalonians. If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not.

My favorite rendition of the Christmas story is actually Revelation 12-13. Here, Mary (or Israel) gives birth to Jesus and immediately a “a great fiery red dragon having seven heads and ten horns” tried to devour the child (Rev 12:3-4). John probably has in view Rome’s puppet king Herod the Great and his attempt to slaughter Jesus when he heard that anotherking had been born in Bethlehem. Once again, the birth of Christ is framed as a political event, one where an earthly ruler was threatened by the birth of one hailed as king. (On a lesser scale, it reminds me of when presidents scramble around to find dirt on their opponent so they can destroy them on the eve of reelection. Herod too exerts power at all cost to make sure he stays in office.) Jesus was threatening to take power from the sitting president of Israel. And more: Jesus was born to “rule all nations with an iron rod” (12:5)

But John doesn’t say the red dragon was Herod. At least not explicitly. A few verses later, he clearly says the dragon is Satan (12:9). Jesus wasn’t just threatening Herod’s earthly, political rule. He was threatening the throne of Satan. Revelation 13 goes on to reveal that earthly political leaders and Satanic forces are playing for the same team. The beast that comes from the sea has ten horns and seven heads (13:1), same as Satan (12:3-4), and is clearly identified as the Roman empire in Revelation 17-18 (esp. 17:9). But not just the Roman empire; all the empires from Old Testament times into the New (cf. Rev 13:2 with the description of the empires in Dan 7:4-6). It is the dragon, Satan, who “gave the beast (Rome) its power, his throne, and great authority” (Rev 12:2) and it is this same Devil that “gave authority to the beast” (13:4).

The birth of Christ was a cataclysmic event that waged war against Satan, who empowered Rome to rule the world and, by implication, all the Babylon’s on earth. King Jesus born in a manger was a profoundly spiritual event that brought salvation to the world. It was also a politically subversive event that threatened to co-opt Roman political power by inaugurating God’s empire (basileia) on earth. 

I vote for keeping partisan, earthly politics out of the pulpit. After reading Revelation 12-13, it’s just silly—if not demonic—to do otherwise. But I’m all for allowing the political explications of the gospel speak loud and clear this Christmas season: there is no king but Christ. 

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