Empires and other imperial powers in this world would like to have us believe that oppression is a fact of life. That there simply is no other way to be in the world, to exist, than to have a permanent underclass that is continuously exploited. Governments that are characterized by some sort of religious code extract from sacred texts and theology in order to explain the permanence of oppression, redefining terminology such as fatalism, karma, and predestination to keep the marginalized in their place. Institutions that are more secular prop up unfounded, economic theories in order to convince the masses that the system of exploitation is needed – ‘if you raise the minimum wage, employers will be forced to cut workers,’ ‘if you raise taxes on the rich, they won’t be able to create jobs,’ ‘if you give hand-outs to the poor, they will become lazy,’ ‘environmental regulations hurt the market.’
In spite of the rhetoric and evidence to the contrary, oppression is not normal. There is another way to do life that does not necessitate the thriving off of marginalized communities. As a people, we can get along just fine having everyone do well – and doing well being defined by everyone having a safe, place to live, quality food to eat, a place to go to work, and a means to get there each day – all the while being surrounded by a loving community. In fact, a system that is modeled after this can even support those who are not able to provide for themselves such as orphans, the elderly, the disabled, and infirm.
While this is good news for the oppressed, a vision like this poses a real threat to empire. In a world without the exploitation of many, empires cannot exist. In order for empires to thrive, money and power has to be consolidated in a hands of a few, and those few make the rules, set expectations, and ride the masses like crazy so that most of the profit goes to the top. The absence of this system spells the literal doom of nation states that exist because of it.
And so, when a prophet comes along to challenge the system and awakens the imagination of those oppressed by the system, empires begin to tremble. Mistaking themselves as the eternal city, they often fight any vision to the contrary with maximum force. This is why Pharaoh went on a rampage to extinguish all of the young, Hebrew boys – he knew the time was coming where one would rise up and protest his evil regime (see Exodus 1, 2). And it is was why Rehoboam, after succeeding his father Solomon to the throne, didn’t heed the advice of the elders who encouraged him to make things easier for the people but instead followed after the foolish words of his peers and made things even harder (see I Kings 12), hoping to extinguish the remote possibility that things could ever be reformed.
And this is certainly why Jesus posed the threat that he did – even in His infancy. The moment that Jesus arrived on the scene in Bethlehem, the Roman Empire began to shake as they understood the implications of His birth. King Herod himself sought out the religious leaders of the day, and they declared that Jesus was the one who was coming to set things straight:
“And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are by no means least among the leaders of Judah;
for out of you shall come forth a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel (Matthew 2.6, NASB)
But if Jesus is Lord, as the prophets declared, Herod and his corrupt empire were not. The Roman Empire was especially vicious in its treatment toward the Jewish people and not only exploited them economically but also expeditiously killed those who posed a political threat. Anticipating the influence that Jesus would have in challenging this system, Herod tried to kill him immediately. Unable to locate Jesus, Herod killed all of the male children under two years old in Bethlehem and its surrounding areas.
Jesus, like many other prophets in the world, came to upset the status quo and point people back to God by expanding their vision of reality. Just as Herod anticipated, Jesus actively critiqued the socio-political system of His day, humanized the marginalized, and prescribed a different vision of economics – one that did not thrive by exploiting people. And as he critiqued the empire with one hand, with the other he challenged the religious leaders who surrendered their prophetic witness for security – something that they would kill to protect.
We often lose sight of what Jesus was trying to do, particularly during this time of year. Finding ourselves overwhelmed with the busyness that comes with the holidays – finding the perfect gift, entertaining guests, making everything balance before year end, we seldom pay attention to the fact that Jesus’ whole life was a political protest against the powers that be. The baby that we perpetually locate in a manger (or on a cross – this is what our theology consists of) was on the run His entire life because He dared to interrupt the status quo.
This is what advent is. It is interruption. Advent upsets our world and the order we prescribe it, giving us the ability to collectively imagine a system that does not continue to oppress people. It is not about the shopping or gifts – in fact, it calls into account these very things because they numb us to the grave reality that is before us.
On a daily basis, black men, women and children in America are targeted and killed by the police and those who hold to white supremacist ideologies. People of color, immigrants, and indigenous communities face some of the worst social, health, and economic disparities in our country. Mass gun shootings target and harm all of our communities. Rape culture abounds and particularly targets women of color. Increased xenophobia harms those of Islamic faith. Inequality continues to grow, making the 1% even richer. And the reality of climate change is at our door. Like Jesus, we have a duty, a responsibility to not only protest these things but call our society into a visioning process to imagine a different reality. And for those who choose not to live out this calling, move aside and prepare the way for change.