Wrapped In Swaddling Cloths, Lying in a Sh**hole: A Yuletide Lament of American Exceptionalism

Let’s be honest, it is pretty mainstream knowledge now that the Hallmark nativity scene is bogus. It wasn’t a barn it was a cave, the wise men weren’t there until much later and there was probably poop everywhere. Our culture has done an amazing job at cleaning up what was probably an incredibly grotesque scene. Let’s be honest the scene is quite lackluster. This would be especially disappointing if you were expecting the savior of the world, God Himself, to inhabit an actual body and install His kingdom. He could’ve picked the courts of Caesar or at least the house of Herod. He could’ve positioned himself within a prominent Jewish family of Israelites in order to gain social clout to begin a movement well. But he didn’t. He chose to come from a plausibly deniable “virgin” girl, become the perceived bastard of a Jewish carpenter and be born in what our president would refer to as a… well.. you know, in Bethlehem. Messianic expectations would have expected a military tactician or a strong noble warrior, or at least a man “tall in stature” like David or Saul. But instead what they got was an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger with perceivably illegitimate parents. Baby Jesus, with no army and no nobility was by all observable definitions of “Messiah” a disappointment.

But in that disappointment we find the meaning of the nativity and the heart of the Father and His unhindered willingness to condescend to the lowest of the low. Not only that but we see the beginning of the introduction to the upside down kingdom of Heaven. To see this lowest of the low be elevated to the highest of the high. We begin to see that what God calls powerful and exceptional is the complete opposite of what we would consider so. It was in this form that “the hopes and fears of all the years” was introduced to the world, first to other “shithole” citizens, being the shepherds and then to the rest of Israel, an underdog oppressed marginalized and colonized people group and then finally to the world as the Savior of all. In our American, Instagram influencer, perfect appearance world it is becoming easier and easier to perceive the Nativity, or the life of Jesus for that matter, as a clean ordeal. It’s especially easier to not contemplate this when the leader of the free world, the one our national church backs so haphazardly, refers to third world, colonized and occupied areas as shitholes, which would have been Israel and by extension, Bethlehem. (For those with weaker sensibilities to profanities unless coming from the mouth of our president; there will be no swearing from this point on)

Yet somehow, this “Prince of Peace” has become the mascot for a country with the biggest military might the world has ever known. That the one who told Peter to put his sword down has become the poster boy for a national system where there are more guns in this country than people. The wonderful healer has become the golden calf of an economic system that charges one hundred and fifty to three hundred and fifty dollars for an epipen. The Mighty Counselor has become the image of a country where no one can hear each other anymore. The one who is making all things new has become the sovereign God of a country that could care less about how we treat our environment, regardless of how you might feel about climate change. The one who intercedes on us all is framed in pictures in the houses of our political and spiritual leaders who slander each other until they are blue in the face. Quite frankly, we can do better than this exceptionalist, white American Capitalist Jesus.

When the church colludes with Empire it never fails to be overpowered by the powers that be. The philosophy and rhetoric of exceptionalism (Make America Great Again, America First etc. etc.) is much easier than the call of Christ to be murdered by the state. The rhetoric of Xenophobia and racism is much more comfortable than the visceral commands to love your neighbor. The command of Jesus is to become subservient, subversive and overwhelmingly compassionate, there are no excuses for anything but. Naturally, as selfish people both in nature, and in spirit, it makes perfect sense that we would compromise. We say to Jesus, “We see your humility, thank you I’m just going to go about my life.” The cross, and God Himself on the cross is the truest Revelation of God, that in love and supernatural humility God would allow His creation to commit deicide to pave a path to a better life and open the gates of the upside down Kingdom. All this to say, and to sum up in Biblical language, “A slave cannot serve two masters.”

You cannot serve two masters, and every time the Christian has to choose between the cross and the flag, the cross will either be dropped or the cross will be wrapped in the flag, one of these being dangerous and the latter being heretical and idolatrous, serving the very powers and principalities that murdered Jesus in the first place. The cross says, “Welcome the foreigner.” The flag wrapped cross says, “Yeah maybe you should’ve come here legally if you had wanted to avoid concentration camps.” (which is what they are). One says, “Love your neighbor as yourself. “another says, “Do you have any idea what kind of pressure these police officers are under? YOU couldn’t do their job, show some respect.” One says we are made in the image of God, but the other says that people coming from our Southern border are, “rapists, murderers and crooks.” The cross claims those who exploit and abuse others are “broods of vipers.” but the wrapped one calls them, “very fine people.” The cross calls us to die, and the flag encased cross says “Surely you will not.”

You see, due to some propagandized history, starting back as early as Eusebius, moving into the American history textbooks of today, we have slowly dissociated ourselves with the oppressed. The Black Panthers become terrorists, the erasure of indigenous peoples is almost erased and nuclear warfare is excused. The commands of Jesus to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and welcome the foreigner have become some abstract command riddled with caveats. The commands to turn the other cheek have become opportunities to turn and wind back our fists. Our increasing excess as the military and economic superpower of the day has made us unable to associate ourselves with an indigenous, homeless Jewish Rabbi from a land bridge that is only four hundred and seventy miles long and eighty five miles wide at her widest point as a land mass over two thousand miles wide and almost two thousand high. I will not say that we cannot understand Jesus in the country we are in because that would be to belittle the finished work of Christ (which I will not do), but our cultural lens has made us blind to certain truths and apathetic to the people Jesus was like and who He came from. We have become numb.

Rhetoric like this, and supporting it, is the least helpful action we can possibly do or simply be complicit in to ever snap out of it. When we stop recognizing where the Savior of the universe came from, we can begin to become apathetic to those who were like Him, and are to this day. In his book “Night” Eli Wiesel responds to the question of “Where is God?” by finding Him in the recently deceased body of a child who had just been hung by the Gestapo. In a culture war between the oppressed and the oppressor, Jesus is and always will be the former. To be quite frank, Jesus has more in common with Trayvon Martin, a kid who was gunned down by a racist who had no business approaching him (and like Barabbas he walked free) than me. He has more in common with Kalief Browder, a young man who was never given a trial and spent two years in solitary confinement just because he could not make bail. As my friend Derek Myers said, “You could see the face of Jesus more clearly in that of an undocumented single mother, who works two jobs and is struggling to provide for her family, than the proud conservative CEO that boasts of his affluence and rallies behind a fearful, white nationalist agenda.” He has more in common with Carlos Vasquez, a sixteen-year-old boy who died at the border because he was refused medical treatment. Jesus is better identified in the presence of the 3,446 African Americans who were publicly, and illegally executed between the years of 1882 and 1968 than our politicians, businessmen, service people and citizens. Yet in love, He died to reveal Himself to them all.

To be honest, I don’t know how to fix this, and unlike the politicians vying for the highest seat in America, I won’t lie to you and say that I do. But I do know how we can start. We can lament. We can weep over the ways that we have prostituted the kingdom of God to partake in our privileged systems and enable us to live lives of comfort far away from what the prophets, or Jesus or even Paul would have ever hoped for us. We can weep for the pain that we have so long ignored from the underprivileged and marginalized of our country. We can start by accepting systemic disparity and systems of privilege, whether they be apathy towards the border crisis, awareness of the New Jim Crow, or solidarity with the original peoples and their rights to own land. But above all else, we can return to the gospels. We can see Jesus, for who He is, in context of who He was, and how He served those He served and the hard truths He spoke to power. After all, he is the only one that can make us see and liberate us from our chains. Merry Christmas and may God forgive us.

Selah

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