The contradictions of Christmas are endless, but the one that is perhaps most ironic is that it is so dearly loved by capitalists who, during each year’s final months rake in piles of profits collected from many millions of consumers who are driven by material lust rather than spiritual inspiration. The fact is, Yeshua had no use for capitalists, capitalism, imperialism, or even everyday people who treat material possessions as their gods.
The Palestine of Yeshua’s childhood was a place of grinding poverty. The urban areas were filthy, crowded communities where horrible, disfiguring, and debilitating diseases were rampant. Theologian Obery Hendricks explains: “The rabbinic writings tell of bands of homeless poor roaming the countryside, so desperate that when the poor tithe was distributed they sometimes stampeded like cattle. Matthew’s Gospel tells of standing pools of unemployed village workers so desperate for a day’s wage that they accepted work without even asking how much they would be paid.”
Herod, the Jewish king, compounded the hardships by behaving like a modern-day neo-colonial despot. Hendricks said that Herod “…exploited Israel on an unprecedented scale, using the proceeds of his extortionate tax policies … to underwrite a personal lifestyle of extraordinary luxury…Herod was so intent on pleasing his overlords that he actually adopted the titles “Admirer of the Romans” and “Admirer of Caesar.”
Although when Yeshua began his public ministry there were guerrilla fighters, or “zealots” who were among his followers, many who longed desperately for a triumphant armed struggle against the Roman empire were ultimately frustrated and angered by Yeshua’s refusal to lead a military campaign against the imperialist occupation. Yeshua repeatedly reminded both his supporters and detractors that his was a spiritual war not of this world and that this spiritual struggle was destined to vanquish evil forces seen and unseen far beyond the Roman empire. It was an unwelcome message to many who presumed that a messiah should be focused on the here and now.
While Yeshua declined to organize military campaigns, as a leader of an oppressed community he and his followers could not avoid conflicts with imperialism and its lackeys who feared his revolutionary potential. Rather than engage the oppressors, Yeshua and his followers simply disengaged. They became an independent, self-determining community that sustained itself economically through communal sharing. All were required to contribute their personal financial resources to a common treasury and to draw from it as they had need. This simple approach eradicated poverty from that community.
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After Yeshua’s crucifixion and ascension from the earthly realm, the community he left behind grew in both number and ethnic and racial diversity. So much so that eventually, Greeks among the thousands in this small nation began to complain that they were being slighted in the distribution of communal resources. In response, the spiritual leaders, who had no desire to perform the bureaucratic function of resource distribution, called for the selection of a small group to play that role and to become what may have been the first socialist government.
The First Century Christians’ strategy of disengagement from the empire is instructive for today’s oppressed communities that lack the capacity to engage their oppressors militarily. The Black Panther Party was armed, but also very aware that without their community’s mass engagement in a revolution, they were incapable of seizing state power. Consequently, providing the community with survival services (health, education, legal, nutritional, etc.) pending the revolution became a priority. Although the Civil Rights Movement’s non-violent resistance, and the Panther’s program of community self-sufficiency in some ways resembled the approach taken by First Century Christians, there was a critical difference.
Whereas Yeshua and the early Christians sought a clean, permanent break from the empire, with only a few exceptions, movements of the oppressed in this country have sought to either integrate into the empire, or to destroy and displace it. Neither objective will be accomplished soon, and if nothing else, Christmas presents an opportunity to consider the implications of adopting the mindset of the first Christians.
It is not beyond the realm of possibility that today, progressive reformists and revolutionaries could emulate the first Christians and recruit people of good will into a new, self-sustaining socialist community that strives to grow into a nation by expanding incrementally to displace communities currently controlled by the empire. But for most, such a strategy is hard to imagine because they cling to a stubborn, enduring belief that the empire can be transformed into a just society if progressive forces increase their participation in electoral politics. Those who reject the bourgeois political system nevertheless perceive the power and dominance of the empire to be so great that the creation of an alternative, socialist nation within the empire cannot occur until the empire itself has been destroyed.
The challenges facing the first Christians were, qualitatively greater than those we face today, but they lacked the reservations we possess about pursuit of a new, independent society, even under the noses of imperialists. This was certainly due in no small part to their zeal and the religious fire that burned within them. They had a passionate belief not only that their project was divinely ordained, but also that suffering and martyrdom were virtues, and they had no reason to fear any consequences that might result from their membership in a growing community of faith.
But also, and of special significance was their shared conviction that the empire had no place for them and was in fact committed to their destruction. It made no sense for them to consider even for a moment that they might achieve liberation by trying to participate in the Roman political system. The circumstances of the first Christians are also the reality for certain oppressed communities in the U.S. – African and indigenous communities in particular. The U.S. empire has no place for them and would like to kill or incarcerate those who are committed to the destruction of the empire. However, most oppressed communities are either in denial about this fact, or they allow it to limit their imagination about what might be possible pending the inevitable triumph of the revolution.
In addition to using Christmas as an opportunity for we who love, worship, and adore Yeshua to celebrate his birth and eternal soul-saving thoughts, words and deeds, the holiday can also be a good time for everyone, regardless of their religious orientation, to consider that the relationship between the oppressed in First Century Palestine and the Roman empire is comparable to the relationship between today’s Black and other oppressed communities and the U.S. empire. Our efforts to achieve liberation are far more likely to succeed if we become like the first Christians and we are neither deceived by nor intimidated by oppressive forces. We must instead be bold enough to not only imagine but to also create and defend an alternative and just society without worries about how a menacing, threatening establishment will react.
Mark P. Fancher is an attorney and the author of I Ain’t Got Tired Yet: The Spiritual Battles of Enslaved African Christians and Their Descendants and The Negroes of Friends Village. Both books are available through Amazon, or by contacting the author at email@example.com.