Lines of determined shoppers jostle for advantage in the mall. Relentless television specials peddle gauzy sentimentality and nostalgia. It must be Advent in America. As we shake our heads and wonder how the birth of Jesus could have been overtaken by such commercialism, we would do well to recall, not just the spiritual, but also the political context of this event. Putting Christ back in Christmas means putting the “King of the Jews” — a political title if ever there was one — back in the story.
Westerners — 2,000 years removed from the first Christmas — are tempted to assume that there could hardly be anything more innocent, non-threatening, and “non-political” than a baby in a manger. Yet the birth of a baby that first Christmas resulted in a horrific wave of persecution; thousands of young boys under the age of two were killed while the baby’s family fled to Egypt. (If anything similar happened today, the international human rights and diplomatic community would be instantly mobilized, an armed humanitarian intervention quickly considered.)
How could one birth in a remote corner of the mighty Roman Empire have such political impact? By any common standard, the baby was politically unimportant. He hailed from a minority group in a global empire. Seemingly, he was a bastard of foreign and sometimes wicked blood. His mother’s betrothed, Joseph, was not the father. Nor had Joseph done the culturally “honorable” thing — break off the engagement. While the baby’s once-proud genealogy made him the son of Abraham and David, he was also the descendant of Rahab the prostitute and Ahaz the human-sacrificing idolater.
But, as it happened, this baby was born during the reign of Herod the Great, King of Judea, a man of unusual — and ruthless — geopolitical talent. With the assassination of Caesar (44 B.C.E.) and the poisoning of his royal father (43 B.C.E.), Herod managed to consolidate his power by 37 B.C.E., in part through the killing of 45 Sadducean priests who had supported the opposition. By ingratiating himself with the ever-changing leaders of the Roman Empire, Herod preserved his autonomy to practice brutal authoritarianism in local politics. From Cassius to Mark Antony to Octavian, Herod adroitly cast his continued and stable rule in the self-interest of the emperor, who had bigger worries than the land along the eastern Mediterranean.
Herod was more than a puppet. As a non-Jew who appropriated the mantle “King of the Jews” for himself, Herod was, like so many dictatorial rulers throughout history, a paranoid populist acutely aware of the power of public opinion. He built theaters, fortresses, and altars throughout Judea, and an amphitheater in Jerusalem, all to buy popular legitimacy and proclaim his greatness. He also married a Jewish woman, Mariamne, and had two sons, Alexander and Aristobulus (though he later killed all three because they threatened his rule). In modern geopolitical parlance, Herod’s ability to anticipate and manage a complex “threat matrix” preserved his power.
So when the Magi (wise men from the East) arrived in Jerusalem, inquiring about where they could find the recently born “King of the Jews” so that they could worship him, Herod the Great quickly became Herod the Frightened. This important man in his late 60s, a creator and survivor of so much political intrigue, was shaken by the birth of a seemingly unimportant baby. Why?
Herod understood the political power of religion. (After all, this was the man who began the restoration of the Temple.) As a non-Jewish ruler, Herod worried about how his Jewish subjects might react to gentile foreigners coming to his kingdom to worship a Jewish baby. Of greater importance, this newborn was purported to be the subject of scripture. The religious authorities of the day and the Magi confirmed to Herod that a Messiah, a “King of the Jews,” would be born in Bethlehem, fulfilling ancient Jewish prophecies.
Even paranoids can sometimes accurately identify long-term threats, and Herod saw that his legitimacy was on the line. The potential perception that prophecy had been fulfilled was political dynamite. It didn’t take too much imagination to see that this child, whoever he was, could spark a movement of people whose ultimate allegiance was to a “kingdom” different from his own, thereby subverting his absolute rule. So he acted preemptively, ordering the death of every child in Bethlehem under the age of two, forcing Joseph, Mary and Jesus to flee to Egypt.
History has judged whose kingdom was important and whose was not. People around the world remember, acknowledge and practice the love of Christ. But unfortunately we often forget the difficult geopolitical context of his birth. We forget that the Son of God was also the son of Abraham, that the Messiah came into this world a persecuted refugee. We forget that although faith is not “political” per se, the practice of it can be. It is inevitably perceived as threatening by authoritarian regimes that do not foster tolerance and respect for deep differences among different identity groups — ethnic, religious or otherwise.
The baby who frightened Herod wasn’t the political Messiah that many — friends and foes alike — expected. Yet his kingdom has broken into history. Those of us who want to advance these values today and who seek, more specifically, to prevent the atrocities of modern-day Herods, must understand the political context of persecution. If we don’t, we will be reacting to symptoms instead of addressing root causes. As we celebrate Christ among us, take the time to remember the Christmas politics of his birth.
Chris Seiple is president of the Institute for Global Engagement.