Christmas and the spirit of patient resistance

By Simon Barrow
December 24, 2018

“We can, and should also, celebrate Christmas despite the ruins around us.” So wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a letter to his parents on 29 November 1943. His note was penned and smuggled out from Tegel prison camp, where he had been incarcerated by the Nazi regime. 

What lay at the heart of the Christmas story for the imprisoned theologian was the coming of God in utter humility, subverting the powers of extinction and exclusion – not just in the world at large, but in the domain of religion, too. For what Bonhoeffer saw in the accommodation of the Reich Church to the Fuhrer, the all-powerful Leader, was a wholesale and blasphemous abandonment of the Christ-child in the name of faith. 

“Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly?” Bonhoeffer asked, in another letter from prison. His answer was uncompromising: it is “whoever finally lays down all power, all honour, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger; whoever remains lowly.” Only such a person (religious or otherwise) can comprehend the bruised humanity in which what is truly of God is present.  

In 2018 our celebration of Christmas is scarred and shadowed by the threat of extinction through global warming, by the lies and rank inhumanity pouring out of the White House on a daily basis, by the insular divisiveness of Brexit, by the shame of foodbanks and homelessness in one of the richest countries in the world, and by entirely preventable wars, abuse and famine across the planet.

Where is hope to be found in all this? The message of Christmas, says Bonhoeffer, is that “God turns toward the very places from which humans turn away; that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn — a prisoner grasps this better than others, and for [him or her] this is truly good news.”

That the Jesus of the gospels is not found in imperial palaces but in places of apparent abandonment and despair — among the outcasts, the refugees and those despised by the religious of his day and ours — is surely a sign of hope for those seeking to build companionship and solidarity in the patient struggle for justice, peace and the integrity of creation (the earth understood as gift rather than possession).

But it is most definitely not good news for the religion of privilege and empire, for those continuing to cover up clerical abuse, for pious platitudes in the face of institutional religious failure, or for the kind of Christianity whose soul has been captured by nationalism, racism, homophobia and a deep fear or hatred of the stranger. And rightly so. 

Rather, the child of truth birthed in obscurity two thousand years ago is born again and again in resisters, poets, rebels, prophets and troublemakers down the ages. The Jesus-spirit is found among those who refuse to bow their knee to the gods, kings, corporations, ideologies, markets and religious rulers of the age. They are where Christ is to be found. And we in Ekklesia are honoured to enjoy their company and their provocation at Christmas and throughout the year. For and with them, Seasons Greetings to one and all!

"We will light candles this Christmas;

Candles of joy despite all sadness,

Candles of hope where despair keeps watch,

Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,

Candles of grace to inspire all our living,

Candles that will burn all year long." - Howard Thurman.

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© Simon Barrow is director of Ekklesia.

Ekklesia’s webpage and social media presence will be up and running over Christmas and the New Year, but with a few additional breaks and a little less material. Huge thanks to Jill Segger, Bernadette Meaden and Bob Carling for their dedication and support over the past twelve months. There will be an update and news on our future in the New Year. 

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