Soothing 'Christmas messages' have become practically unavoidable. I am thinking not just of the personal and circular ones that get sent to family and friends, but of the worthy treatises on goodwill and benevolence that pour forth with a great sense of duty from church leaders, politicians, dignitaries, shops and even - heaven forfend - PR agencies. Over the past few days these have been arriving in my mailbox by the dozen.
This year, British church leaders have enjoined upon us generosity ("embargoed until 00.01 hours on 23 December"), 'Big Society'-style sharing (after your bonus has been paid or your welfare payments slashed, so we're "all in it together"), "a more simple form of lifestyle" (from someone living in a palace), and "light in the darkness of each day" (the alternative presumably having been carefully considered and rejected).
However, seasonal blandness is not restricted to the religious, even if it is their speciality. "I've always seen Christmas as an opportunity for everyone to just be happy and be nice to each other", suggests one reviewer of The Atheist's Guide to Christmas, a collection of anecdotes and essays which has proved popular with a few of the 51 per cent of people who, according to the 2010 British Social Attitudes survey, say they have "no religion". (This, it should be noted, is the first year when the BSA has recorded that a majority of the people in the UK have no religious affiliation or commitment).
For those schooled in the texts and traditions that scholars like John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg call (in a knowing way) The First Christmas, such blandness ought to be deemed a rather remarkable achievement. Here are stories full of difficulty and challenge which we Christians have mostly managed to render sentimentally vacuous.
There are only two canonical infancy narratives for Jesus in the New Testament, one developed in a Jewish and one in a Roman setting. Both of them recapitulate in symbol-laden miniature form a dramatic confrontation between two conflicting kingdoms, that of God and of Caesar. They speak on the one hand of the giver of life who comes to us in disarming vulnerability (confounding our 'religious' and metaphysical assumptions about godlikeness), and on the other of salvation through violence, using the currency of power and control.
In these terms, Christmas is not a time for making do with any old presents (the shinier the better), but for choosing between two rival claims to ultimate worth and allegiance. Both promise peace, but one is achieved by way of the ideology of 'victory' (and hence violent death) and the other through shalom (peace that works for justice).
In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus' birth is told within the framework of understanding him to be the New Moses, the one who delivers to the people God's liberating intent, and who is spared the wrath of the imperial delegate (Herod's slaughter of the innocent) in order to be able to deliver them from tyranny - though not, as it turns out, in the expected vengeful way.
Luke's account, on the other hand, portrays Jesus as the antithesis of Caesar Augustus, who also is acclaimed as 'son of God' (Apollo) and saviour. To learn to see the man from Nazareth as 'Lord' is to learn to see God at work in a way that confounds the powerful and disavows all earthly claims to domination. These Christians, observe those living under the heavy yolk of the Emperor, "are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus" (Acts 17.7).
This Jesus, however, does not exercise his authority from a conventional throne, by entering an alliance with the court, by establishing a religion of power (that comes later), by enriching himself through taxing the poor, or by setting up a standing army to defend and extend his interests. Quite the opposite. He sides with the those who have been excluded and marginalised by the prevailing religious-political order. He shares food with the hungry and with sinners (those deemed 'unclean' by the authorities). He brings healing to the sick and hope to the broken. He announces forgiveness and restoration. He dubs Herod an 'old fox'. He turns the tables on the money-changers in the temple. He calls on his followers to become peacemakers, and in his last recorded instruction to them, in the face of execution, declares, "Put away your sword" (Matthew 26.52).
It is this Jesus, iconic bearer of God's indelible image on humanity, who is born for us at Christmas, and who is affirmed not by overwhelming force or by the triumph of the Christian tribe over others, but by the power of humble life defying the culture of death.
Steven Shakespeare expresses the Gospel dynamic with admirable simplicity and directness when he writes: "The paradox of God's 'Yes' spoken to [us] in Jesus Christ is that it throws the world into a crisis of judgement. It is spoken, not from the lofty heights of Christendom's power, but from the depths of dereliction, a cry of protest against all Empire. Absolute and vulnerable, God proclaims life as a free gift. No market can buy it, no state can enlist it, no church can own it. It is common wealth."
This is the real message of the crib. Hope is born again and again in the shape of Christ, inviting us to a way, a life and truth that confronts everything within and around us that suffocates, kills, denies and denudes us of God-given dignity, whether it wears the language of 'religion' or some other form of verbal aggression.
In a world of poverty and inequality, environmental degradation, mass violence, deadening consumption, and crippling fear of 'the other', the litmus test of Christian belief in the West is therefore not to be found in desperate acts of self-assertion, attempts to defend the club, wave the cross like a flag, or cry 'persecution' every time we are challenged. Instead it resides in open-handed living, in the cultivation of the way of the Prince of Peace, in hospitality for the stranger, in solidarity with the weak, and in a refusal to submit to the powers-that-be.
Along with Steven Shakespeare's aphorism, my other 'quotation of the year' is from the ever-irascible US theological gadfly Stanley Hauerwas (whose moving and insightful memoir Hannah's Child I throughly recommend, by the way).
On a BBC radio discussion of religion, Hauerwas declared: "I represent a form of Christianity which is non-Constantinian. Most of Christianity in recent times - well, since Constantine - thought it needed to rule. I represent what I like to call the peasant view of Christianity. I just want to know who's ruling me and how I can survive them! In the process, I hope to make a contribution [addressed] to those who rule..."
It may not tout guns or demand legal privilege, but such a contribution should not be underestimated. It means business. For, as the state of the world testifies, generalised 'goodwill' is not enough to confront the ill-will and pathology that infects too much of the human heart and of the human enterprise. It is the peasant understanding of Christianity, its peaceful threat of metanoia (a turnaround in our lives and politics), and its capacity to address tough challenges to a complacent church and a broken world alike, that needs to be re-born and rediscovered at Christmastide and in the coming year.
(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.