Texts: “Continue” by Maya Angelou, and Matthew 2:1-18 (the flight to Egypt)
On Christmas Day, a controversy broke out on Twitter when U.S Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg sent out the following tweet: “Today I join millions around the world in celebrating the arrival of divinity on earth, who came into this world not in riches but in poverty, and not as a citizen but as a refugee.” He concluded, “No matter where or how you celebrate, Merry Christmas.”
I liked his tweet and thought it fit well with the two stories of the birth of Jesus in the Bible. In the more well-known one from Luke, which we heard on Christmas Eve, Joseph and Mary are forced to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem in response to an imperial census. This census would have seen millions of people travelling to ancestral homelands even those who were nine-months pregnant, as was the case with Mary.
There are many reasons to think that Mary and Joseph were poverty-stricken. One is their inability to find room in an inn in Bethlehem, and which forces Mary to give birth to Jesus in a stable. But even though Luke’s tale of an imperial census seems to be a fiction, which he created to get Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the City of King David, his Christmas story still shows the powerlessness of people like Mary, Joseph and other Palestinian Jews in the Roman Empire of their time.
The second biblical Christmas story is the one from Matthew that we heard this morning. This story of a Star, Magi from the East, and gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh is the one that frames Jesus as a refugee. In Jerusalem, the Roman puppet King Herod has learned from the Magi of the birth of a new King of the Jews, and so he plans to find and murder this infant. But Joseph is warned of Herod’s plot in a dream, and so he flees with Mary and Jesus from Palestine to Egypt where they live for several years until another dream tells Joseph it is safe to return to Palestine.
Joseph’s dreams save Jesus, but they do not save the other male infants and toddlers in Bethlehem. Matthew says that Herod slaughters them in an unsuccessful attempt to kill Jesus.
Opponents of Pete Buttigieg’s tweet said he was wrong to describe Jesus as a refugee since both Egypt and Palestine were occupied by the same Roman Empire. But to argue that fleeing in the night from one Roman province to another in the face of a politically-motivated campaign of murder is not a story about refugees seems silly to me.
Other people angry at Buttigieg’s tweet suggested without evidence that Joseph was rich and that the Holy Family were citizens of Rome. But I am confident that biblical scholars are correct when they say that Jesus, like all the Jews in occupied Palestine, was not a Greek-speaking citizen, but an Aramaic-speaking peasant, one who was as poor and as lacking in rights as the people who followed him in his adult ministry.
With his Christmas tweet, Buttigieg reached out to other Christians around the world, and he pointed to the issues of poverty and refugees that are present right from the start of the biblical stories about Jesus.
I noticed this Christmas Day controversy because I like Pete Buttigieg and I have been following his campaign closely. He is one of the reasons I have been feeling hopeful about the possibilities for a moral movement that could turn back the tide of racism, sexism, and brutality that has swamped much of the world in the past few years.
I don’t follow current events as closely as I once did – it is just too hard on my heart. So, while I know that apocalyptic wildfires are burning in Australia and hostilities between the USA and Iran have escalated following the assassination of an Iranian military leader by the U.S. last week, I try not to follow the blow by blow. What will be, will be; and stopping war and climate disaster depends on the overall context and not on the particular details of this story or that.
Instead, I have narrowed a lot of my focus to the campaign of Pete Buttigieg. So, with your indulgence, let me tell you a little about him. He is in the top tier of the 14 people still in the race to become the Democratic Party Presidential Candidate in this November’s US elections. He is the youngest candidate at age 37. Until New Year’s Day, he was the mayor of South Bend Indiana, which is a city of 100,000 best known as the home of Notre Dame University. He is the first openly gay person to become a major candidate for President. He and his husband Chasten were married in St. James Episcopal Cathedral in South Bend in 2018. He is a military vet having served six months in Afghanistan in 2014 as a Naval Intelligence Officer. And he is a rare Democratic who foregrounds his faith. As the son of an immigrant from the Mediterranean island of Malta, he was baptized as a Catholic. But he became an Anglican when he was studying as a Rhodes Scholar in Oxford in 2005. I would describe his faith stance as liberal, inclusive, and focused on social justice, with all of these traits evident in his Christmas Day tweet.
It was Buttigieg’s unlikely resume that first grabbed my attention last winter. Since then, I have been impressed by his intelligence, his ability to communicate, and his poise in the face of all the flak that comes one’s way as a political candidate.
This past Friday when the U.S. President launched a new group called “Evangelicals for Trump” at a rally at Miami’s “King Jesus International Ministry” he said God was on his side, and he mocked Buttigieg as someone who had “all of a sudden become extremely religious.” In response, Buttigieg noted that God does not belong to a political party.
Trump was motivated to hold his Friday rally following an editorial last month in “Christianity Today,” which is an evangelical magazine founded by Billy Graham. In a surprise move, the editor of “Christianity Today” called on the U.S. Senate to remove Trump from office in its impeachment trial.
Although there is much that I don’t like about “Christianity Today,” I am cheered by this editorial. I view any cracks in the wall of white church solidarity with the racist and criminal government of the U.S. President as a good thing.
The political arguments about Jesus, God, and the Bible that I am reflecting on today reveal huge differences between wings of the church. Should people of faith help refugees, the poor, and oppressed groups like gay people, or should we focus on upholding the power of military empires like the United States, cheer efforts to turn desperate people away at the border, and strive to ensure that the USA and Canada remain countries in which white people are dominant and pregnant women’s bodies are the property of the state? These differences are not minor.
I am glad that people like Pete Buttigieg are not shy about bringing faith into the political arena. For one, every jot and tittle of the gospels are about the struggles of poor people against imperial oppression, as the stories of the birth of Jesus illustrate.
Many of us might wish that the Christmas stories were not political; and given that both Luke and Matthew made up their different birth stories, we may wonder why they felt compelled to weave in themes of poverty and state murder.
On December 22, I facetiously suggested that we re-write their Christmas stories as the basis for a romantic comedy on the TV channel Hallmark. But Hallmark would never run a Christmas movie with as disturbing a plot as Matthew’s story of the Slaughter of the Innocents in Bethlehem 2000 years ago; and if Matthew’s story had been as saccharine as a typical Hallmark movie, it probably would not have been believed by his first hearers or preserved.
People who belong to “Evangelicals for Trump” might fantasize that the Bible portrays Mary and Joseph as a wealthy and law-abiding couple; and they might think that being faithful to Jesus means supporting a regime that pursues white supremacy and suppresses the rights for women and gay people.
But I disagree. And so I am cheered by leaders like Pete Buttigieg who remind us that Jesus was born into poverty; that he became a refugee as an infant; that he railed against corrupt religious and imperial rulers as an adult, and that he was executed by an evil Empire in the cause of love and justice. I hope that Buttigieg and others like him will build a movement that will weave a rainbow of solidarity between white, black, and brown people; between gay and straight; between immigrants and the native-born; and between those of different faiths and those of no faith.
We don’t know how the year 2020 will unfold. We don’t know if President Trump will be re-elected and thus transform the United States from a liberal republic into an imperial monarchy. We don’t know if war will break out yet again in the Middle East. We don’t know if Australians, along with the rest of us, will finally decide to get serious about curbing carbon pollution.
Nevertheless, I believe we know what we must do in this crisis-ridden and beautiful new year. Maya Angelou reminds us of this work in her poem “Continue.” As she suggests there, I believe the best we can do this year is to continue to act with kindness; to allow humor to lighten the burden of our tender hearts; to let people hear the grandeur of God in the peals of our laughter; to remember our own young years and look with favor upon the lost, the least and the lonely; to take the hand of the despised and diseased and walk proudly with them in the high street; to plant a public kiss of concern on the cheek of the sick and the aged and infirm; to let gratitude be the pillow upon which we kneel to say our nightly prayers; to ignore no vision which comes to enlarge our spirits; to dare to love deeply and risk everything for the good; and by so doing, to allow our work to continue eternally.
A new year lies before us, and we don’t know what it will bring. But we do know that our deepest calling is to continue the joyous work of love and justice.
May it be so.