Shuck and Jive

Monday, December 10, 2007

Is Christmas Political?

I found this nativity scene on the blog of Will "Too Holy for the PCUSA" Spotts. I thought this piece of artwork describes Christmas pretty darn well.

Mr. Spotts will have none of it.
Mr. Spotts decided to leave (so he says) the PCUSA because the PCUSA allows the likes of me.

If you think that is hyperbole, you can
read his own words. Well, not just me, the ministry of my colleague, Rev. Jim Rigby, also drove Mr. Spotts into recovery.

According to Mr. Spotts, Jim and I represent, "the increasing presence of ‘renegade’, undisciplined Ministers of the Word and Sacrament." That will just not do. He has taken his marbles, but instead of going home, he tosses them wildly at anything Presbyterian.

He particularly does not like the stance the PCUSA took in 2004 against the Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people. Hence, he thinks the nativity scene of the wall blocking visitors to Bethlehem soils his Christmas.

Well, Mr. Spotts, you ought to read the infancy narratives of the gospels again. They are not anything if not political. The infancy narratives, like the gospels themselves, are fictions. They draw from legends in the Hebrew scriptures and from pagan mythology (ie. virgin birth) to tell their story. They are fictions, however, with a bite. They are political fictions. Through creative fiction they paint a picture of the kingdom of God as opposed to the kingdom of "this world" (read Empire).

According to the gospels, Jesus did not come to preach some metaphysical nonsense about life after death and secret spiritual kingdoms. He preached politics, down and dirty. "Whose side are you on?" is the message of the Gospels.

Are you on the side of the powerful and the paranoid, (in our day corporations and militaristic madness) or are you on the side of those who are adversely affected by the politics of empire?

The infancy narratives are set within the framework of powerful and paranoid rulers, Caesar Augustus in Luke, and Herod in Matthew, who represent the politics of empire.

In Luke, we discover Mary, who upon accepting her role as giving birth to Jesus, announces regarding YHWH:

He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud
in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.

Mary sounds like an undisciplined renegade.

Also, in Luke, from the lips of Jesus, his mother's son:

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.

‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,

for you will be filled.

‘Blessed are you who weep now,

for you will laugh....

‘But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
‘Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.

Read 'em and weep, you who think Christmas is not about politics.

I wish you a political Christmas this year. I wish you courage as you make a decision about whose politics you will embrace, remembering that "no decision" is a decision for the status quo.


  1. And may you have a Political Christmas as well Rev.

  2. John,

    Is this the truth from this man's blog, that you do not affirm that Jesus is the unique Son of God, as well as fully man, our Savior? Has he distorted your convictions in anyway?

    I certainly agree that the gospel has political implications, but I don't feel that's all we're about as the Christian church. (We're more than liturgical unitarians.)

    Are you willing to share?


  3. Hey Grace,

    Read the whole of my blog and my sermons on my website if you would like to know what I think about a variety of things.

    I'll be glad to share. First, tell me, what is "the unique Son of God?"

  4. Monkey!

    Thank you! Wanna visit our pal, David D. this Thursday?

  5. The minister is away the Sunday after Christmas so I'm on point. In my preaching career (I think this will makes eight), this is the second time I've been called on to do the Feast of the Innocents. I don't mind, this is one of the most potent political scriptures of all. God reminds us that's its not all just shepherds and angels. It's blood and death and injustice as empire strikes back. Of course, it's really a story of Jesus as the "new Moses." Having said that this story is as real to me as the death of millions of Jews, Gyspies, Homosexuals and socialists.

  6. Two good books on the politics and the gospel by Ched Myers:

    “Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus”

    and “Who Will Roll Away the Stone?: Discipleship Queries for First World Christians

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. The very term 'Kingdom of God' is pregnant with politics.

    Wise men from the East?

    "Out of Egypt I called my child"?

    You have to be blind as a bat not to see the politics in the Gospel.

    Oh wait. Isaiah already said that.

    But John, push the metaphor all the way through. The Gospel's use of Politics is bait. We are at first drawn to the power of God's Holy Spirit, hoping in that power to be vindicated, to be proven right, to be proven better than our fellow men and righteous in the eyes of God.

    And then we face our dead King on the cross.

    The politics of the upside down Kingdom of Heaven doesn't make any sense - and I love it for that.

  9. Do you think that Jesus, in a sense that we can't fully fathom or understand, is fully God as well as fully man, God the Son.

    This man is basically accusing you of rejecting the reality of the incarnation, the unique divinity of Jesus Christ, as well as even a concept of a personal, loving God who is really there at all.

    Is this all true? Does this really represent your convictions, or is he distorting the truth, and misrepresenting your position?

  10. It is all right there, Grace. Read for yourself. Make your own decision.

  11. There is an important point that John is (very quietly) making, Grace. Many Christians, indeed some very prominent Presbyterians have said that in order to be truly Christian, one must affirm belief in, without reservation, the five following:

    1. The entire Bible as the inspired Word of God and therefore inerrant.
    2. The virgin birth of Jesus.
    3. Jesus' crucifixion was the blood atonement for sin.
    4. The bodily resurrection of Christ.
    5. The historical reality of Jesus' miracles.

    These were the "Five Fundamentals" cooked up in the early 20th Century in the northern Presbyterian church, and radicals who wanted these to be litmus tests for ministers became known as "fundamentalists". After raising holy hell about it for years, J. Gresham Machen was finally dismissed from his leadership role, and he went on to found the uber-conservative Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The remainder of the northern church went on (and thrived) and merged with the southern church to become the PC(USA) in 1983.

    I still hold that any Presbyterian officer being honest to the spirit of the Confessions and the idea of freedom of conscience will reject the concept of fundamentals and will not require him/herself or anyone else to profess belief in them in order to gain acceptance by fellow Presbyterians.

    We believe in accordance with our shared faith as set out in the Book of Confessions, but we boldly proclaim that like anything else set forth by human hand, it is subject to human error, and our freedom of conscience under the Holy Spirit is inviolable.

  12. I thoroughly enjoyed Supplement A. I think your theological views are extremely refreshing and germane for the 21st century. Maybe we can finally get out of the Dark Ages we have been stuck in for centuries. Have you considered hiring this guy as your PR front man? He is really good at picking out the meaty, thought provoking points. The collection of points is good for hours of contemplation for people who are not afraid of free thought, free will, enlightenment. This stage of my life is the ONLY time I ever wanted to go to church and it is because I finally have validation for the religious perspective that I developed myself in a vacuum. I finally have a community!

  13. Grace -
    An accused person is not "guilty" for simply having been accused. As John said, you have access to the same information Mr. Spotts does - without it having gone through the blender of interpretation.

  14. Thank you, John. You've certainly clarified your position.

    Flycandler, I completely agree that everyone in the church does not have to agree concerning the precise nature of the Scripture, or exact theories relating to the atonement, or the miraculous. (I'm not a fundamentalist.)

    But, I think the very center of our faith as Christians is in the reality of the incarnation, and the work of the cross of Jesus Christ. All of our mainline denominations confess together as a basic statement of faith the Nicene Creed.

    We can all disagree about a zillion issues from political views to the interpretation of Genesis, and yet have a unity around the gospel.

    This expresses my own faith in a nutshell:

    Christ Jesus who died , more than that, who was raised to life, is at the right hand of God, and is also interceding for us. Who shall seperate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?..

    No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Rom. 8:31-37.
    I'm persuaded of the truth of the gospel, not from fear or ignorance, but out of a deep conviction of truth, and through much searching. I can honestly say that apart from this, and a relationship with Jesus, I would not waste two minutes of my time with the institutional church.

    What would be the point? I surely don't know. I'm not being unkind, here friends, just honest with you. There are tons of places to go for community, to work on social issues together, or to have interesting philosophical discussions.

    Between the corruption rife in the institution, homophobia, etc., apart from the reality of Jesus Christ, and His gospel, I can't understand why anyone else would want to bother with the Christian church either, let alone go into the ministry.

    God have mercy! I guess I've said enough, already.

    Only God's spirit can sort out this mess. We can only trust Him to work in all our lives.



  15. Grace,

    I have also said a great deal more than what Mr. Spotts picked out. Sometimes I say one thing and sometimes another. Sometimes I contradict myself. I have changed a great deal over the years and I suspect and hope that I will change a great deal more.


  16. gordbrown--excellent summary. The Empire strikes back, indeed. But the Empire loses in the end as such everyone wins including those who thought empire was so swell.

    John M.--Thanks for reminding us about Ched Myers. Both are superb books!

    Jodie--Thanks for pushing. The thing that cannot possibly work indeed does.

    Fly--yes...the struggle is between the view that Christian theology is frozen into essentials and fundamentals and the view that the yesterday's certainty is today's idol.

    bill42--I appreciate that and you very much. Thanks for saying that..,

    Snad--yes. Mr. Spotts quotes me, but adds a bit of interpretation with which I do not agree--namely, that I am outside the bounds of Christianity. That is his opinion, but not my opinion, nor the opinion of those who make that decision.

  17. Hello, grace. You inspired me. :)

    that you do not affirm that Jesus is the unique Son of God, as well as fully man, our Savior?

    Herein lies the problem when it comes to the ritualistic pageantry and mythology in the church.

    Jesus never said he was the only son of God. Someone writing text that was later deemed canonical did. Jesus never said that he healed anyone, he said our faith heals us.
    Jesus is our savior through enlightenment, wisdom, and spiritual strength. Not magic.

    As long as the church embraces doctrine that even Presbyterian scholars know is wrong there will be a divide. Those with eyes wide open and those with eyes wide shut.


  18. Tn, 420, there is a difference of opinion among the scholars, to put it mildly. :)

    Do you know some of the criteria the fellows of the Jesus Seminar, for instance, use to decide if a certain saying of Jesus is "authentic."

    In many ways I find it very subjective, and definitely conditioned by a naturalistic kind of bias. This is part of the reason, they are not even able to agree among themselves. God have mercy!

    I don't want to say that they have nothing good or positive to share at all. But, to me, they definitely don't represent all of the scholarship out there, by any means.

  19. Not to be pedantic, Grace, but I'd point out that the verses you hold up as a confessional statement (heh're into full Reformed jargon territory now) are not part of the Gospel, but are out of Paul, who never met Jesus until after the crucifixion, according to Acts and Paul himself.

    My point is that the resistance to the "Yes/No" checklist of doctrines is very deeply ingrained in the Presbyterian church for a good reason.

    Interesting note about confessional statements: have you noticed that in the two "universal" confessions of the Western church, the Apostles' Creed and Nicene Creed, that Jesus' work on Earth (both ministry and miracles) is never mentioned?

  20. Fly,

    Your observation

    "Interesting note about confessional statements: have you noticed that in the two "universal" confessions of the Western church, the Apostles' Creed and Nicene Creed, that Jesus' work on Earth (both ministry and miracles) is never mentioned?"

    is very interesting. Taken out of its historical context, it was an error from which the Church has never recovered.

    But in its proper context it shows that a confession is primarily an answer to a question. It shows the early church's ability to listen.

    That is in contrast to today's "confessional churches". They refuse to listen to the questions of the day, and even try imposing the old ones.

    And so the most important lesson of the first confessions gets lost. A Church that listens has something to say.

  21. I think a little clarification of terms is in order.

    The modern, Layman-funded "Confessing Church Movement", which is basically Wineskins-lite (pass a Session resolution banning the gay and requiring loyalty oaths from the staff), is a sick pun on the original German Confessing Churches, the group of churches that in the 1930s refused the authority of the Third Reich and led to the Theological Declaration of Barmen (and the death in concentration camps of Martin Niemoller and others).

    The Presbyterian church is by its nature a "confessional church", which means something different. Christians can be said to be those who confess that they believe "Jesus is Lord". In confessional statements, the church acknowledges that basic confession of its members and spells out its understanding of what that phrase entails. The Presbyterian church is confessional, as are the Lutheran, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, as well as the Anglican/Methodist traditions. Essentially, confessional statements are the church's way of announcing to the world (1) who and what it is, (2) what it believes, and (3) what it resolves to do.

    For about 200 years, the American Presbyterian church used the Westminster Confession of Faith as its sole confessional standard. In the late 1960s, the northern church (the UPCUSA) changed to adopt a group of historical confessional statements and a newly-written one as a group of equals reflecting the church's stance throughout different times and places called the Book of Confessions. When the northern and southern (PCUS) churches merged in 1983, another confessional statement was drafted (by a committee that included my pastor among others) and eventually included. Today, the PC(USA)'s Book of Confessions includes nine confessions:

    The Nicene Creed (325)
    The Apostles' Creed (c. 180)
    The Scots Confession (1560)
    The Heidelberg Catechism (1562)
    The Second Helvetic Confession (1561)
    Westminster Confession of Faith & the Larger and Shorter Catechisms (1649)
    The Theological Declaration of Barmen (1934)
    The Confession of 1967
    A Brief Statement of Faith (1991)

    The Brief Statement, somewhat uniquely for a confessional statement, emphasizes the life and work of Jesus in addition to his birth and death, and does so beautifully IMO.

  22. Fly,

    I love that statement of faith. It truly is beautiful, and even makes me think about wanting to be a Presbyterian. :)

    Also, I would share that I personally don't feel that the good news preached by Jesus is at odds with the gospel proclaimed by Paul.

    Didn't Paul,himself, bear witness:

    I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. Gal. 1:11.

    God bless!

  23. BTW, guys, who are these "wineskins" that everyone always talks about?

  24. Oh Lawd!

    Basically, Grace, it's the reason you would not want to become a Presbyterian (though we'd love to have you anyway).

    In the Presbyterian system of government as practiced by the PC(USA), property is held in the name of the Presbytery. In other words, the sanctuary of John's church is not titled to "First Presbyterian Elizabethton" but to "Holston Presbytery". If John, his congregation and its Session (governing council) decided "enough already with the gay bashing" and decided to leave the PC(USA), Holston would respond, "okay then. What's your new address? Cuz ya can't stay here." The idea is that we are a connectional church--one that recognizes in legal terms the spiritual interconnectedness of the church. If you choose to leave the denomination, you don't get a refund on your offerings over the years.

    At least that's how it works in theory. There's an escape clause in the Book of Order (part 2 of the church's Constitution) that allows the presbytery some leeway in a church that intends to join some other Presbyterian denomination.

    The two most prominent splinters are the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (formed by J. Gresham "Five Fundamentals or Death!" Machen of the northern church) and the Presbyterian Church in America (formed by schismatics opposed to the southern church's ordination of women and its support of the Civil Rights Movement). Por ejemplo, the church I grew up in split in the 1980s when a woman associate was installed. Those who left formed a new PCA church.

    Which is the biggest problem with the PCA and OPC for the schismatics in the modern PC(USA). Were John's friend Viola to go to the OPC or PCA, she would not be able to be ordained as a Minister or Elder. Discrimination is fine when it's against "those people", but it sucks when it's against you.

    Enter the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, yet another splinter, but the newest (circa 1981). It considers the ordination of women a "nonessential" (ironically the phrasing in the PC(USA)'s authoritative interpretation last year that could lead to openly gay or lesbian ministers, elders and deacons), and it is much more accepting of charismatics than the other splinters (OPC churches follow the Regulative Principle of Worship, that rejects holidays and uses only Psalms for singing in church). The EPC was formed by conservatives in the northern church just before reunion in response to perceived "liberalism" in the northern church and its installation of a United Church of Christ minister who did not have an orthodox view of the Trinity (quel horreur). They didn't want to go to the PCA or OPC because they were TOO conservative (again, we like the bits in the Bible that let us hate whom we want to hate, but we don't think it's so "inerrant" when it comes to women in church).

    The New Wineskins is a weirdly-named group that is an offshoot of the so-called "Confessing Church Movement" (a sick parody on the German churches that bravely resisted Hitler's attempt to blend church and state). Rather than simply set a local church's own Hate the Gay standards as the CCM does, and unlike the original OPC/PCA/EPC schismatics, the Wineskins want to leave the PC(USA) and get a refund check on their offerings. In other words, they want to keep the property they think they've "been paying for all these years". Wineskins have amassed large legal defense funds and teams of lawyers and intend to sue the hell out of anyone who gets in their way when the time comes.

    The unmitigated gall of these folks is what really gets to me. Like I said in my very illiberal comment, I have been putting up with the conservatives' crap all these years because I believe that the church represents the body of Christ and we need to keep it whole (as my pastor says, "sometimes you gotta hug their necks when all you want to do is wring them"). Now they want to have their cake, eat it, and demand more cake. Not only do they want to leave, they want refunds!

  25. Fly, I think there is probably some variation of those wineskins in every denomination.

    The truth is we are never going to have a perfected church until the Lord returns. There will always be problems, and "tares mixed with the wheat."

    But, I think Jesus wants us to be one in Him, and to love each other fiercely. IMO, the answer is surely not to abandon our brothers and sisters in Christ, but to work through all these issues, and problems together. It's not always easy for sure.

    But, I think we need to trust God, to bring renewal and truth to His church.