Emperor Augustus, Governor Quirinius, and a Baby in a Barn

“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:1).

Thus begins Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus!

The context is crucial for understanding what follows. Rushing too quickly to see the babe in the stable  subverts the story’s radical message.

Bound up in those first two sentences of Luke’s nativity is the key to knowing what God is up to in the coming of Jesus.

Make no mistake about it!  God is challenging the prevailing values and practices of Caesar and his surrogates! God confronts the mighty Roman Empire, and all subsequent empires, with a vulnerable baby, born of a peasant teenager in a cattle barn in tiny village tucked away in darkness.

Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius are very much alive and active in today’s world. They represent prevailing political and economic power. They have the authority, the might to force populations to do as they say. They are in charge and they intend to maintain their control, their privilege.

So, they issue executive orders that all citizens be “registered,” have proper ID, be legal! Sound familiar?

The registration is part of a new tax policy, designed to protect the economic privilege and advantage of those in power. That sounds strangely and frighteningly familiar in light of the new tax plan enacted into law, clearly enhancing the privileges of the privileged at the expense of the working class and poor.

Both the registration and the tax policy of Augustus and Quirinius strengthen control by the Roman Empire. The day laborers, such as Joseph, and the peasant girls such as Mary, have no power but to acquiesce to the powers that be.

It sounds contemporary in light of political gerrymandering and the wedding of political influence and money which renders common voters powerless.

Mary and Joseph are made homeless, so they take shelter in a barn. There, Mary gives birth without medical attention or a sterile environment. Women often suffer the brunt of abuses of power by the Caesars of every generation.

In Matthew’s telling of the story, mighty Herod is so insecure that he orders all male babies under two slaughtered in order to preserve his power. Baby Jesus becomes an immigrant, fleeing a tyrant’s violence. Children continue to be the major victims of despots’ efforts to secure power!

But the Christmas Story is about redefining power. The world still defines power as the clout of Emperor Augustusand Governor Quirinius. Power is the ability to issue decrees, executive orders, pass legislation, dictate taxation and economic policies. Make no mistake about it! That is a form of power, and the exercise of it is fraught with abuse and accompanying suffering.

There is, however, another form of power. It is more lasting and transformative than political clout and economic privilege.

Authentic power is embodied in that babe in Bethlehem’s manger. It is the power of self-giving Love! Such love comes silently, without fanfare, hidden in simple gestures of compassion and gentleness amid cruelty and callousness.

We can align with the power in Bethlehem’s stable by entering into solidarity with today’s

-homeless seeking shelter from the winter cold,

-vulnerable women and men without medical care,

-immigrants hiding in the shadows while fleeing cruelty of tyrants,

-working poor who care for our children and frail elderly for meager pay.

Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius may steal the headlines. The future, however, belongs to that babe in Bethlehem’s barn! There is real Power. There is God!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Open Letter to My Congressmen

To: Senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott
Representative Joe Wilson

I received your canned responses to my previous communications of opposition to the tax bills passed by the Senate and House of Representatives. You have made no substantive response to my concerns but, rather, provided an unsupported and deceptive rationale for your support of the bill. I am disappointed in your failure to respond adequately to the concerns, questions, and opposition to the bill by many of your constituents.

The fallacious claims of providing a tax cut for the middle class is intentionally or unintentionally dishonest and misleading. For many of us, both versions before Congress will be a major tax increase as the result of removing important deductions.

One example is the House’s provision for removing the deduction for long-term medical care. My wife of fifty-seven years is in the severe stage of Frontotemperal Dementia and requires full time nursing care. The cost is rapidly diminishing our savings and pension accounts. Removal of the deduction will hasten the depletion or our resources. Additionally, the anticipated cuts to Medicare will add to the financial crisis in our family and millions of others.

Perhaps an analogy is appropriate. The claim that I, and millions who are in similar circumstances, are getting a tax cut is comparable to saying, “We are giving you a steroid injection for your weak arm; but to do so, we are amputating your legs.But don’t you feel good about the steroid injection?” You are crippling me while claiming to strengthen me. Such action is deceptive at best and outright cruel at worst.

There is insufficient data to support your contention that the tax cut for corporations will result in increased wages and job growth; and there are no provisions in the current bills to hold corporations and businesses accountable to use the tax windfall to increase wages and expand employment. Data exist to indicate that the proceeds from the cuts will more likely go to share holders (the already more affluent) and corporate executives. This is redistribution of wealth, taking from the under-privileged and transferring it to the already privileged, a reverse “Robin Hood” approach.

I can give additional reasons for opposing both versions of the bill; but it is obvious that your positions are shaped by the failed ideology of “trickle down” economics and narrow partisan politics.  You seem to be more interested in a quick partisan “political win” than listening to the concerns of your constituents.

I assume you are honorable men and I appreciate your willingness to serve in Congress. However, when it comes to tax policy and approach to economic policy, I feel that your positions fall short of the vision of justice of our Jewish-Christian heritage. The proposed tax legislation demonstrably favors the most economically and politically powerful at the expense of the most vulnerable in our society.

Justice as defined in the traditions of the major religions disproportionately favors the weakest and most vulnerable and enables them to have access to that which is necessary to thrive as children of God. The current tax bills clearly fail the test of our sacred scriptures. Additionally, they fail the test of long-term sound economic policy.

I am readily available to discuss any of this issues with you and/or your staff.

Sincerely,

Bishop (Retired) Kenneth L. Carder
Williams Distinguished Professor Emeritus
Duke University Divinity School and
Senior Visiting Professor of Methodist Studies
Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary
Columbia, SC

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