The Common Good
December 2010

Advent in a Crumbling Empire

by Shelley Douglass | December 2010

The season's real message isn't pretty, but it is powerful.

I've been thinking about the prophet Nahum lately. Nahum lived close to the height of the Assyrian empire (about 800 BCE). As a Jew, he was part of a conquered nation. Nahum spoke both to the Assyrians and to his own people. For the Assyrians, he predicted the bloody end of a bloody tyranny. To his own people he brought reassurance of God's justice and their own future freedom: hope for an oppressed people.

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In Advent, we too hope, and our hope too takes a political form. We believe that the poor baby born in the stable grew up to preach liberation to the captives, sight to the blind, forgiveness of debt.

Nahum's name means "comfort." His message is simple and direct: Be comforted -- the powers of this world stand under judgment. God hears the cry of the poor. In Advent, Christians remember that God not only hears the cry of the poor, but God was born one of the oppressed. Like Nahum and all the greater prophets, Jesus lived among suffering people. This was not God enthroned, listening from a distance to wails of suffering. No, God-with-us was with the wailing crowds, healing, comforting -- and challenging. God took on flesh and lived in this dirty, lovely world. God cares profoundly about what happens to every human, every sparrow, every shrimp and sea worm. This is our hope.

Hope is not optimism. Advent hope, Nahum's hope, is not the belief that everything will work out for us if we just believe. Advent hope, Nahum's hope, is that the power of the empire will be overthrown and the poor will be able to live their lives in peace and plenty.

Advent hope is not that a pretty baby will appear in the manger and sales will rise and the economy will resurrect. Advent hope is that empire will fall: all empires, with their idolatry, their gluttony, their pollution, their wars, their intrigue, their murder, and their weapons. Advent hope is that we will transform our minds -- which will then require us to transform our world. Advent hope is that our own empire will fall, and our own idolatry cease.

Nahum is one of two prophets whose books are not used in the Common Lectionary; his picture of the fall of empire is too strong. Reading Nahum is a good discipline for us, I think. We live in an empire that is crumbling. From the Gulf gusher to floods of coal ash to radioactive residue, we defile God’s creation. We use our brains to create weapons of mass destruction; we build drones to chase down fleeing people. We seek national power rather than the common good. Like the Assyrians and the Romans, we do this in the name of keeping order in the world. When empires fall, it isn't pretty. Nahum reminds us of that.

Still, in Advent we dare to hope. Advent leads to Christmas. At Christmas we celebrate a baby who became a political refugee, grew up to preach God's love, and was executed as a rebel. His life was a failure, his followers scattered, his hope for a new community dust. And then it all turned around. Our Advent hope is this: All empires are under judgment. Out of death comes life. God's will is shalom. The one who loses life will save it.

The manger leads to the cross, to the empty tomb, to the upper room. And the upper room becomes an empty room when the Spirit fills us so that we too are transformed and offer our lives in love for others.

Shelley Douglass lives and works at Mary’s House, a Catholic Worker community in Birmingham, Alabama.

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