The Common Good

Putting Herod Back into Christmas

Sojomail - December 22, 2004

Quote of the Week The Prince of Peace
Advent Reflection Joy Carroll Wallis: Putting Herod back into Christmas
Palestine Journal Bulldozers (still) in Bethlehem
Colombia Journal Advent in the midst of violence
Under the Wire Sudan update
Spiritual Practices David James Duncan and 'The Little Drummer Boy'
Soul Works Poetry: The Story of A
Web Sitings The 'real' St. Nick | From icon to logo
Boomerang Readers write
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The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness -
on them light has shined...
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor, you have broken...
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace...
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.

- Isaiah 9:2-7


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Putting Herod back into Christmas
by Joy Carroll Wallis

How people love Christmas carols! When I was a priest back in London, carol singing around the parish really seemed to get everyone in the mood for Christmas. We always had a real accordion and an old-fashioned lantern on a pole; we were always wrapped up warmly, and we would stop and sing carols under selected streetlights. It was a scene fit for a Christmas card.... People came out in droves, mostly non-churchgoers, to listen and put money in our collecting box for the homeless. When we were finally all sung out, we would trudge back to someone's house for mulled wine and minced pies...all very English! Great memories.

But we need to beware! Our culture loves a sentimental Christmas, and the Christmas carols that we sing are a big part of that. The words often paint an idyllic picture of sanitary bliss that has very little to do with the reality of what Jesus came into this world to do. This week Jim was reading the Christmas story to our son Luke. He read of how Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem on the donkey, that there was no room in the inn. But there was a stable, and, as Jim read, "the stable was warm and clean!"

But this sanitization of the Christmas story is a relatively recent development. It's interesting that before the Victorian era, Christmas songs were much more likely to reflect the reality of Jesus' entry into our world. Carols would not hesitate to refer to the blood and sacrifice of Jesus or the story about Herod slaughtering the innocent children. As an example of the contrast, read through the words of "Away in a Manger." Jesus is the perfect baby, and "No crying he makes...." My guess is that Jesus cried a lot. We know from the gospels that the more Jesus saw of the world in which he lived, the more he mourned and wept regularly. A Jesus who doesn't weep with those who weep, a Jesus who's just a sentimental myth, may be the one that our culture prefers, but that Jesus can do nothing for us.

In Britain there's a very popular musician called Cliff Richard. About 10 years ago he released a Christmas song that reached the top 10 in the charts. The lyrics of "Saviour's Day" reflected his Christian faith and included lines such as, "Life can be yours on Saviour's Day, don't look back or turn away...." I picked up a teenage pop magazine where there was an article reviewing the season's Christmas songs. When it came to "Saviour's Day," the writer said, "This song is OK, but there's no holly, no mistletoe and wine, no presents around the tree, no snow, no Santa, in fact this song hasn't got anything to do with Christmas at all!" A radio DJ in this country once said, "What Christmas is all about is the celebration of living in a great nation like this." It's not a celebration of this "great" nation; it's about Jesus Christ. It's so easy to let the world reduce our spirituality to nostalgia and sentiment. As Evangelical Covenant Reverend Dr. Michael Van Horn said, "We must be careful not to lose the connection to the truth of the story because it is that story that shapes our identity as the people of God."

Another danger of sentimentality is that we tend to lose interest in the parts of the story that are not so comfortable. We smile at the warm cozy nativity scene, but have you ever spent a night in a barn? Or given birth in a barn? The reality is very different. Most scholars suggest that in Luke's account it's not just that the inns were full but that Mary and Joseph were forced to take the barn because their family had rejected them. Joseph has relatives or friends of relatives in Bethlehem. So rather than being received hospitably by family or friends, Joseph and Mary have been shunned. Family and neighbors are declaring their moral outrage at the fact that Joseph would show up on their doorsteps with his pregnant girlfriend.

No sooner have the wise men left the stable then King Herod plots to kill Jesus. He is so determined that he is willing to sacrifice many innocent lives in order to get to this one baby. Herod recognizes something about Jesus that in our sentiment we fail to see: that the birth of this child is a threat to his kingdom, a threat to that kind of domination and rule. Jesus challenges the very power structures of this evil age. Herod has all the male infants in Bethlehem murdered. Not so cozy. This is the Jesus who entered the bloody history of Israel, and the human race.

But we don't want to think about Herod. Van Horn calls him the "Ebenezer Scrooge without the conversion, the Grinch without a change of heart." We Christians like to talk about putting Christ back into Christmas, but let's not forget to put Herod back into Christmas.

Herod represents the dark side of the gospel. He reminds us that Jesus didn't enter a world of sparkly Christmas cards or a world of warm spiritual sentiment. Jesus enters a world of real pain, of serious dysfunction, a world of brokenness and political oppression. Jesus was born an outcast, a homeless person, a refugee, and finally he becomes a victim to the powers that be. Jesus is the perfect savior for outcasts, refugees, and nobodies. That's how the church is described in scripture time and time again - not as the best and the brightest - but those who in their weakness become a sign for the world of the wisdom and power of God.

Joy Carroll Wallis is an Anglican priest and the author of The Woman Behind the Collar (Crossroads) which tells the story of her journey to ordination and role as a consultant to the British television comedy series, The Vicar of Dibly. Joy lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband (Sojourners editor-in-chief Jim Wallis) and their two children. This message is adapted from a sermon delivered at Cedar Ridge Community Church on December 5.

+ Read the full message

+ Read an excerpt of Joy's book in Sojourners magazine

+ Read Jim Wallis' recent USA Today op-ed, "Neither Democrats nor Republicans have a clue"


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Bulldozers (still) in Bethlehem
by Katie Paarlberg

A Caterpillar bulldozer destroys a Palestinian home. Many home demolitions are due to permit disputes and land confiscations by Israeli authorities, and have nothing to do with terrorist activities.
With the anniversary of Christ's birth fast approaching, people of conscience are ever more concerned about the continuing violence in the Holy Land. As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rages, Christians in the United States are attempting to effect peace in the region from afar. In recent months, some churches have chosen to make their voices heard through new incarnations of socially responsible investment.

At its July 2004 General Assembly, the Presbyterian Church (USA) decided to investigate phased selective divestment from corporations that profit from the Israeli occupation. Divestment, the practice of withdrawing invested funds from corporations engaging in questionable or reprehensible activities, is one way to integrate moral and monetary values. In the PCUSA's case, these corporations include those providing goods or services to the Israeli military to maintain the occupation, those with established facilities on occupied land, and those providing goods, funds, or services that support the construction of Israel's separation wall.

The PCUSA has come under harsh criticism from groups supportive of Israeli policies. But military occupation, argues Jewish Voice for Peace, harms both the Israeli and the Palestinian people as it militarizes both cultures, damages the Israeli economy, exposes both sides to increased violence, and devastates Palestinian society.

+ Read the full article

+ Read Jewish Voice for Peace's statement on divestment

+ Read more about the PCUSA's divestment conversation

+ Take action to challenge Caterpillar Inc.'s participation in occupation activities


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Advent in the midst of violence
by Janna Bowman

In the mighty name of God. In the saving name of Jesus. In the strength of the Spirit.
We come. We cry. We watch, we wait, we look, we long for you.

This refrain from "Oh Come," a song on a Mennonite Central Committee-produced Christmas CD, jolted me to a painfully clear reminder of my Advent last year in Colombia. A friend associated with Justapaz, the justice and peace ministry of the Colombian Mennonite Church, had been kidnapped by an armed group, and I was trying to figure out how to alert the international community and bring pressure to bear upon the situation.

I had planned to use those days leading up to Christmas to prepare for my family's visit, and by all appearances my surroundings facilitated a cozy, commercialized Christmas. The lights were strung on Bogota's streetlight posts, as they are in Washington, D.C. Images of Santa and serene mother and child decorated shop and church windows alike. Yet my time of giddy anticipation was rudely interrupted by war. Juan was taken at gunpoint from his farm. I was scared. I felt desperate and overwhelmed.

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Sudan update

The Sudanese government continues to allow - and sometimes participate in - the campaigns of murders, rapes, and genocide perpetrated by the Janjaweed militias in the Darfur region.
+ Knight Ridder News Service

Meanwhile, peace talks have broken down as both the government and the rebels repeatedly violate a ceasefire. "This is a wake-up call for the U.N. Security Council. The pressure has to be applied to all the parties to this conflict to agree to a meaningful cease-fire so that agencies can reach the people in need," said the director of a British charity that was pulling out of the region because it was too dangerous for its staff.
+ Reuters

African Union peace monitors have suspended operations in southern Darfur after being repeatedly attacked.
+ The Independent

Former Sojourners intern Jeshua Erickson explores faith and a Christian commitment to nonviolence in his latest album, Swords into Plowshares. His music offers listeners a refreshing new way of seeing faith and politics as partners in the noble pursuit of peace and justice. Reviews and information about Jeshua can be found at

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'The Little Drummer Boy'

"The first time I hear 'The Little Drummer Boy' each December, especially if it's sung by kids, the chills run up and down me as the truth of it slams home again: 'I played my best for him, pah rum puh pum pum....' Here's some little kid, standing right next to the cradle of a newborn baby, banging away on a drum.

Has a vindictive relative ever given a child in your family a drum? 'Pah rum puh pum pum' is an extremely kind description of the result. And yet, in the song, this kid marches up to the manger and bangs the hell out of his drum for the infant king, out of pure reverence and love. What more could you offer - no matter how silly or bad it sounds? And that line, 'Then He smiled at me, pah rum puh pum pum....' What more could you hope for?"

- David James Duncan

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The Story of A
by Phyllis K. Collier

A miracle after twenty years,
Our futile prayers. Joachim
Alone in the desert,
Footprints heavy for a son.

The angel told me it was a she
Inside my darkness. By the Word
And the word of woman, a light where
My joy rises. Even at my age, I remember
The girl who believed
That anything is possible.

My role is not as difficult as hers will be. I must
Prepare her for the time when they slip
A halo on her, color her blue. I name her
Rebellion and keep my pledge
To act on what I cannot know. For now,
It is enough that God will take
His humanness from woman.

He was saving me
For this grace, the angel said,
Which is to bear what she must learn,
And for the day when I wear the scarf

Of grandmother,
Which means to watch
My best hopes from afar, to act
On what love teaches me, to know
That taste of salt.

As God is in me, I am a part
Of all I bring to life.
I see in winter's dawn,
Beyond these dark hills,
The coming light.

Phyllis K. Collier is an award-winning poet whose first book, Cain's Daughters, is forthcoming from Blue Unicorn Press in 2005.



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Readers write

Todd Steele writes from Fort Wayne, Indiana:

Thanks to David Batstone for his commentary on the phenomenon of Wal-Mart and the comparison to the Ford Motor Company of an earlier era ["Ford vs. Wal-Mart: A Tale of Two Companies," SojoMail 12/16/2004]. It disturbs me that so many people of faith, even in their effort to be frugal and good stewards of their own economic resources, fail to consider the greater implications of where they shop. That short-sightedness is made worse by the many communities that offer substantial incentives to attract Wal-Mart without adequately considering or understanding the larger and longer-term economic scar tissue that Wal-Mart inevitably carves into those same communities.


John Dewitt writes from Nashville, Tennessee:

I liked your article, but as I and many folks have no direct power over corporations, what should our response be? In really trying to discern WWJD, I have no clear solution. I don't like the idea of Wal-Mart treating their employees poorly for a cheaper price, but I would rather Wal-Mart employees get their $8.50 an hour than less or no job at all. In one sense, boycotting them would take away jobs. It's understandable where a Wal-Mart puts another place out of business and takes their jobs away, but I doubt that is the case every time. It may be that some folks in China want Wal-Mart and Nike to hire them because they know that their low wage is better than nothing. I suppose that I could write Wal-Mart, but I doubt that will do anything. [Are there] any more effective means?


Timothy Kelley writes from Marysville, Ohio:

Henry Ford would have never expected the government to take care of his employees the way Wal-Mart does. Wal-Mart engages in what I refer to as "hidden government subsidy." While people believe that they are saving money shopping at Wal-Mart, they are not. Due to the low wages paid to the employees and poor health insurance plans (if affordable for an employee), government assistance programs fill the gap of what Wal-Mart does not offer its employees. So while the price you pay at the counter might be lower than other places, you need to add to the cost of that item the amount that it cost for the government to provide the program supporting that Wal-Mart employee - be it food stamps, cash assistance, or Medicaid. Every time I read of Wal-Mart's record profits, I realize my tax dollars are going to their stockholders. The conservatives like to criticize the "welfare moms" of our nation but fail to see the failed morality of the "welfare corporations."


Bob Shepherd of Cary, North Carolina, and Jay Baker of Columbus, Ohio, write:

We are not economists, but we think we know enough about Henry Ford to question whether his business model should be offered by Christians as an antidote to the Wal-Marts of the world. Henry Ford financially supported totalitarian governments, notably contributing money to Hitler's party during the 1920s. And if there is any question of Mr. Ford's anti-Semitism, a quick perusal of his book, The International Jew, should remove all doubt.

Even if we set aside these issues, Ford had no particular interest in creating a middle class. He was no social engineer (at least in the sense desiring income redistribution). He had no small contempt and loathing for his workers; he deployed armed thugs as strikebreakers at the Rouge Bridge. But he realized that his plants needed a stable labor force to operate efficiently. Creating a market was a sometimes incidental consequence. Indeed, getting workers to purchase Ford automobiles often required intimidation by Ford security goons ("buy a car or you're fired"). The wage increases were hardly a largess on Ford's part. Nascent labor unions were starkly militant, and he tacitly sought labor peace to avoid collective bargaining. "Five dollars a day" was no small bargain for Henry Ford; it bought him (for a time) an interregnum labor peace without organized labor and allowed him to dominate the automobile industry for a quarter of a century. Despite superficial appearances, Fords motives were penurious, not altruistic.


Andre Bucher writes from Langnau, Germany:

It is a great pleasure every time reading SojoMail to realize that there is a magazine writing to the pressing questions that Christians face today. This article does address a question that we as Christians, for the great majority, do not live up to the standards of the Bible. When at the time of Henry Ford, company owners were dominating the company and even a whole region as patriarchs, they could take such decisions. Today, these decisions have become democratized and the responsibility for the decision is delegated to the customer. Thus every customer buying at Wal-Mart is expressing: "Yes, I agree with this policy of the company and I support it." It is all our responsibility, and unfortunately most of the preachers and churches do not tell us that - and certainly the marketers don't. To become a responsible shopper in today's world is a very challenging issue for which there is little to no help. This would certainly be a campaign worth to start worldwide - analyze businesses and provide customer information to take sensible decisions when shopping.


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