This is what follows Christmas. According to the Gospel story, Herod sought to kill the baby Jesus. He thought Jesus would be a threat to the empire — to the systems of power that underpinned the privilege and wealth of the few. So Herod ordered all newborn male babies to be slain. And the blood of the innocents flowed.
To avoid Herod’s threat, Joseph and Mary fled with the child to Egypt. It was the day Jesus became a refugee. (Interestingly, if they had tried to seek refuge in the U.S. today, they would have been turned away.)
But it’s more than a story about a refugee. Far more. At least to anyone who believes in a god — more specifically, in a god whose nature and purpose were revealed in the being and life of Jesus.
To such people, Jesus the refugee reveals much. He reveals the very heart of God.
If the Gospel story is to be believed, God stands with the innocents. The oppressed. And in opposition to systems and instruments of power and oppression.
If the Gospel story is to be believed, the one with the heart of God overturns the money changers’ tables in the temple. And allows Himself to be executed by the empire.
It’s hard to believe in such a god. Really hard. Perhaps impossible. Or nearly so.
Because it’s so hard, we’ve altered the Gospel story or replaced it with other stories. The gospel of prosperity is one example. Evangelists who espouse that story become rich. And powerful. And its believers feel good in the knowledge their good deeds will be rewarded. There is no place for executions in such a gospel.
Another example is the gospel of empire. Believers in that story make no bones about it. They don’t try to fake it; they merely reject the Gospel story. They don’t believe in the existence of a god or a messenger of god. They could care less about the Gospel story unless it gets in their way. And, if does, they can merely encourage the spread of the gospel of prosperity or some other story that distracts, deludes and placates. And encourages submissiveness.
No one can prove there is a god. Or that Jesus even existed.
But we all have to believe in something. We have no choice in the matter. It’s part of our essence. We have to pursue something. Strive for something. Value something. We all have principles that guide our decisions. That point us in one direction or another. We have no choice but to be an actor on this worldly stage, guided by our beliefs and sense of what could or should be. By what is right. We have no choice but to believe in some story. In some gospel.
We can chose to shed the blood of innocents if that’s what it takes to preserve the empire.
We can chose to enable those who shed the blood of innocents if that’s what prosperity requires.
We can deny entry to refugees.
Or we can act as though Jesus revealed the very heart of God. Or as though he revealed the heart that ours is capable of being.
We can do so if we believe there is a God. And that the heart of this God was revealed in the life of the refugee. But we don’t have to believe.
We don’t have to believe there is a god to act that way.
We don’t have to believe Jesus was anything other than a preacher to act that way. We don’t even have to believe he existed.
We merely have to believe that innocents, refugees and the oppressed deserve our love and care.
But how can one believe such things. A life rooted in such beliefs can be lonely. And it can be costly. Usually there is a price to pay for those who stand with the innocents, the refugees and the oppressed. There certainly is no promise of prosperity.
Perhaps beliefs aren’t enough. Perhaps they aren’t even the most important thing. Perhaps desire is more important.
I’m not sure what I believe.
But I want to believe (desire) that there is such a thing as the heart of God. And that it was revealed by a refugee whose parents took him to safety in Egypt. I want to believe because I see what the gospel of empire yields. I see what the gospel of prosperity yields, too. And I don’t like it. I don’t like what it does to our world.
These alternative stories — alternative gospels — yield an ugly, cruel world. It’s hard to believe that’s our lot. It’s hard to believe that innocents must die. Or suffer. Or have no home.
But the Gospel story is really hard to believe, too. Perhaps impossible.
And so we live in uncertainty. In the empire. Without the assurance — the knowledge — of what truly is.
All we can do is listen. For the heartbeats. And decide which one we desire.