Tanks at the Manger

Some would like to forget that Christmas—and religion in general—has political significance.

On the Sunday before Christmas, a telling cartoon by Steve Breen of the San Diego Union-Tribune appeared in many newspapers. Two American women are looking at a manger scene of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. A few animals are gathered, and on each side of the barn stands a modern tank. One woman explains to the other, "I thought the tanks gave it more of a Holy Land look."

The cartoon brings a smile not simply because tanks are an anachronism but because American Christians have celebrated Christmas as a holiday without political significance for so long that the tanks now seem out of place, just as a McDonald's or a Starbucks store would seem out of place.

But how often in the last 2,500 years has Bethlehem been the scene of quiet worship disconnected from the affairs of state, from warfare, from political contention over the right way to order day-to-day life in the promised land? If not tanks at the manger scene, what about some of King Herod's law-enforcement officials?

Perhaps the year 2001, with its deteriorating "peace" negotiations in the Middle East and war in Afghanistan, will remind us that religions are not non-political and that politics is not non-religious. Jesus was, after all, announced and received by his followers as the Messiah, the Christ, the King of the Jews. His life was so freighted with political significance that Herod tried to have him killed in infancy. And regional authorities finally crucified him because they believed he was a threat to the establishment.

Well, say many modernists, religious politics is precisely the problem. When Christ was thought to be politically important, Church leaders sponsored crusades to the Holy Land. The problem with Islam is that it is such a political religion. ...

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July/August
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