Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
A Reflection on Advent Politics and Persecution
Dennis R. Hoover
December 18, 2009
The recent International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church was a sobering reminder, heading into the Christmas season, that faith in Christ continues to carry inherent risks of attracting persecution from political authorities. Millions of believers around the globe suffer under various forms of discrimination and persecution. For many, even the simple freedom to celebrate Christmas cannot be taken for granted. As has been true for two millennia, an authoritarian government—whether religious or secular—will often view faithful Christians as potentially subversive because their highest loyalty is to a “king” other than the current earthly rulers.
Advent should be a good time of year for remembering the persecuted church. Historically the church viewed Advent as a kind of mini-Lent season. But unfortunately contemporary American Christianity sometimes uses Advent merely as a vehicle to spread the joyful feelings of Christmas over four weeks. The focus is still really Christmas morning—celebrating the birth of a savior, and, of course, opening presents.
I did not grow up in a church that observed Advent, but I’ve come to appreciate its rich complexity of meanings—including political meanings. Advent is not just about warm feelings of hope and anticipation, but also the kingdom message that John the Baptist preached: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2). Not so much a new “religion” but a new kingdom was breaking into history. And its coming king, John warned, would have a winnowing fork in his hand. Yes, Advent is about preparing for the incarnation of the Word as a baby boy, but it is also about preparing for what would be initiated about 30 years later, when Jesus began his public ministry preaching and demonstrating the kingdom of God. Moreover, Advent is about Jesus the King’s ongoing work of redeeming the world, about the church universal coming alongside and participating in this work, and about anticipating the final realization of the kingdom at Christ’s Second Coming.
The Gospels do not dwell long on Jesus’ birth, but even in those relatively brief passages the kingdom message is clear. When the angel Gabriel came to Mary to explain that the Holy Spirit would be placing a baby in her womb, he made a “political” promise: God would give Jesus the throne of David, and his reign would be everlasting. When an angel appeared to the shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem, they were told good news for “all people”—that not only a savior but also a Lord, the Christ, had been born. Later when the gentile Magi arrived in Jerusalem they did not ask, “Where is he who has been born to be our personal savior?”, but rather, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
The kingdom Jesus initiated is not, of course, “political” in any conventional sense of national or imperial ambition—a fact that many have found hard to accept. Jesus fulfilled messianic prophecy but in surprising and paradigm-shattering ways. He was born in a family of humble status. His adoptive father Joseph was a builder/carpenter, not one of the religious or political elite. He taught followers to love outcasts and enemies, and to transcend ethnicity. He organized no insurgency, but rather preached and healed.
His kingdom is not of this world. Yet it is never strictly apolitical, for Christ’s lordship extends to all spheres of life. What Herod understood and feared when he ordered all the baby boys in and around Bethlehem murdered was the inherent political relevance and power of faith. This Advent, let us remember to pray for and stand in solidarity with the persecuted, and reflect on whether we are prepared to submit to Christ’s kingdom even when it is dangerous to do so.
—Dennis R. Hoover, Editor
The Review of Faith & International Affairs
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”