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What Went Wrong?

Posted on: December 11, 2016

Category: Theology

What Went Wrong?

A significant 20th Century subject in Philosophy is called "phenomenology." Both the word and the subject are hard to define, but fortunately examples are easy. When we get used to seeing something everyday, we stop noticing it. When we are accustomed to our mother or father or relative or partner always saying something, we stop listening. When we go through routines every morning, we stop thinking about them. All of these are examples of phenomenology. The subject describes how we experience reality, and it notes that much of our experience is so habitual that ironically we stop experiencing experience.

Every year at this time we read Christmas stories from the Christian gospels. We get so used to hearing the stories that we stop hearing them. We stop noticing interesting things, stop recognizing some radical things, and stop being challenged by the stories. We reduce Christmas to love, because that is how we have grown accustomed to it. We stop asking what was novel about these gospel stories and what was radical. What in the stories are unexpected and what calls for the shaking of the foundations.

I use the plural "stories" because that is the first thing people can forget: there is not one story. Even to concentrate strictly on the Christian gospels is to deal with two distinct stories. Matthew and Luke are the only two of the four gospels that have "birth of Jesus" stories. The two stories are not compatible, but nevertheless tradition has suffered the effects of phenomenology by putting the two stories together and not noticing either one in particular.

One of the amazing things about the gospel of Matthew is that it advocates ignoring a ruling sovereign. King Herod, who is not in Luke but only in Matthew (Luke's Herod is a different one), is both curious and afraid when sages from the East announce to him that they are looking for his replacement. The Wise Ones seek the new "king"; they seek a king to come, and it is neither Herod nor Herod's progeny. Matthew makes the bold move of announcing that a sovereign who presumes to hold power should be ignored if the power does not line up with the gospel. This might sound like a conservative thing to say, but keep in mind that the "gospel" for Matthew involves justice for the poor, mercy for those in prison, and blessings for those who make peace. If we think that all these are nice things to say, we are missing the radical point. The gospel is about the elimination of poverty, the reformation of the prison system, and the risk of making peace with our enemies. These are all the things Herod did not do, and by extension all the things the Roman authorities of Matthew's day did not do. These are also all the things most governments do not do, especially those governments of the wealthiest nations. Matthew says, ignore these governments because they are not real. Seek in place a real kind of government that is to come and that threatens the government now. The "gospel" for Matthew starts with the birth of a promise to come, and it is not an abstract idea. It is clearly one that threatens exactly what is going on now.

As far as I can tell, the countries in the West that are statistically the most secular come closer to what Matthew thinks the gospel means. Such countries have excellent social programs, universal health care, restorative justice systems, lower rates of recidivism, higher levels of and more broadly available education, lower crime rates, and happier citizens living with less stress and longer lives. As Matthew sees it, these should be the signs of a nation that hears the gospel.

The Christmas story in Matthew has very little to do with Christmas as we know it. We focus on the birth of Jesus, but to Matthew the point is the "king" to come and the signs of that promise. Those who hear Matthew know that the writer is not talking about belief. The writer is talking about risk. Will the hearer of this story risk seeking the elimination of poverty? Will the hearer risk transforming a prison system from punitive to restorative justice? Will the hearer value and risk peacemaking in place of saber rattling? And, will the hearer recognize these signs as true government, as the government to come? That's what Matthew is talking about, but unfortunately phenomenology often assures that is what we rarely hear.


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