Caesar has never wanted us to know anything but the grinding juggernaut of inevitability, of just the way things are. Caesar has never wanted us to know that there is an alternative to Caesar, another way, another kind of power and a different kind of future. Caesar has only ever offered the extension of current arrangements to create a known, predictable, imposed future. “Resistance is futile.”
Mostly we accommodate ourselves to this, deliberately or by default. We argue realpolitik and “It could be worse.” Some choose to make a deal, to become agents of Caesar, entrenching his power ever more deeply in the fabric of communities and the lives of households and persons, shoring up its claim to permanence and inevitability. Some retreat – to private and ahistorical spiritualities, to addictions, to one or more of the “isms” that embody our penchant for idolatry. Some are destroyed by the greed and violence of Caesar, Pharoah, Nebuchadnezzar. Some rise up violently to overthrow (and then, often, to become) the tyrants.
And some allow themselves to hope, to join their longing – for justice, for freedom, for peace – to the promise, made by the God of Israel and embodied in Jesus of Nazareth, that there is another “kingdom”, another kind of sovereign power, and another human way. These people look for outcroppings of that deeper power and truth, for something – anything! – to break through the flattened landscape of “same shit, different day” – all winks and knowing – that corrodes our humanity.
The day I was ordained a deacon, Christopher Lind gave me my first Walter Brueggemann book, The Prophetic Imagination, and I’ve been as loyal a reader of Brueggeman as I was long ago of the Hardy Boys, so the language of “claim” and “counter-claim” has been familiar for over thirty years. Add William Cavanagh’s “imagination is the drama in which bodies are invested”, and the biblical witness comes into focus as the Spirit’s offer of an alternative imagination, a counter-drama inviting the investment of our bodies, our lives. If stewardship means anything real, it speaks to this investment in God’s promise of another way, in the sovereign claim of the just and loving God, in the kingdom Jesus couldn’t stop talking about.
So it wasn’t all that surprising to discover that there is more than one “Prince of Peace” in the Christmas story. There’s the one we’re familiar with – the one promised by God in the vision of the prophet, whose words we will hear again on Christmas Eve – Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. But there, in Luke, is another contender for the title, Caesar Augustus, who has received the title “Prince of Peace” from the Roman Senate. As we sing “Away in a Manger”, baby and emperor collide, and the sky thunders with the praise of angels. The emperor hopes that we won’t notice, that we will keep this little story “private” and “spiritual”, that we won’t awaken to what’s really going on.
But it’s all there, in the story – it’s time to choose our prince. Will our peace be won and guarded by sword, spear, chariot and crucifixion – the peace of Caesar? Or will it be won and guarded by the redeeming power of costly love?
The collision, and the choice it uncovers in our midst, will reverberate through the whole story of Jesus. Again and again Jesus sharpens the focus of contested power, again and again he softens the hard surface of inevitability, reaches into the deep well of history, of possibility, of hope, and draws up an outcropping of the kingdom of God – food, healing, reconciliation, beauty, truth – that redefines the landscape of history and maps a different journey across it.
The deep well is still there, and the surface of inevitability has softened under other hands as well. Sometimes they are the hands of the famous – Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Sojourner Truth. But there are many others, known locally or hardly at all, who have drawn up from the deep well of history outcroppings of that other way that Jesus and his church call “the kingdom of God.” We have all been there when it happened, though we don’t always notice.
So part of our work is to pay attention to the hands of others, to watch for those times when love and patience, courage and imagination animate the hands of someone near us, and they reach past the shell of inevitability into the well of possibility, drawing out some beauty, truth, reconciliation, healing, food – a sign of God’s promised future, a map for the faithful journey.
And part of our work is to believe that our hands are hands like those, that we could choose that prince, and draw up signs of God’s promised future into the sometimes dismal landscape across which God accompanies us.