Life among the pagodas
The Christmas story is not really a very nice story. We have made it that way through years of re-telling, whimsical stories and songs, and whitewashed nativity scenes. But the nativity story is really dominated by themes of power, patriarchy, vulnerable people, injustice, genocide and poverty. If you were reading the Christmas story for the first time, the stage that is set is not one upon which you would expect to find God.
Before I moved overseas, my love for Christmas was love for the folksy story many westerners know and celebrate; my understanding of Christmas was incomplete. I knew all the prophetic verses from Isaiah 9 and the Magnificat, but I didn’t realize how badly the world still aches to hear these words. Before, these words were only poetic lines to me. Now, they make my heart ache.
“He has scattered the proud”
“He has brought down the mighty”
“He has sent the rich away empty”
“[God has] broken the rod of the oppressor”
“Every warrior’s boot and every garment rolled in blood will be fuel for the fire”
“[God] has remembered”
I think my understanding of Christmas is still incomplete. But my experience of life here in Myanmar has gradually changed and deepened the way I see the message of Christ. Before I moved here, racism and injustice were issues I cared about, but not issues to which I had a front row seat.
But now—now I live my life with and around people who have suffered; my friends are people who suffer and have experienced significant loss. There are so many ways I cannot identify with them, because I have not suffered as they have; and even if I had, my race and status put me in a completely different category, a category that makes it next to impossible to have solidarity. My life is nowhere near as challenging as that of my Myanmar friends and neighbors.
The story of Jesus’ entrance into this world is comforting to me because it is uncomfortable. Uncomfortable is a message that makes sense, it is something my neighbors can understand. The incarnation of Jesus is a story that is understandable to anyone who has been displaced or subject to poverty and evil powers. In my neighborhood, we live in the shadow of the nation’s military, and in the greater shadow of the wake of western colonialism. Giant razor wire topped walls divide neighborhoods all over my township; military people dwelling on one side, and the average Myanmar folk on the other. I am constantly reminded of what military and economic power does to people and communities. Evil powers have never been more understandable to me.
Christ coming into our world as he did—not as a character in a whitewashed nativity set, by the way, but in a skin color still despised around parts of the world—is the ultimate expression of God’s solidarity with and love for the human race; anything less would be sympathy, but not salvation. The story of the incarnation will proceed to contain blood and suffering; it is not a comfortable story, and it must be that way, or it would not be good news.
The Christmas story should make the rich and powerful squirm in their chairs. (That is—people who can read this blog post.) It makes me squirm. Were it not for God’s grace in placing me here to teach me more about himself, I could still be reciting the story to those who look and believe like me; I’d give little thought for those who suffer, to those who oppress, to those who haven’t heard of Christ.
Most of my neighbors are seeking, by means of their religious system, to escape suffering by earning their way out of it. (Though in actuality, many of them are just trying to make it from one day/week to the next, hoping they can focus on escaping suffering in their next life.) From his entrance into this world, Jesus did not shrink back from grief and suffering; the gospel is a bloody story, and its message is that ultimate freedom from suffering comes to us as a gift; it cannot be earned. For the impoverished around me, who have been told they can only get themselves out of hell by their meager bootstraps, this is amazing news.
You and I are in a position to oppress and to cause suffering; wealth and power tend to flow from and result in oppression. Let us be sure that our love of the incarnation and nativity is not love of a folksy story, but a desire to see the God of salvation do his work on earth, ending wars and oppression, bringing light and freedom to the places darkened by sin. Christmas ought to make our hearts ache; it is the light of hope for the world yet to come. If it doesn’t make your heart ache, could it be because you are too comfortable, unconcerned for your neighbor, not longing for God’s kingdom to come into the lives of others?
If the coming of Jesus means that oppression shall cease, does this mean that the oppressed are the only ones who will experience freedom as the mighty fall? Is there grace for the oppressor too? Jesus, the rightful king, the rightful ruler took the fall for all who oppress, be they great or small. He experienced oppression so that those who suffer under it and those who cause it might be made children of God. I need this gracious news all the time, as I continually mourn and lament the destruction my powerful country has wrought upon places like Myanmar, and the ways I benefit from that power.
For the people I live among, the message of the incarnation is good news for those on both sides of the military walls dividing my neighborhood.
Christmas, Christ’s incarnation and all that it means, is good news for my neighbors, it is good news for me. It is good news for everyone, oppressed and oppressor.
“He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.”