“By Another Way…”
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
January 6, 2008
Scripture: Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-23
“And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.” — Matthew 2:12
Last night was Twelfth Night, the end of the Christmas season and time to put away the crèche, the tree and the cards for another year. Today is Epiphany Sunday, and we celebrate the visit of the Three Kings from the East. Christmas observes the birth of Jesus and it figures are Mary, Joseph and the shepherds; Epiphany observes the disclosure of Jesus to the world and its figures are the Three Kings. Let us first look at some historical background to our story and then let us reflect together on the symbolic meaning of Herod and the “other way,” that is, the politician and the possibility of change.
Here is Jesus, a socially obscure infant sheltered by his middle-class parents in a stable, not because they were too poor to pay for decent lodging but because the inn was full and Mary’s time had come. It was an emergency shelter. Here come three eastern potentates, prominent enough for Herod the king to receive them. It stood to reason that they should go to the palace first because their research indicated the birth not of a bourgeois baby but of a king of unparalleled dignity. Their research was probably astronomy and its bogus offspring astrology, because for this the Chaldeans were famous. Today our culture cannot take seriously the idea that significant historical events should be accompanied by parallel natural events, but it was a common idea in the ancient world and in Europe to the time of the Renaissance. Recall how Shakespeare takes it for granted, say in the wild storm on the night when Macbeth murders Malcolm the king, or Cassius’ attempt to refute the notion of astrological fate in Julius Caesar, even as monstrous portents abound, owls hoot, and deformed births crawl from the shrieking of sorry wombs. We can no longer countenance the empathy between nature and human intention, nevertheless, there are ancient Chinese astronomical records attesting a comet at about that time, and it is always possible that on one, unique occasion a miracle of disclosure might have occurred. But the historical truth of our story does not depend on the literal truth of our astronomy; it is palpably accurate. Politicians are for the most part murdering scoundrels and it is best to avoid them and to find some other way home. They “make a desert and they call it peace (Tacitus).”
For those of you who think the church should be supporting the state and its so-called patriotism I give you this story from the Gospel. You recall what happened next, after Herod discovered that the kings had given him the slip and found some other way. Having already ascertained from them that Bethlehem was their destination, he murdered all the baby boys in the town and surrounding district who were two years old or younger (Matt. 2:16). If you think that this is an exaggeration you have not been reading the newspapers or watching TV; such a discriminating massacre is far too civilized for today’s politicians; they would torture, bomb, gas, and incinerate the whole village and spread herbicide on the vegetation and uproot the trees. When I was at Woodside Church I had an ongoing disagreement with especially one member who insisted on flying the flag of the United States from the church. I took it down conscientiously and argued that the church cannot advertise this kind of theology because the church as much opposes the state, as it supports. If the church does not resist the murderous and essentially untrammeled power of the state, who will? One of my favorite snippets in the whole Bible is in John 2:23-25: “…many believed in his name when they saw the signs which he did; but Jesus did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all folk and needed no one to tell him about human nature; for he himself knew what people are like.” He knew, he knew, and so did Joseph and so did Mary, so they wrapped him up, loaded that same little burro that had brought them to Bethlehem and fled for Egypt. They became political refugees.
Take this as a parable of our own country today; Egypt once was the place of bondage from which God delivered the Jews, into the freedom of Canaan, into their own state where they could live freely as Jews. Now that place of freedom and decency has become a place from which the king of the Jews must flee. The world is turned upside down; the erstwhile place of enslavement has become a place of refuge, and the erstwhile place of refuge has become the place of political oppression and the state-ordered murder of children.
I am reading J M Coetzee’s latest novel Diary of a Bad Year (New York: Viking/Penguin, 2007). The year in question is 2005, the main protagonist is an aging writer who lives in Adelaide, South Australia, and who has been asked by a German publisher, along with five other well-known authors, to record his opinions on important things. The novel unfolds on three levels, that is, there are three separate horizontal columns on the page, and in one his secretary, after whom he lusts pathetically, comes to word as the voice of the young and fashionable generation and complains about the heaviness of his judgments. Senor C’s opinion in a chapter called “National Shame” is that the USA has sunk into dishonor because, once the bulwark against the widespread practice of torture, it has now become a sponsor and an agent of torture. We are all dishonored now; “Dishonor is no respecter of fine distinctions. Dishonor descends upon ones shoulders, and once it has descended no amount of clever pleading will dispel it.” There is no time now to quote more, but let me end with this passage: Coetzee, now shedding his disguise as Senor C and emerging as Mnr Coetzee writes: “The generations of white South Africans to which I belong (and I too), and the next generation after that too, will go bowed under the shame of the crimes that were committed in their name…A few days ago I heard a performance of the Sibelius fifth symphony. As the closing bars approached, I experienced exactly the large, swelling emotion that the music was written to elicit. What would it have been like, I wondered, to be a Finn in the audience at the first performance of the symphony in Helsinki nearly a century ago, and felt that swell overtake one? The answer: one would have felt proud, proud that one of us could put together such sounds, proud that out of nothing we human beings can make such stuff. Contrast that with one’s feelings of shame that we, our people, have made at Guantanamo. Musical creation on the one hand, a machine for inflicting pain and humiliation on the other: the best and the worst that human beings are capable of. (P 45).”
My feelings too: wouldn’t it be wonderful to be proud again of our country and our culture and our human race, rather than constantly defensive and outrageous like that depraved intellect Rush Limbaugh, and ashamed of our president and even more the vice president whom now we seem to be keeping under wraps. Why do you think all the candidates are calling for change, and the Republicans never mention Bush and Cheney? To call for change is a strategy to deal with dishonor and shame, a way of looking away from and looking past the cruelty and mendacity that make decent people blush. One does not talk about shame in polite company, especially when it hangs like heavy Spanish moss on every branch of the family tree.
I feel this sick shame and deep sorrow because the United States of America, once the brave deliverer and protector of human beings from pain and humiliation, has become he world’s great torturer and violator of dignity, of the individual, of his privacy, and his right to be free from violation by the state. This once enlightened place has become dark, and Mary, Joseph and Jesus must flee for their lives.
We celebrate Jesus Christ as the light of the world, but in that light these days we see the instruments and excuses of our shame. Can we change as all the shamefaced politicians are calling us to? Can we rise from dishonor to the platform where we shall again be proud as we were when we stopped the Nazis and the Communists, and all the world of decent people said, “Thank God for the United States of America, thank God there is one place on this ignominious earth where an man and a woman can find dignity and a good life!” We might be able to change, if the politicians change, for they are the most shameful of us all, but of course they cannot commit such shame without our enabling. Therefore, there will be change for the better only when we are willing to allow Jesus to change us all, and every day, for we are all politicians at heart, all hungry for the power that corrupts. (Coetzee tells us that in Australia, the normal, even polite, word for a politician is “Bastard.”)
If we are to make it home to our once noble hearth we must find another way. A black President could be a great leap forward along that way, could be a grand slam for America, a home run that will put us back again in the contest for human decency. “Only in America!?” what do you think? I don’t know.