From a Charlotte Observer editorial published Dec. 25, 1990:
When the baby Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the old story goes, he was born into danger. The three wise men from the east had come to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.”
When King Herod heard this, he was troubled. Herod, an early historian wrote, was “the most cruel tyrant that ever ascended to a throne.” When Herod heard of this “King of the Jews,” this potential rival, he summoned the priests and scribes and demanded that they tell him where the baby would be born. “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they replied, “for thus it is written by the prophet.” So the canny Herod told the wise men, “Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him.”
The three wise men followed the star until it stood over the place where the baby lay. When they saw the infant with his mother, Mary, they fell to their knees and worshiped him, and gave him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. But they did not take word back to the king. God had warned them in a dream not to follow Herod’s command, so they returned to their own country another way.
Then, the story goes, an angel appeared to Mary’s husband, Joseph, and said, “Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt.” Joseph heeded the warning. Herod’s plan was foiled. He was angry. He sent men to kill all the children aged 2 years and younger that could be found in and around Bethlehem. But the baby Jesus was safe.
On this Christmas day, even as the Cold War ends and the threat of nuclear horror recedes, the rumble of war machines almost drowns out the pealing of the bells. A military force that will soon exceed 400,000 Americans is amassing in the region of Jesus’ birth, awaiting word from President Bush on when to go to war.
War and rumors of war. It has always been so. Jesus lived and died in a world of senseless slaughter. The news of his birth brought a massacre of innocent children. He was executed by civil authorities on a false charge soon after his 30th birthday. The message he brought to the children of God was to work to change this warring world, to be radical seekers of peace. Love your enemy. Bless those who curse you. When you are slapped on one cheek, turn the other. Do good to those who hate you. Remember, the peacemakers shall be called the children of God.
Today America, draped in the trappings of Christianity, commemorates the birth of Jesus. Americans praise Him, honor Him. Our leaders invoke His name. But few Americans follow Him to the extent of practicing the most radical of His teachings. Turn the other cheek? Bless those who curse you? Be realistic. That may be good theology, but it’s bad politics. No nation could survive that way. Bullies respect power. The way to keep the peace is to be ready to fight.
So this Christmas season, while choirs sing of peace on Earth, our president talks of kicking ass. America prepares for war, praising Jesus but practicing realism.
Jesus’ ministry lasted only three years. His followers were mostly humble, unlearned folk of the region of his birth. Many of his apostles, his message-bearers, died horrible deaths – Paul beheaded, Barnabas flayed alive, Peter and James crucified.
Yet within 15 years after the crucifixion there was a noticeable Christian presence in Rome. Within 300 years Rome would be ruled by a Christian emperor. Within 2,000 years Christianity would be the most powerful religious force on Earth. It would seem to require a miracle to, as an ancient prophet said, “guide our feet into the way of peace.” But if you believe the old story, you know today is, after all, the celebration of a miracle.
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