Power, Justice, and Peace
Last Christmas, the minds of people across the world were still focused on the Covid-19 pandemic. Today, the major global concern is the invasion of Ukraine by the superpower, Russia, with its devastating consequences and suffering for the people of Ukraine, and for the global community resulting from the disruption of the supply chain, the high cost of fuel, and the threat of starvation for people unable to secure cereals and grains produced by Ukraine.
The Christmas story as told by St. Luke in chapter 2:1-14 is placed in a setting in which Emperor Augustus, who represents the power of the imperialist and colonizing state, issues a decree to the Jewish people whose land the Romans occupy. It is a power that is real and has its impact on the life of people, to the extent that it leads to displacement of those who are powerless and who can only respond in obedience to the directive issued.
We only have to look at today’s international scene to see how imperial power operates as one nation can declare that its laws have international authority and application. This has serious economic and social consequences, especially for small nations who dare to challenge such power. However, power can also be exercised in covert ways that are just as brutal and controlling.
At a national level, power is concentrated in the hands of a few who determine what happens in the life of the many. Indeed, there is a perspective on governance in its global expressions which suggests that elected political leaders have hijacked the process of democracy and have concentrated more and more power in their hands. At the community and interpersonal levels, power is exercised through the prevailing social and economic inequalities. Consider also the display of power in the various expressions of abuse which are increasingly coming to public attention – gender, domestic, children, elderly, etc. In today’s Jamaica, criminals and gangs are now wielding power which not only threatens the functioning of national institutions, but also intimidates communities and individuals into a state of silence through the power of the gun.
There is however, another world, as portrayed by St. Luke, which is occupied by the powerless, marginalized and vulnerable whom God declared as the recipients and bearers of a message that has implications for the liberation and salvation of all nations and peoples.
The first set of players in this narrative are Joseph and Mary, a simple peasant couple who are expecting a child. In the midst of what should be a joyful experience, they are displaced, humiliated and scandalized by the indignity of their child born among farm animals and being placed in a manger, the feeding trough for the animals. Just ponder the conscious and unconscious message which this whole experience conveyed to this couple. Consider also the ways in which our society functions today in ways that similarly negate the dignity and worth of its most vulnerable, marginalized and powerless citizens.
The scene shifts to another set of people, shepherds, who are not just powerless and the victims of a colonizing power but, who by virtue of their livelihood, were subject to discrimination among their own people and members of the same community of faith, as they were not able to observe the various religious rituals which characterized devout Jews in their time. It is to them that the divine message came by way of an angel, demonstrating that their humanity is not defined by the aspersions and labels placed upon them by the state and their religious community, but is bestowed by God who acts in liberating and transforming ways.
The divine presence in the form of an angel was overwhelming for the shepherds. Let me suggest further that for people who were without status and who may have internalized such a self-image, a direct encounter with a messenger from God was not perceived as something of which they were worthy. Yet, they were affirmed by the angel who brought a message that was contrary to their experience of life at the hands of the state and the community of faith:
- Do not be afraid
- I am bringing you good news – what could good news mean for someone in their situation? What could it mean for you in yours?
- Answer: To you is born this day a Saviour, the Messiah, the Lord. This is news which declared that the hope and longing in their situation would be fulfilled, not in Emperor Augustus’ power and decrees but, in the divine provision. The good news which they were privileged to hear was for “all people”. It was a message that was inclusive and all-embracing.
- In contrast to the images and symbols of the state, the instrument of their liberation was to be a baby. At the centre of the Christmas story stands the Incarnation which is a paradigm of power in humility, and which gives a new definition to power.
The clear message is that power and force are not the routes to peace in our world, notwithstanding those displays in the international arena by those who believe that military and economic might are the gateway to global peace. Neither will the reliance on police and military power and force bring peace to our troubled nation. Indeed, this focus on peace in the divine message delivered by the angel also points to God’s concern for the vulnerable and hopeless who are the victims of military might and power – primarily women, children, the elderly, those with disabilities, and the poor.
If the world is to be changed, the promise of the Prince of Peace must be fulfilled by a whole new set of values that stand in opposition to those of the world, and which begins with a change in the hearts and lives of human beings in their relationship with each other and with God. We must see in this message of the Incarnation the imperative to affirm and announce the good news to the vulnerable and marginalized in our world, not just feed them a meal at Christmas or offer other patronizing gestures.
And if we as Christians are to truly grasp the significance of Christmas we must allow ourselves the opportunity to experience the peace of which the angel spoke even in the midst of the turmoil, despair and hopelessness which seem to surround us and our world at this time.
Is there a path to peace for us in Jamaica as we deal with our situation? Many persons are calling for overwhelming power and force which they expect will bring about submission and or the elimination of the socially disruptive elements which we are facing.
But the angelic song of peace signified the dawning of a new age in which there is the acknowledgement and affirmation of those who are treated as mere subjects and statistics and whose role is perceived to be that of obedience and compliance. In this dispensation there is mercy, justice, freedom, and the end of war and oppression. As a nation we may do well to see how this experience and understanding of peace may hold the key to ending the killing in our land.
May you, your loved ones, and the people of our nation celebrate Christmas this year in a context in which peace reigns within our hearts, our life and the life of the community.
Howard K.A. Gregory
Archbishop of the West Indies, Primate and Metropolitan &
Bishop of Jamaica & The Cayman Islands