Jesus was born in captivity.
How odd that must sound. At the mention of Jesus’ birth many of us think of mangers and shepherds and angels and the little town of Bethlehem.
Sure, Mary went into labor on the road far from home. Baby Jesus came into the world in a stranger’s outbuilding. Still, mother and child weren’t in an “Orange is the New Black” kind of lockup.
Nevertheless, Jesus was born in captivity. Just like all the other Israelites of his day. In their own homes, at their places of work, in their schools and synagogues, in the Temple itself, the people of Israel were captives.
The Romans occupied Israel. They needed no bars to hold the Israelites. The Romans controlled their bodies with the constant threat of violence, imprisonment, and death. The ruling powers controlled ordinary life, from rising to sleeping, with terror.
Jesus was born into captivity to set the captive free.
As a devout Jew, Jesus celebrated the Passover with his family every year. And the circumstances of his birth and his daily life infused both the liturgy and the story with a significance that some of us living in the United States might easily miss.
The religious ritual and the biblical narrative of the Passover might seem to some people a mere remembrance of an event in the distant past.
But to captives keenly aware of the threats to their own lives and the lives of their loved ones, the Passover becomes something far more. The Passover becomes a visceral cry for God’s liberating action and a resolute commitment to participate in that divine work.
Jesus echoes Moses. He demands of Pharaoh and of Caesar and of every power that binds, oppresses, and diminishes human beings, “Let my people go!” Jesus comes to bring radical liberation.
He recognizes that freedom cannot be achieved merely by an exodus, by a geographical relocation.
Neither will we be free when we displace one set of rulers with another without changing the very essence of what it means to rule.
To put this another way, replacing one emperor with another accomplishes nothing. Trading one flavor of Empire for another liberates no one.
Jesus was born into captivity to abolish captivity itself. Jesus came to displace every form of Empire with the Kingdom of God. In his brief life he began that work. He continues it through frail sometimes timid human hands. And our hands have much work left to do.
For instance, Ta-Nehisi Coates bracingly writes, “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body.” (Between the World and Me, p. 103)
Coates writes to his own son about the different kinds of violence threatening black lives from every angle. As a parent, he writes with the desperate hope of keeping his son alive by making him aware of his captivity.
This week’s news cycle highlighted another form of captivity with its coverage of the impending end of the Dream Act or DACA.
As you probably know, Dreamers arrived here as children in the company of an adult without proper immigration documents.
The act proposed a path to permanent residency for those who finished high school or the equivalent, who registered for selective service, and who exhibited good moral character.
Congress couldn’t pass the act into law, so President Obama issued an executive order giving temporary benefits to Dreamers. President Trump will allow these benefits to expire if congress does not act.
The Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies issued a statement of support for the Dreamers and urged congress to work toward bringing forth a bill. I shared their statement on social media.
I was puzzled by a couple of responses on social media and by a few emails. Some wrote in defense of President Trump. Others criticized President Obama.
Honestly, I wasn’t thinking about either of those men. I was thinking about 800,000 productive, honest, hard-working young people who are now looking over their shoulder, worried by every knock at the door, and wondering where they will be living six months from now.
You see, their predicament looks like captivity to me. And Jesus tells me that captivity is bad news.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that the Dreamers’ plight presses a personal button for me. I am the child and the grandchild of Holocaust survivors. I grew up with stories about captivity, captivity even before incarceration. Captivity maintained through fear of the government.
My grandmother Marie and my mother Trudy never told me about their arrest. I have imagined that the Nazis came at night. Gestapo agents rapped two or three times on the door.
With the stern, confident voice of someone accustomed to unquestioning obedience, an officer ordered those inside to let them in.
My grandmother opened the door. She was alone with her teenaged daughter. My mother. Her husband—my grandfather—was with his tank battalion on the Eastern Front.
Like all their neighbors, my grandmother and mother lived in habitual dread of a knock at the door. When that knock actually came, dread exploded into terror.
Everybody knew about Gestapo visits and what they meant. Resistance was futile. Courage came as the will to survive.
The Nazis interred my mother in Mauthausen, a concentration camp around 15 miles from their home in Linz, Austria. My grandmother was rented out by the camp authorities as slave labor assembling tanks.
So, I admit that, given my family’s experience, I take anybody’s captivity personally. An unexpected gift of this solidarity is an often unsettling awareness of how my own privilege, wealth, and status limit and diminish me. It reveals the depths of my own captivity.
Jesus believed that the captivity of any of God’s children means the captivity of us all. He took our captivity personally. His commitment to our liberation took him to the cross. Following Jesus involves taking up his commitment as our very own.
Paradoxically, that commitment is also the way of eternal life.
Until we accept the Word of Jesus in our hearts, we are all captives. We have to claim Jesus’ words and teaching and act on them. Then we will see a difference in this world. Then we will approach the type of freedom that Jesus wants for all of us.
Amen to that
I love the part “Jesus echoes Moses. He demands of Pharaoh and of Caesar and of every power that binds, oppresses and diminishes human beings…Jesus comes to bring radical liberation.
If we could all understand this freedom He offers and even unto salvation.
Praise be to God!
bless you, Jake Owensby. Who would not understand what you are telling us?
Thank you for your thought-provoking, and moving post. Challenging words indeed!
Thanks for reading along with me!
I am definitely for letting these children and young adults become legal citizens through a special pathway. Congress needs to come up with that way. Immigration is a path to citizenship but they didn’t have a choice when they were brought here whether they were coming legally or illegally. If we reach back into our ancestry, there is not one of us here, other than Native American Indians, that does not descend from immigrants. This land was not ours when we got here. Whether we agree or disagree morally, we are a democratic society. We have elected officials in the House and Senate that have a 15% approval rating. We have a President that either one hates or loves depending on their position on certain issues. Most of us have a phone to call or can email our representatives. Perhaps your post will be a catalyst to urge people to voice their opinion to them. Either way, we can always pray for the outcome we believe is the right one. As usual I look forward to your blogs.
Thank you, Phyllis, for sharing your thoughts so clearly. And I do hope that my post will encourage others to speak their minds. As always, it’s good to hear from you!
Thank you for this great message Father Jake. You have been an inspirational part of my life and my walk with Christ for many years and I still tell my wife about your Sunday School class and how I never wanted it to end as I was always wanting to learn more from you.
What kind words! Thank you! I’m glad we’re still traveling along together through my blog.
Reblogged this on Pastor Michael Moore's Blog and commented:
Another powerful reflection, Jake!
Another fabulous message Jake! Thank you so much for sharing your family’s story. So interesting and so sad .
Here in Australia , I work not only as an illustrator but also part of my work as an Occupational Therapist with young deaf children .I have a growing number of children whose families have escaped from war torn African countries – one child was born and raised for 5 years in one of the dreadful refugee camps in Kenya . I have to say , children like her , absolutely win my heart . The beautiful wonderful news is though , that her family have never been captives , as they have Jesus ! Her father radiates with the Holy Spirit . It’s a beautiful thing .
Sadly , many children in Australia, who have in contrast lived in much more comfortable circumstances , do not know Jesus . God is almost a taboo subject here – let alone Jesus .
I’ve been praying for a way therefore , to gently share Gods love to the children around my area , using art , and have come up with the idea of starting a YouTube Kids Art channel – Kids Art School . With YouTube I can reach a huge audience , and the lessons would be free !
At the end of every short lesson I say “remember that you are unique , you are special , God loves you ” . That’s it. It’s simple . Not too full on , but to the point .
I’ve started an online Prayer Partners Facebook group to pray for the children watching this . I’m very excited !
I’d love it , if you didn’t mind , sharing the channel to children you know in the US Jake ? Im praying that it will spread outside Australia and across the globe !
This is the link
The video is “Kids Art School – How to draw a Pug ”
I also have a Facebook group people can join as well called simply “Kids Art School ”
I understand if you have enough on your plate , but if you feel led to spread the word , I’d be thrilled.
Thanks yet again . Your blog never fails to give me food for thought .