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.
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.
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.