Christmas Reflection: Mike Pence’s small god vs. Jesus’ Big God

Last Sunday, I offered an Advent reflection on the long history of what Chilean scripture scholar, Pablo Richard, has called “the battle of the gods” that is mirrored in the biblical texts themselves. It’s a battle of the God of the Rich (like David and Solomon) against the God of the poor (like Yeshua himself).

Or as OpEdNews (OEN) editor-in-chief, Rob Kall reminded me: it’s a struggle between what I had previously called the small, exclusive, national god of empire versus the big all-embracing God of prophets both ancient and contemporary – like Gandhi, King, Badshah Kahn, and Dorothy Day. That Big God cares especially for the poor who happen to constitute the vast majority of people in the world. That deity’s spokespersons have harsh words for the rich.

Mike Pence’s small god

Apropos of all that, just three days before Christmas, Vice President Mike Pence, a self-proclaimed and especially fervent follower of Jesus, gave a revealing speech at a Turning Point USA event in West Palm Beach Florida. (Turning Point is a Republican group claiming a membership of more than 250,000 conservative students across 2000 U.S. campuses.) There, in terms lauding the Trump administration, Pence defended the small god of the rich – a national god who stands on the side of the wealthy. More than once, his audience enthusiastically responded “USA, USA, USA” as if our country’s borders constituted the full swath of divine concern.

In the course of his speech, Mr. Pence complained that his party’s opponents “. . . want to make rich people poor, and poor people more comfortable.”

He also alleged that “It was freedom not socialism, that gave us the most prosperous economy in the history of the world. It was freedom not socialism that ended slavery, won two World Wars and stands today as a beacon of hope for all the world.”

Connecting his words specifically with Christmas, the vice-president urged his young audience to “take a moment to be still, and if you’re inclined, this is what we do at my house come Christmas morning, take a moment to reflect on the grace that came to mankind, wrapped in clothes (sic) and lying in a manger so many years ago.”

Though Mr. Pence’s words correctly invite us to reflect on what came to us in that manger so many years ago, they expressly contradict the God revealed in the original Christmas event – especially in relation to socialism and treatment of the poor.

Yeshua’s Big God

The contradiction becomes clear from consideration of the fundamental Christian belief celebrated across the world during the Christmas winter festival. It’s the belief that God elected to disclose divine reality precisely in conditions of extreme poverty. The revelation came in the child of poor parents who had been forced into a long dangerous journey for purposes of taxation by a hated imperial government in the dead of winter. Of course, we’re talking about the Jewish family from hovel-filled Nazareth, Yosef, Miryam, and their firstborn, Yeshua.

(Note that according to the belief in question, everything the God does is revelatory. So, it is significant in itself that the divine revelation did not take place in a palace, a temple, nor among wealthy aristocrats. Instead, it took place in a smelly, vermin infested barn where the child’s parents – too poor to pay for a hotel and refused lodging by locals – were compelled to give birth in dangerous extremely unsanitary conditions.)

Moreover, according to the story, the child in question:

  • Lived his entire life in poverty.
  • Barely escaped infanticide by the state and consequently lived for years as an immigrant asylum seeker in Egypt (Matthew 2: 13-15).
  • As an adult, continued to be houseless (Luke 9:58, Matthew 8:20).
  • Even lacked money to pay taxes (Matthew 17: 24-27).
  • Ended up poorer still than when he began: on death row, stripped naked, a victim of torture and capital punishment by his era’ worldwide imperial state that evidently thought of him as a terrorist (as shown by his crucifixion – a method of execution reserved for insurgents).

Even more to the point and according to his own description, the entire point of Yeshua’s life’s work was to alleviate poverty. Quoting his people’s revered prophet Isaiah, here’s the way he described his very program in Luke 4: 16-22: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Please note that those words identify God’s Self – God’s very Spirit – as essentially concerned with the poor, with those blind to poverty’s existence, with prisoners and the oppressed. As Michael Hudson has pointed out in his magisterial . . . And Forgive Them Their Debts, Yeshua’s “good news” (his gospel) was about cancelling the loans of the heavily indebted peasants in the Master’s audience. As he said specifically, it was essentially about wealth redistribution (Luke 18: 22, 23, 28-30). No wonder he was so popular with those living on the edge.

Subsequently and besides:

  • Yeshua spent his life setting up free field health clinics, feeding the hungry gratis whether from his own people (Mark 6: 30-44) or not (Mark 8: 1-21), while rehabilitating the citizenship of the socially despised and marginalized.
  • After his death, his followers demonstrated their understanding of his teaching by adopting a style of living that embodied a form of Christian socialism, not to say communism. Again, it centered on wealth redistribution. As Luke describes it in his Acts of the Apostles: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they shared with anyone who was in need” (Acts 2:44).
  • The Christian Testament’s only description of the final judgment completely bases it on sharing resources with the houseless, hungry and naked, as well as with those the state has imprisoned, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
  • Those who neglected such people suffer ipso facto exclusion from eternal joy, because “. . . whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25: 45).
  • During his life, Yeshua had extremely harsh words for the rich for whom the final judgment would be so negative. He said, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry” (Luke 6: 24-26). Such words understandably give hope to the poor and should make us who are well-off examine our consciences at this Christmas season.

Conclusion

Such introspection was entirely absent from Mr. Pence’s reflections before his young impressionable audience. Instead, what he said amounted to a defense of the small god of the rich whom Yeshua’s teachings (just reviewed) show has everything to do with comforting the already comfortable while denigrating the poor.

Instead, Yeshua’s authentic teachings constitute a message of hope and encouragement precisely for the poor and hungry while making the rest of us salvifically uneasy.

So, Christmas properly understood is not a time for self-congratulation nor for overlooking what was revealed in a prophet’s life bookended by houselessness and capital punishment.

It is a call to free health care along with housing and food for everyone. It’s a summons to debt forgiveness, wealth redistribution, socialism, and eliminating poverty as well as empire and differentiating wealth.

That’s the good news of Christmas – for the poor, not for Mr. Pence and the rest of us.

Published by

Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

14 thoughts on “Christmas Reflection: Mike Pence’s small god vs. Jesus’ Big God”

  1. A gross oversimplification for certain, but once Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire it ceased being the religion of any reputable God and became just another tool for oppressors.
    The American version is just a modern iteration of an old trope.
    Pence, despicable and sycophantic, is the Priest to trump’s King.
    And yes, I’m feeling somewhat cynical on this Christmas Eve.

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  2. The first generation follows in the spirit of their human guide. The second generation, looking from the outside, creates rules to mimic what they observed in the first generation. And from that point all is (mostly) lost.

    When we are led by rules, not directed by and living in spirit, we lose the essence of that whose outer manifestation we practice. Spirituality, like art (and I don’t see a sharp distinction: all good art is moral as F.R. Leavis pointed out) lives in a place beyond words. The role of words in our spiritual lives is to provide a starting point for engaging the spirit that gave rise to the words.

    In “How We Talked” (Verna Mae Slone, U KY Press) the author recounts how in the Old Regular Baptist Church at the head of the holler the 5 or 6 deacons and the minister would get together before Sunday service and decide who was “in spirit” that morning. That’s who would give the sermon. Knowing the words is only a tool.

    The battle being fought in Roman Catholicism mirrors the war between words vs spirit as the source of truth. Francis, who has echoed spirit-firsters like Merton from his earliest words as Pope, has now (having danced the Jesuit dance of creating multiple perspectives over time that all align in the same direction) declared war in the “leaked” interview in which he said all are capable of being in spirit. The rules-firsters are now openly accusing him of heresy. Good: this is a war worth fighting, and we’ve come far enough along that violent overthrow by an opposing army isn’t one of the possible outcomes. It does help that he lives in the Vatican hotel and eats what others eat, as that takes the poisoned food option off the table, as it were.

    Lower-case god, indeed.

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    1. Thank you, Hank, for this inspiring (and truthful) reflection on this special day. Like you, I’m so grateful for Pope Francis who calls us like no other pope since John XXIII to the Gospel’s (and Yeshua’s) preferential option for the poor. His voice echoes that of so many liberation theology prophets (and the people they influenced) who were so despised by the United States and its puppets — as well as by “Saint” John Paul II and his henchman, Josef Ratzinger (aka Benedict XVI). Of course, with the approval of the latter two, the U.S. killed the prophets in question — and with them silenced the very Spirit of the one whose birth we celebrate today. PIty.

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      1. The forces of little-god can silence any given witness to the presence of Spirit. History tells us that new witnesses will always appear. Spirit is within every person. Our job, those who observe this process at work, is to find ways to awaken Spirit in more people than the generation before us. That’s all that’s needed.

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      2. This insight is at the heart of a project I’m involved in here in CT. Our local church (the Talmadge Hill Community Church) has us in the midst of a months-long discussion called “Reimagining Religion” where everything is on the table. It constantly reminds me of Bonhoeffer’s quest for Christianity without religion — and of proceeding “etsi deus non daretur” — as if there were no God.

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  3. Well said. Alas, modern christianity is losing its way. I pity Francis 1 having to shepherd such a system ruled by bishops and clergy so addicted to grovelling and $$$.

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    1. Thanks, Cyril. I’d say that the loss of way began at the outset of the 4th century with the Council of Nicea. The grovelling and money addiction started then and evolved into having everyone grovel before the Pope and other clergy. Francis has been such a breath of fresh air. Have you read his “Fratelli tutti?” Definitely worth the read.

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      1. Mike, I take it back to 90 AD when the “bishops” started bossing the spiritual communities. Hierarchy only travels in one direction. Nicea and later developments were the natural, inevitable progression.

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      2. You’re right, of course, Hank. I just remember the scales falling from my eyes (in the late ’70s) while reading Leonardo Boff about the church’s loss of way in the 4th century. But as you say, it was lost — though retained mainly by the mystics — long before.

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      3. re: mystics retaining… That does make the case for a religion where mysticism is at the center of both community and process, does it not?

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