The Christmas Story: Fact or Fiction?

Grandchildren are wonderful. And so are Christmas pageants.

Last Sunday, just minutes before the curtain went up on our church’s annual play, one of the shepherds (my seven-year-old grandson Orlando) approached me with an urgent question seemingly from out of the blue. “What’s the evidence (he used that word) that Jesus ever lived? How do we know,” he asked, “that he existed at all? Huh? Huh? Where’s the evidence?”

Caught off guard, I replied, “Well, that’s complicated. I suppose we have as much evidence as for any figures from the ancient past. How do we know, for instance, that Julius Caesar ever existed?”

With that, Orlando ran off to tend the sheep.

But of course, my answer – except for the first part about complications – was completely inadequate. It revealed how we elders have dodged sharp questions from our children and grandchildren long enough. We’ve not been honest with them in answering burning queries concerning the very meaning of life and the nature of the sources we claim to be inspired. As a result, we’ve driven them away into a world that is consequently (as Caitlin Johnstone has so delicately put it) completely F**ked. That is, we’ve filled their minds with fictions that pretend to explain the world but that won’t finally hold water.

Let’s face it: we don’t have nearly the evidence for Jesus’ existence that we have for Caesar’s. And there’s good reason for that hard reality – reason that cuts to the very heart of so many questions about figures from yesteryear and even about our contemporaries. It’s the reason we need “people’s histories” like Howard Zinn’s.

Fact is, we never know much about poor people from any historical period (including our own). And Jesus left no direct record. He wrote nothing. Possibly he was illiterate.

Moreover, the record-keepers of Jesus time (and the Romans were exquisite about records – that and building roads and killing people) just weren’t interested in the nobodies they ruled, especially in marginal provinces like Israel – and especially from towns like Nazareth, a true nowheresville.

Yes, the Romans kept records about their puppet kings and temple collaborators. But even those flunkies weren’t interested in the others, much less about the innumerable insurgents they routinely offered for execution with the special process Rome reserved for terrorists –  crucifixion.

Despite the impression we get from the Christian Gospels (which were written long after the fact) the whole world wasn’t watching Jesus’ trial and execution, much less his birth. No, there probably wasn’t any trial at all. And Jesus’ body was likely thrown into a common grave after it was consumed by buzzards and dogs.

So, actually, my response to Orlando’s question (if he were capable of understanding it) should have been: “If you’re asking about the birth of Jesus and the story you’re about to perform on stage . . . No, we don’t have any evidence that it happened in the way you’ll portray it.

“In fact, the story you’re enacting probably didn’t take place at all. Most likely, there were no angels or shepherds, magi or guiding star.

“I say that because only Luke and Matthew tell stories like that. They’re not found in Mark (the earliest of the Gospels) nor in John, the last one of the four. This means that Mark and John either didn’t know of what scholars call “the infancy narratives” (including the virgin birth) or they didn’t think the tales important enough to include. And if the Christmas stories actually occurred, neither of those possibilities is very likely.

“You see, the infancy narratives are what scholars call Midrashim or Aggadah — interpretative parables based on ancient Jewish texts like Isaiah 7:14, which reads: ‘a virgin (actually a young girl) shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” The stories are invented to make a theological point – in this case, that from the beginning Jesus embodied a special manifestation of Israel’s God, Yahweh.”

Personally, I remember when I was first introduced to Midrashim and Aggadah – when I was much older than my seven-year-old grandson. That was something like 55 years ago, when at about 24 years of age, I was beginning my seminary study of ancient biblical texts. I still remember my shock at learning that the story of the Wisemen was Midrashic fiction. What? No magi? No star? No gold, frankincense and myrrh? My mind quickly raced ahead. What then about Jesus’ resurrection? Could that be Midrash too? I was deeply threatened and devastated.

And it took me a long time to come to terms with the faith-implications I saw so clearly then. However, that was the beginning of my ability to think critically even about the most threatening questions I could imagine. There is nothing, I concluded, that cannot be asked. Truth is truth; we can’t be afraid of it, no matter where it leads. God (however we might imagine him or her or It) cannot be contradicted by truth. (But all that’s another story.)

Of course, Orlando wouldn’t be able to understand any of this. And at this point, he doesn’t care. Instead, he’s just learned about historical “evidence” and is testing out that idea. But some day, he may be interested – as most readers are at this point. He’ll wake up some day (as I did much later in life) with adult questions. But because our churches and elders who know better, treat adults as children, he’ll end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

But what is the baby we’re talking about?  It’s the point-of-faith conveyed in all the infancy narratives. It’s that “God” or History or Life Itself is for everyone – not just for the analogues of Rome and its Temple mannequins.

No, God is present in unwed teenage mothers. God appears in babies born in smelly rat-infested hovels. God’s there in immigrants and refugees fleeing genocidal tyrants like Herod. God is present on death row – in tortured insurgents and victims of capital punishment. And some of them (like Jesus himself, Gandhi, King, Dorothy Day and Malcolm) are more alive and influential today than ever they were when they walked the earth. Resurrection is real.

The Jesus stories convey all these things. Yes, all those supporting stories – including the infancy narratives – are true.

Some of them might even have happened.

American “Deceptionalism”

exceptionalism

Last Wednesday’s reflection was about Peggy’s and my experience in St. Peter’s Square ten days ago. It was then, I was saying, that Pope Francis gently and subtly confronted our bellicose president and joined Russia’s President Putin in defusing a potentially disastrous crisis not only for Syria and the United States, but for the world. I suggested the pope might be the unsung hero of day.

By all measures, President O’Bomb ‘em was the villain.

His speech last Tuesday confirmed that. There he maintained his belligerent stance despite world opinion, that of the U.S. electorate, and of world moral leaders. Worse still, he portrayed the administration’s position as continuous with a supposed United States moral leadership. Specifically, he claimed that for seven decades the United States had been “the anchor of global security.”

Let’s see: that would bring us back to 1943. Was Mr. Obama referring to the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh, the democratically elected prime minister of Iran in 1954 and the 25 year reign of terror by Mosaddegh’s CIA replacement, the brutal Shaw of Iran, Resa Palavi? Or perhaps Obama had in mind the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz Guatemala’s democratically elected president that same year – and the 40 year dirty war waged by the U.S. supported military which then killed more than 200,000 of “their own people.” Or was the president thinking of the U.S. wars in Indochina and the millions of lives it claimed. Or perhaps he was referring to the overthrow of Chile’s democratically elected president Salvador Allende in 1973 – on September 11th of that year (what Latin Americans refer to as “the first September 11th). By all measures, the Chile coup was far worse than what occurred here on September 11th 2001. Or maybe the president was referring to our countries disastrous support of Mobutu in the Congo or of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The list truly goes on and on.

Either our Harvard educated president is ignorant of those details, has forgotten them or he was deliberately lying to intentionally foster Americans’ legendary ignorance of history. I’d recommend that he read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States and Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s The Untold History of the United States. That would make him realize that only the ignorant can say (as the president put it in his speech) that we are “exceptional.”

That is, unless by American “exceptionalism” he meant (as Rob Kall recent
ly put it) that:

“We have more prisoners than any other nation– and most of them haven’t harmed anyone, but prosecuting and jailing them keeps them off the voter roles in many states.

We have the largest military and largest military budget– which means more money going to expenses that do not grow the economy or build the nation’s inner resources and strengths.

We spend more on healthcare than any other nation, yet we are the only first world nation, the only member of the G-20 nations which does not provide health care for all citizens.

We are a nation that spends more on spying on citizens than any other nation.

We are a nation that uses more psychiatric drugs than any other nation.

We are a nation that sets the standard for voting corruptibility, with electronic tallying that is impossible to reliably recount.

The list goes on and on, and then there are all the other list items where we are low, like infant death rate, access to WIFI, educational skills…”

No, America is not exceptional in the way the president meant. It is a rogue state, an outlaw state. It is the world’s bully and needs to be reined in.

Interestingly, the ones doing that reining are the pariahs of the last century, Russia diplomatically and China economically. For example, it was the Russian president who in the Syrian crisis ended up taking the high road stressing the need for diplomacy, dialog, and reconciliation.

Definitely conceding that high ground to Mr. Putin, Mr. Obama seemed content with the low. While calling Mr. Assad to observe international law, Mr. Obama himself violated those norms by peppering his speech last week with threats of violence that are themselves thereby prohibited. (Remember, the use or threat of force outside circumstances of immediate self-defense is prohibited by international law.)

So with black hat firmly in place, the U.S. president attempted to persuade Americans, both conservative and liberal of the moral superiority of bombing rather than diplomacy, dialog, and reconciliation. In defending the morality of bombing, the president said nothing of the will of his constituents or the alignment of votes in Congress. Certainly, no mention was made of the dissenting positions of Pope Francis, the Archbishop of Canterbury, or the Dali Lama all of whom had strongly opposed Mr. Obama’s plans.

Meanwhile, the president ignored a golden opportunity for using Mr. Assad’s concessions around chemical weapons for ridding the entire Middle East of such threats along with nuclear weapons. He could easily have done so and reclaimed the true moral high ground by calling for a Geneva Conference to that end.

He did not for one simple reason. And that is that Israel, America’s staunch ally, has refused to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention which prohibits not only the use of chemical weapons, but their possession. Israel stands in violation of international law in virtue of its huge stockpile of chemical weapons along with an equally huge arsenal of nuclear weapons. No one in our government or the mainstream press says anything about that. They never will.

Israel also continues to illegally occupy the Golan Heights in Syria no less.

There’ll be no discussion of that either by our president, secretary of state or mainstream media.

Mr. Obama succeeded in only one thing last Tuesday. He made it clear that he and his country are not exceptional.

We are “deceptional” on the one hand and deceived on the other.

Mali for Dummies (Part One: General Background)

Are you confused by what’s happening in Mali? Welcome to the club. We’re probably all puzzled and feel like dummies overwhelmed by information pieces that provide a welter of names, dates, organizations and explanations that are complicated, contradictory and vague. As a result, we probably accept the “official story” behind France’s U.S. – supported intervention in Mali as promulgated by our own State Department, France, Algiers and others.

That story goes that “we” are fighting AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) which has suddenly materialized in Mali as part of a world-wide terrorist offensive that justifies the “Global War on Terrorism.” Well, if it’s a fight against al-Qaeda, we might reason, I guess I have to be for it.

I too felt drawn to just throwing up my hands and participating in the dummy syndrome of simply surrendering to government de-contextualized muddle and propaganda. But then I remembered what I’ve been reading in Oliver Stone’s and Peter Kuznick’s The Untold History of the United States. I recalled what I studied in Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, and in Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. I drew on my recollections of Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America.

All of those taught me that the real justifications for invading the former colonial world rarely coincide with the stated rationale. It’s virtually never about democracy or protecting national sovereignty (though it might be about “maintaining regional stability” in lands where the median income is less than $2.00 per day!) Instead developed-world intervention is invariably connected with continuing the process of transferring wealth and commodities from the resource-rich south to the “developed” north. It’s about keeping the rich south subservient and impoverished.

In fact, as pointed out by J.W. Smith of the Institute for Economic Democracy, there’s a pattern to all interventions like the one we’re witnessing in Mali. In its starkest form, the pattern runs like this:

1. Any country (or group within a country) attempting to break for economic freedom
2. By establishing government representing the interests of its own people rather than those of the former Mother Country
3. Will be accused of communism or terrorism
4. And will be overthrown by military intervention
5. Or by right wing (often terrorist) elements from within the local population
6. To keep that country within the ex-mother country’s sphere of influence
7. So that the former colonists might continue to use the country’s resources for the invaders own enrichment,
8. And that of the local elite.

To put a finer point on all of that, the sources I have mentioned have taught me that the West is not interested in democracy or in the freedom of its former colonies. That’s proven by examining a short list of dictators the West (particularly the United States) has supported. The list includes Bonzer (Bolivia), Mobutu (Zaire), the Duvaliers (Haiti), Rios Montt (Guatemala), the Somozas (Nicaragua), Resa Palavi (Iran), Saddam Hussein (Iraq), Suharto (Indonesia), Pinochet (Chile), Fujimori (Peru), Diem (Vietnam), Marcos (Philippines), Noriega (Panama), Al Saud family (Saudi Arabia), Batista (Cuba).

All of these are robbers and thugs. In fact, colonialism is little more than a system of robbery intended to transfer raw materials and agricultural produce from the resource-rich colonies to the “Mother Countries.”

European and American colonists initially achieved control of the colonies by military power. The power was used indiscriminately, viciously and “necessarily” since the colonies were overwhelmingly inhabited by tribal peoples who typically did not share western values. You just couldn’t do business with most of them. After all, they usually believed that their land belonged to their God and cannot be treated simply as another commodity. So at least since 1492 the West has engaged in a world-wide genocidal process of eliminating and neutralizing tribal peoples. We’re witnessing the latest chapter of that process today in Mali.

Because of the business-averse tendencies of most tribal people, the colonial process also involved identification of individuals or groups within tribes who were willing to sell out their brothers and sisters. Alternatively it consisted in identifying and exploiting rivalries between tribes. In either case the point was to employ cooperative local elites (frequently, it turns out, Christian and lighter skinned) who were richly rewarded for controlling and using violence to oppress their own people or rival peoples on behalf of the colonists. In other words, the favored locals ended up being mercenary puppets of the colonists during the colonial era.

Following the end of formal colonialism (1950s and ‘60s), the departing colonists typically tried to keep their puppets in control by rigging “free” elections to elect “the willing” who would continue doing business with their former masters on favorable terms. Colonial powers also arbitrarily drew up gerrymandered borders delineating colonist-created “countries” that separated tribal peoples from fellow tribe members. This was done in order to segregate natural allies from one another and to set them against each other in competing states. The result was the creation of artificial “countries” like Mali and Niger whose boundaries have little meaning for the tribal families they separate, while the primary loyalties of those families remain to their tribes.

The processes and consequences of all this are being demonstrated in Mali today as the French, attempt to reassert control of rebels in their former resource-rich colony.

(On Wednesday we’ll review the particulars.)