By James Carroll
The Boston Globe
December 22, 2008
When the Christmas holiday dominates the culture, sometimes oppressively, a newspaper column
may not seem the most appropriate venue for personal reflections on the meaning of Jesus. Yet
even as Western Civilization has been nourished by religious and philosophical traditions that have
nothing to do with Jesus, it has also been profoundly influenced by the memory of this man. It can be
more than merely sectarian to ask, Who was he?
The stories told about the nativity- Caesar’s census order, Bethlehem, Herod’s threat, three kinds,
star, no-room-at-the-inn, manger, angels, slaughter, flight- do not aim to be historical, yet in its
deeper meaning, the beloved Christmas narrative gives us a portrait of a person that square with the
most important features of the actual Jesus. He was a counter-force to the Roman emperor. He was
of the poor and powerless. He conveyed his message by indirection- more by poetry than doctrine.
At heart, his story is tragic. Yet it is a source of hope and joy, which is why his friends clung to his
memory. The problem he addressed was violence.
Violence was overwhelmingly the normal condition of the world into which Jesus was born.
Jerusalem and its environs had long been what the scholar John Dominic Crossan calls the “cockpit
of empire,” a crossroads region that had been the scene of brutal imperial conflicts going back 1,000
years. The Jewish people had mostly lived as vassals of one foreign sovereign or another, with
oppressive violence a steady note of the Hebrew situation. Survival of Jewish nationhood in his
milieu was marvel, and key to that survival and conscientious wrestling with the problem of violence,
the record of which is the Bible.
Rome, when it came, was the most brutal imperial force of all, and its violence peaked several times
during the century of Jesus and his movement, beginning with the savaging of the region around
Nazareth not long before Jesus was born, and ending with the final destruction of Jerusalem as the
story of Jesus was assuming the form we know.
But Jesus was not a mere victim of the violence. Acting in his Jewish tradition, he confronted it,
rejected it, and proposed a new way to think of it. His followers knew at the outset, and ever after, that
they failed to live up to the standard he set, but that very knowledge shows that the myth of what
Crosson calls the normalcy of violence is broken.
Humans have an inbuilt tendency to find the solution of violence in yet more violence, with the result
that it spirals on forever. The victory of coercive force is inevitably the cause of the next outbreak of
coercive violence, but is forgiveness and righteousness- or, as we would put it, peace and justice.
For 2,000 years, this program has been able to be dismissed as piety’s dream. But something new
is afoot. Since 1945, the normalcy of violence is armed with weapons that will surely render the
human species extinct unless a different way of thinking of violence is found.
That is the promise of Christmas.
A different way of thinking of violence has already lodged itself in human consciousness. This is not
just a Christian phenomenon. The great religions of the word- Judaism, Islam, Buddhism,
Hinduism, Confucianism- and the no-religion of rationalism have all countered the normalcy of
violence with assertions of compassion and loving kindness. In the history of Western Civilization, no
figure has represented that ideal more resolutely than Jesus. His story offers a masterpiece
expression of the possibility of forgiveness and righteousness not only as a saving program, but as
the basis of an intensely personal relationship.
Because Jesus is understood by those who believe who believe in him as offering not only a sign of
what is needed, but a way to achieve it- “I am the way,” he said- he has survived even for those who
regard him in purely wordly terns as an image of a hope that cannot be fully articulated, and that can
never be exclusively claimed by any group, including Christians. In that sense, the observances of
this week can belong to everyone who chooses to enjoy them.