What hath Bethlehem to do with Washington? | WORLD
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What hath Bethlehem to do with Washington?

Our political theology must be rooted in the incarnation

A Christmas tree stands outside House Speaker Mike Johnson's office in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 20. Associated Press/Photo by Mariam Zuhaib

What hath Bethlehem to do with Washington?
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It’s the time of year when Washington, D.C., sits largely quiet and empty, its inhabitants emptied out and headed home to their families. The politicians head home and even the most rabid partisans seek to escape the messiness of politics.

Yet the real story of Christmas is inescapably political. The young virgin who bore Jesus understood what her miraculous conception meant. She listened to the words of Simeon in the temple as he cradled the newborn in his arms. Jesus would, “be a sign that will be opposed—and a sword will pierce your own soul—that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed (Luke 2:34-35).” The incarnation, then, is more than mere sentimental Hallmark vibes, but a cosmic disruption, an intervention by God into His creation.

Even as Christmas is inescapably political, our politics should be inescapably oriented around Christmas. If what Christians believe about the incarnation is true, then that truth must necessarily shape our public theology. The ethicist Oliver O’Donovan rightly asserts that “the whole created order is taken up into the fate of this particular representative man at this particular moment of history, on whose one fate turns the redemption of all ... the sign that God has stood by his created order.”

This otherwise ordinary birth by a peasant couple in a filthy grotto in a backwater town of the Roman empire is the hinge point of history. In her prayer, Mary says that her Son “has done a mighty deed with His arm; He has scattered the proud because of the thoughts of their hearts; He has toppled the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly” (Luke 1:51-52). This miraculous birth has both cosmic and personal implications.

The incarnation is a sign that God has not given up on His creation but has come to begin His work of renewal. The hymnwriter Isaac Watts reminds us that because of this first advent, we live very close to the second:

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,

Every human kingdom, every earthly ruler has an expiration date. Every despot and dictator will go to their grave. But Christ’s kingdom is forever.

In a troubled world, where death and violence and mayhem seem to reign, the incarnation of the Son of God is the hope that this age will soon give way to another, where God will “wipe away every tear and there will be no more death or sorrow (Revelation 21:4).” Light has come and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:5). Every human kingdom, every earthly ruler has an expiration date. Every despot and dictator will go to their grave. But Christ’s kingdom is forever.

Christmas also has personal implications. Jesus, the angel declared, had come to “save his people from their sins.” Christianity recognizes the present disordered nature of humanity. Even the most benevolent humans have wicked hearts bent away from the good. The baby in the manger would rise to a cruel Roman instrument of torture and accept the Father’s wrath against sin on behalf of those who believe. It’s personal. To the shepherds, the angels said, “Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born, for you.”

This has everything to do with our politics. This is true not merely because the rise of Christianity has introduced into the world concepts, such as human dignity, now accepted as reality even by those who reject the claims of Jesus. Nor does Christmas impact our politics merely because it has shaped Western civilization. Our political theology is inescapably rooted in the incarnation because it tells us both that the created order, once marred by sin, is good and is being redeemed. And it bends us to the reality that humans are not merely the products of their environment, but sinners in need of redemption.

Both the cosmic and personal nature of Christmas both motivates and tempers our politics. Empowered by the Spirit, we love our neighbors by upholding the creational truths Jesus’ birth affirms. Yet our activism is tempered by the reality of what we can actually accomplish in a cosmos still groaning for redemption. Only Jesus can bless “far as the curse is found.” A politics rooted in the Christian story resists utopian fantasies. Instead, it aims God’s people toward faithful service, performing small acts of good that point people to a better world to come.

This reality frees us, not toward an eschatological apathy, but with renewed hope, that by communicating the possibility of personal salvation and advocating for policies in line with the created order, we can point those who seek toward that final, future Kingdom. The one ruled by the Prince of Peace upon whose shoulders all government rests (Isaiah 9:6).

Daniel Darling

Daniel Darling is director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His forthcoming book is Agents of Grace. He is also a bestselling author of several other books, including The Original Jesus, The Dignity Revolution, The Characters of Christmas, The Characters of Easter, and A Way With Words and the host of a popular weekly podcast, The Way Home. Dan holds a bachelor’s degree in pastoral ministry from Dayspring Bible College, has studied at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and is a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife Angela have four children.

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