“Christ the savior is born.” So goes a popular hymn sung around the day the world calls Christmas. Of course, I have no idea when Jesus was born, but the appropriate Quaker response to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, as I see it, should be one of daily observance, as opposed to setting aside a day or season that is more of a sacrifice to the god of commerce. Yet, regardless of the Christ-centered Friends’ response to the birth of Jesus, there remains the sticking point of salvific language that turns many Friends away from the biblical narrative.
However, the soteric language used in the Greek Testament has a double meaning, if not a totally separate meaning, from the way that contemporary Christendom has come to interpret salvation. I will present the birth narrative of Luke as an example. And before I begin, I offer a caveat that might disturb some Ohio Yearly Meeting F/friends. I ask the reader to overlook the inaccurate historical accuracy of the story, and explore the meaning of the narrative. I doubt that the early Christ-centered communities were as concerned with past history as much as they were with the theological – and political – statements of the text that they heard being read to them.
While there is no indication that a census was ordered in Palestine during the time of Jesus, if ever, the point of the beginning of chapter two of Luke is not concerned with the fact of a census. There are more important narrative fish to be fried by the author. First, the author needs to be able to place a Nazarene in Bethlehem. Yet, why a census, and why Bethlehem? The persona of Caesar Augustus provides the clue. As the supreme ruler of the known world, Augustus has the authority to displace Palestinian Yahwists, whatever their circumstances. It is the power of Rome that is in control of the lives of the Israelites. And we all know why Bethlehem is important. It is the city of David, to whom YHWH has promised the throne of Israel forever. It is also to imply that Jesus fulfills the prophecy that Israel’s savior will come from Bethlehem, the smallest portion of the people of God’s inheritance. Bethlehem offers the contrast between the grandeur of monarchies like Caesar’s and the humility of the true savior of the world.
You see, Caesar Augustus was known as the “savior of the world.” He was known as the savior because he was the author of pax romana which placated the Mediterranean world to the benefit of Rome, and, indeed, to much of the Greek speaking world. But the ever-resistant Yahwists of both Palestine and the Diaspora refused to accept the claims of the emperor who was also known as “the Prince of Peace.” They knew that YHWH was the arbiter of history, and not Rome. Thus, when the author of Luke uses first-century code words like “good news,” “city of David,” “savior,” and “Messiah,” he is not suggesting that those who somehow “believe in” Jesus will go to heaven someday. He is stating that the “real” savior, the “real” prince who will bestow earth peace and Divine favor upon God’s people, is this Nazarene and not the ruler of empire. Remember the Roman patronage system, where Caesar provided favors as part of that system that was entrenched in the realm of first-century Rome. Herod was just such a recipient, who in return, promised loyalty to Augustus and the empire.. (By the way, Augustus, who claimed divine status for himself as the son of a god, and later, full divinity, was known as the “father of his country.” I wonder if the Jesus “Father God,” or “Abba” language, is a derivative of such a claim?)
Of course, when the author of Luke claims that Jesus is the Messiah, he is the person who will “save his people.” If he is the King of Israel in the line of David, what will become of the client king Herod and his dynasty? These are some pretty heavy claims for a Nazarene, and will later prove to be quite dangerous to the fledgling messianic movement. Finally, the term good news, or euanglion in Greek, was used primarily to decree the ascension or achievements of an emperor, or a great military victory. Each component of the birth narrative, it seems, is designed as an affront to the claims of empire. And, one final nod to humility is that the good news was pronounced first to shepherds, the most despised and lowliest of occupations in Palestine.
But what about salvation. Remember, Augustus was the “savior of the world.” While Jesus ascends to the throne through the Davidic line, he is much more than the Messiah who will liberate Yahwists from the machinations of empire. He is indeed the true savior/liberator of the world, as his lived life will fulfill the covenant that invites the Gentiles into the narrative of Israel’s God, and saves them from the violence, degradation, and domination of the empire. The true Prince of Peace liberates humanity from the domination system, if humanity chooses to live according to the example of the Christ’s life. A life of integrity, true freedom, humility and peace is the salvation that the author of Luke has in mind, not heaven. Salvation can be a change-of-life, not end-of-life, event.
When modern day Christ-centered Friends speak about salvation, we should understand that we offer a liberating way of life that challenges the domination of empire through the practice of testimonies, and not a pie-in-the-sky reward for our submission to domination. Our submission should be to living a life that interprets the life of Jesus as normative, that being a life of public witness, voluntary sacrifice, social justice, and love of neighbors and enemies.