Advent Reflections--The Politics of Heartbreak

Yesterday was the the First Sunday of Advent, the season of waiting and watching for the coming of Jesus at Christmas.  As was so well said by in the sermon I heard this weekend, there are really three different sorts of "coming of Jesus at Christmas" that Advent looks forward to--the one in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, the one that we believe will come at the end of time, and the one that comes to each one of us in an individual way, in that "sound of sheer silence" as the title of this blog says.  Those three ways are different, of course, but they are also the same in important ways, I think.  The more you carefully look at one of them, the more they resemble the other two.

In that light, I was thinking over the course of this weekend about the how the people in the 1st Century were waiting and watching, and how that might relate to our waiting and watching.  What might we learn from them?  How are their struggles like our struggles, their fears like our fears?  There are a number of dimensions to this waiting, but since the lives of most of us (at least here in the U.S.) have been dominated by politics for the last few months, it seems right to start with the politics of the Holy Land in the era of Jesus's birth.

The political story of the Children of Israel as set forth in the Hebrew Scriptures goes, in brief form, something like this.  Sometime around the 10th Century B.C.E., there was about a 50 year golden age of the Kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon.  Neither David nor Solomon were especially swell people, mind you (especially if you were a woman, or married to a woman), but politically they were riding high.  After that, with exceptions that you can count on one hand, political life for the Children of Israel was basically a horror show of venial, corrupt leaders that ran things into the ground, leading to the annihilation of the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th Century and the conquest of Jerusalem in the South in the 6th.  That lead to three generations of exile in Babylon, only to be rescued in deus ex machina fashion by the Persians and their conquest of Babylon.

 As global empires go, the Persians were relatively laid-back overlords.  As long as you kept the cash flowing back to Persepolis, acknowledged the shahnashah, and didn't rock the boat, the Persians basically left you alone.  Plus, the official religion of Persian was the monotheistic faith of Zoroastrianism, making Judaism far closer to the official faith of the empire than anything else around.  For that reason, or whatever reason, it is clear from books like Ezra and Nehemiah that things were pretty good for our heroes under the Persians--the Temple was rebuilt, Jewish life was restored, they lived in relative peace.  Sure, they were not ultimately sovereign in their own land, but they were in a good spot.

Then Alexander the Great and the Greeks conquered the Persian Empire.  In a cultural trait that continues to the present day (as anyone who knows any Greeks will tell you, or even anyone who has ever seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding knows), the Greeks basically thought that everyone would be better off if they just became Greeks, or at least pretended to be so.  This move for Hellenization ran head long into the stubborn distinctiveness of the Jews and Judaism.  Which leads directly to the Maccabean Revolt.

Now, what's interesting about the Maccabean Revolt is that, to the extent it is talked about at all, it is usually portrayed strictly in terms of "zealous believers in the God of Israel fighting against wicked unbelieving foreigners."  Mostly because that's how the books of Maccabees frame the struggle, and it's what we get from the small piece of the story that forms the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.  And it seems like that was at least part of the story, but it was not the whole story.  For one thing, 1 Maccabees lays out this convoluted fight between various claimants for the title High Priest, claimants who have names like "Menelaus" and "Lysimachus"---not exactly traditional Jewish names.  It's much more likely that the origins of this fight occurred between and among rival, competing visions of Judaism and its relationship to the broader cultural life of a cosmopolitan world--a fight between religious "conservatives" and religious "liberals," at least in some respects.

In any event, the party of traditional, religious values--the Maccabees--end up winning the civil war and establish the Hasmonean dynasty.  By 135 B.C.E., something more or less like the modern State of Israel is an independent Jewish kingdom, ruled by a Jewish king.  At which point Hasmoneans proceed to immediately sell out their conservative "base" in order to try to play off the various surrounding powers to increase their power.  By 104 B.C.E., within one generation of independence, this ostensibly Jewish kingdom is being ruled by a guy named "Aristobulus"--bringing everything back, in a sense, to the Hellenized status quo prior to the Revolt.  A generation after that, Pompey the Great shows up and makes the Hasmoneans essentially vassals of Rome--technically ruling but not really in charge.

Think about how demoralizing and dispiriting all of of that must be for a person living in Judea or Galilee in and around the beginning of the 1st Century C.E.  In the time of your great-grandparents, it looked like your people were on the verge of recreating the dream of David and Solomon, only to have it all go immediately to shit.  And, what's worse, there is really no outsiders to blame--your own Jewish leaders were primarily responsible for the state of affairs.  Now you have a "king," Herod the Great, who "rules" at the sufferance of the Romans and is the grandson of a forced convert to Judaism, making his commitment to the faith suspect in many eyes.  It has to feel like a cruel joke--a beautiful dream ripped away and turned into a Kafka-esque nightmare.  You have replaced one set of distant foreign rulers with an even more distant but orders of magnitude more powerful and ruthless set of rulers.

It is no wonder, then, that the people of this time were looking around for Messiahs.  It is not hard to understand why the idea that things are so utterly FUBAR that only a literal deus ex machina could fix it was popular.  We are two or three generations away from a procession of self-proclaimed military Messiahs that would lead the Children of Israel to doomed confrontations with the most powerful military machine the world had ever known, not to mention to the brink of annihilation.  But even in our time period, I think, we can see the seeds of this growing.  One of the scary truths of human nature is that if you want something badly enough and look hard enough for it, eventually you will find it--whether or not it actually exists.  And so people will keep looking, and keep looking, until they find it.

If there is a lesson from the story of the Children of Israel politically, it is that politics will ultimately break your heart.  Your leaders will fail you, they will sell you out, they will screw everything up, and some of them will just flat out be horrible monsters.  You can call that cynicism if you want, but it is hard to draw any other conclusion from the unbroken tale of disappointment and loss that makes up the story of this people.

That's not to say that the lesson is "politics don't matter"; they matter tremendously, and they can have catastrophic consequences.  To me, the lesson is more like "don't expect politics to bail you out from your core problems, and be deeply suspicious of those politicians promising such a bail-out."  In the U.S., we are about to move from one President who was portrayed (and, to be fair, portrayed himself) in Messianic terms to another who does the same thing.  Those who put their trust in Obama-as-Messiah are deeply disappointed, as inevitably those who put their trust in Trump-as-Messiah will in due course be.  The story of the Children of Israel teaches us that, without fail, political Messiahs will disappoint us; that is the nature of political Messiahs, because they are not really Messiahs in the first place.

Many of us are heartbroken right now at our political situation and political life.  We may feel like we have been betrayed by our own, or by our leaders, or by cosmic forces.  Some are looking for the one person who will save us, to make things right, to (if I may) "make things great again."  It seems to me that we are in good company in that regard, as we stand in a place not all that different from our ancestors in faith stood.  And, I think we can learn from them not to get our hopes up too high.          


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