This week, as I reread the first verses of Luke’s Christmas story, I thought about Rey (from Star Wars), and about my own governor, Greg Abbott.
Director JJ Abrams masterfully introduces the character of Rey to us in “The Force Awakens” in a sequence that is worthy of a careful look.
As John Williams’ brilliant score guides the action, Rey wordlessly scavenges inside the wrecked hull of a decaying Imperial warship.
First, we only see her face. Then, the camera pans back and we see where she is. The scale is overwhelming…her small, human frame set against the vast size of a massive, decaying imperial ship and the harshness of the Jakku desert.
Yes, the Empire has been long dead. But we already know that new imperial powers are rising. And the ominous message is inescapable:
Empire is always massive.
Empire is powerful in every generation.
Ordinary people are dwarfed by its scale.
And, every day, Rey lives her life in its shadow.
Whether you’ve ever realize this, Luke sets much the same scene with the very first verses of Jesus’ birth-story. They go by quickly. Many of us skip them, since we don’t understand the names or context.
But they serve the same function in the Gospel of Luke, as JJ Abrams’ opening scenes do with Rey:
“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph —like Rey— are poor nobodies who live in the shadow of the power of Empire.
They are not resting, safe in their home when Jesus is born. They’re not even able to stay in a respectable rooming house. Jesus is born in a stable, nestled inside a trough where animals eat their food.
Luke pulls the camera back in these first verses, revealing the shadow of the power of the Empire, just as masterfully as Abrams pulls back to reveal that imperial ship. Greece’s original Empire has fallen to ruin, like that Star Wars destroyer. But Rome’s power has become the “First Order” of Jesus’ day.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are in Bethlehem *because* of the ubiquitous nature of imperial power.
Emperor Caesar Augustus has apparently decreed a kind of a “census.” We know nothing historically about this might have been. But Luke makes clear that it’s far more complicated than strolling down to some government office and filling out a form. (Something that would have been next to impossible anyway, since most folks couldn’t read…)
As Luke’s camera pulls back, it dawns on us this “registration” required the migration of thousands of imperial subjects, not just the Holy Family. Roman authorities demanded their subjects travel back to their ancestral homes.
This meant a long journey for Joseph and his pregnant fiancé. There’s actually no evidence that they had a donkey to ride. It’s likely that very pregnant Mary walked miles through scorching days and frigid nights, only to find “no room in the inn.”
There is “no room” because of the chaos of so many migrants, forced to make the same journey, and scavenge for the same scarce lodging in a town that wasn’t their home either.
This is how Luke pulls that camera back with these forgotten verses; to remind us of Empire’s power to oppress countless other poor migrants too.
We also don’t know anything about Governor Quirinius. We are left to assume he is some mid-level regional authority, working for seamlessly with the Empire to oppress the lives of those poor migrants.
Which gets me to Governor Greg Abbott, and his Christmas Eve stunt.
On a day when millions of Christians, in churches around the world, read these VERY verses —the story of migrant families oppressed by a regional Governor— our *actual regional governor* decided to it would be a good time to do the same thing.
Gov. Abbott thought it made good TV to send buses of migrants from my state into the jaws of the most bitter winter storm to hit the nation in years.
Gov. Abbott dropped poor migrants by the side of the road —wearing only sweatshirts and shorts, with no food, no plan for shelter— straight into the chaos and the cold of our nation’s 2022 Christmas Eve.
Even the good people of Buffalo New York were crying “uncle” in the face of this brutal storm. And they’re *used* to this stuff. Just imagine migrants in shorts and sweatshirts…
It’s a disgusting use of God’s children as political props for TV, for sure. But it’s also hard to miss literal one-to-one comparison to the Christmas story.
Gov. Abbott is not a shepherd.
Gov. Abbott is not “Magi.”
He’s not an expectant Father.
But Gov. Abbott IS an actual GOVERNOR.
And there’s a governor in Jesus’ birth story. And it’s pretty clear he’s not one of the good guys.
Abbott = Quirinius
You really couldn’t script this in Hollywood. Nobody would believe it. It would play like Mr. Potter in “It’s A Wonderful Life” …a villain almost too cruel to exist IRL.
But this all actually happened the other day…IRL.
Our governor really did this.
I can only imagine he believes this will fire up his political base somehow…I don’t know, I honest-to-god can’t get inside his head.
But I know this: it’s divisive.
It’s classic wedge politics, designed to turn Americans against one another…to “own the libs,” and to fire up his “base.”
Serious question: Are there really fellow Americans who cheer pictures of under-clothed, underfed, under-housed, migrants, shivering in the cold on Christmas Eve?!
Do folks get JOY from this?
Human being should never be used as political props. Abbott is picking on migrants specifically because they can’t fight back. Politicians tend to “Otherize” groups with the least amount of power and influence…precisely because they believe there is no blowback, no downside, to doing it.
If you are cheering this move by Abbott, you are cheering against the clear message of the Christmas story in the Gospel, and the Biblical mandate to “treat the sojourner like the citizen.”
There is no story in the Bible where God *cheers* the oppression of poor, ordinary people.
Quite the opposite. There are dozens of places where God calls for the power of Empire to fall, and the hope of the poor to rise. In dozens of Bible verses, God tells those who want to be seen as “holy people” to treat foreigners the exact same way they treat themselves.
Jesus is born as a migrant baby, into an earthly family subject to the power of an imperial governor. The baby born at Christmas was sent to stand as the ultimate reminder of how God moves in and through all human beings, not just the rich and powerful.
When he grew into an adult, he would tell a parable about how when we love the least, the lost, the left out, the Otherized, we are not just doing “charity,” but we are actually loving God. (Matthew 25). Loving the least and left out IS loving God.
Pay attention, friends.
The Christmas story has a lot to each us about the power of Empire, and God’s desire to stand with the migrant poor.
I wonder sometimes if my Governor has ever actually read it.