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Peace, Health, and Democracy on Earth for a Second Pandemic Christmas

 
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on Earth peace among those
whom he favors.” Luke 2:13—14 (NRSV)
 
The message of Luke’s angels was prophetic of the significance of Jesus in his time. That prophecy used symbols we traditionally associate with Christmas. In this our second Covid winter, we should recognize a prophetic message for our time.

Luke’s Symbols and Prophecy

Angels in white robes with wings and flowing hair bring dazzling light to the midnight darkness over shepherds sleeping in the open. This is Luke’s version which appeals to our imaginations more than Matthew’s story of three astrologers who follow a star, give presents, then leave. In Luke representatives of the lower order of society—not an educated elite—hear the news and run to a stable to see a child lying in a jerry-rigged bed and surrounded by the smelly animals that had been eating from the manger.

Luke’s story underscores the message of the angel’s song, for the child is God’s gift of peace, especially for the lower orders of society of that time. Who, then, did God favor? Shepherds and poor travelers sleeping in a stable, not the rulers at court that Matthew had the wise men assume would have received news of a special birth. Amy-Jill Levine, in her commentary in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, pointed to Luke’s connection of Jesus to Moses and David who were shepherds before they became God’s instruments. In his commentary on the same verses in The HarperCollins Study Bible, Christopher R. Matthews noted that establishing peace was claimed as the role of Caesar Augustus—but the angels spoke as God’s representatives declaring the granting of peace as a divine gift.

Luke’s story forecasts the role Jesus played in his ministry. Like Matthew and Mark, Luke shows Jesus living among ordinary Jewish commoners as he stayed away from cities and the privileged groups who lived there. He was critical of the inconsiderate and unjust lifestyles of the wealthy elites. His teachings, such as the Sermon on the Mount, emphasized the inner peace and assurance granted ordinary people who recognize that God’s love embraces them—and when they reflect that love in their personal relationships.

But the synoptic gospels go further as Jesus became famous for exorcising, healing, and working wonders. The Jewish Jesus scholar Geza Vermes noted that Jewish culture did not develop medicine, as the Greeks did, because Jews looked to rituals in the temple and to prophets or holy men as healers in the name of God. Therefore, it was success as a healer and exorcist that brought the crowds and fame that irritated Jesus at times.

The message of the angels is confirmed in all the gospels as Jesus teaches and lives a life of trust in God’s ultimate justice, compassion, and peace. The prophecy is also lived out as he heals the sick, exorcises the mentally ill, and lives a wandering life among commoners rather than trying to be accepted among the privileged elite.

Peace and Democracy Are Endangered

There is an absence of military conflict in December 2021 but that may not last. There is danger as Russia is massing forces on the border of Ukraine. China has undermined the democratic processes in Hong Kong as it was absorbed into China’s authoritarian system. Taiwan seems to be the next target as coercion is being applied to Western businesses to silence their support of democracy in Taiwan.

Even worse is that Russia has succeeded in eroding democracy in the Western nations of Hungry, Poland, and Turkey. Russia’s success in undermining the American presidential election of 2016 has magnified political, social, and racial divisions in our country to the extent that civil violence becomes increasingly likely. Russia’s failure in shaping the presidential election of 2020 has gone unappreciated because the forces that won in 2016 refused to follow American tradition and transfer power peacefully—even mounting a violent attack on the United States Capitol trying to stop certification of election results. Forces of hate and violence have rejected evidence and a host of court decisions against their claims. Even as law enforcement agencies denounce growing violence as domestic terrorism, supporters of a political lie glorify symbols of the Confederacy and its civil war that grew from refusal to accept defeat in a fair presidential election.

Those who honor the proclamation of the angels in Luke, as we claim to do at Christmas, should stand on the side of the Prince of Peace and his example. In 1861, churches all over the South rejected the Prince of Peace and his defense of justice when they endorsed a war to preserve slavery. They refused to acknowledge Lincoln as president because they saw in him the victory of forces against slavery and for extending equal justice to everyone. Today, sadly, large numbers of white evangelicals are siding with the Big Lie, the insurrection, and groups promoting the drift toward violence.

Public Health and Love of Neighbor

Family gatherings for Christmas were disrupted in 2020. Even worse was the inundation of hospitals. Their intensive care units and lifesaving equipment needed emergency resources, and their morgues extended to refrigerated trucks needed for an overflow of bodies. When President Biden was inaugurated, 400,000 persons had already died. The number swelled to 500,00 during his first month in office.

Then hope dawned amid darkness. A president encouraged health measures such as mask wearing and required it where his authority permitted. He also emphasized administering vaccines—a medical accomplishment of the previous administration—to defeat Covid by the summer. He even called on the nation to memorialize the fallen, holding two recognition services to honor those who were lost and the thousands of families that grieved the losses. Progress over the winter was encouraging so that the president wanted July 4 to mark independence from the pandemic.

The virus has been a deadly scourge. It spreads by taking advantage of activities human beings resist giving up. We like being together in holiday celebrations, as well as going to restaurants, concerts, and sports events. A sniffle or cough is not something Americans have taken seriously enough to wear masks in public or to even stop going to public settings when we are sick. The virus is also deadly because we can have it and spread it without feeling sick at all.

To overcome the virus, we must recognize that we are at war with something more insidious than an opposing military force. We must defeat it by putting the welfare of others first. At first that meant doing inconvenient things like wearing a mask. Now it is possible to get vaccinated and finally overcome this deadly enemy.

Unfortunately, the same political and religious groups that oppose peace and justice have organized opposition to requiring public health measures. Evangelical groups that claim to be following the example of Jesus by sending medical missionaries are also opposing public health measures to prevent spreading a disease that has already killed 795,000 Americans.

Jesus was best known for healing and exorcising. The crowds that came for medical help got more than they may have expected as they heard him speak about justice for everyone and love for neighbors and enemies. Spreading health and preaching compassion were at the heart of being the Prince of Peace.

Life, Liberty, and the Enjoyment of Christmas

A great many families will be able to celebrate Christmas together this year because of the miracle of vaccines. Amidst the joy of family gatherings, we still are in a pandemic that is showing signs of becoming more deadly over the winter months.

Hope for this second pandemic winter can be found by heeding the message of the angels and the way Jesus implemented it. God’s peace comes when we honor the concerns of common people for justice, equal treatment, health, and love of neighbors. This excludes passionate devotion to lies that foment hate and violence. Today genuine democracy is the best hope for realizing neighbor love in an imperfect world. Whole-hearted support of a battle against a disease that has killed 5,000,000 humans worldwide is necessary to advance God’s peace on Earth.

This Christmas and the coming year are a good time for Christians of all varieties—and like minded seekers of peace through justice and compassion—to honor the message of the angels. When peace and goodwill are restored to divided families and communities, the leadership of God and the Prince of Peace overrule forces of hatred and violence. When genuinely democratic and nonpartisan procedures are defended and where equality and justice are extended to common people of all cultures and ethnicities, we recognize the angel’s message of the people favored by God. This is the same message confirmed by Jesus when he coupled love of God and neighbor as a fundamental rule of the Kingdom of God.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Edward G. Simmons is a Vanderbilt Ph.D. who teaches history at Georgia Gwinnett College. He is a Bible scholar, Unitarian Christian, and veteran Sunday School teacher in Presbyterian Churches. He is the author of Talking Back to the Bible and two chapters in The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump: 30 Christian Evangelicals on Justice, Truth, and Moral Integrity edited by Ronald J. Sider. His latest book is Values, Truth, and Spiritual Danger: Progressive Christianity in the Age of Trump. Dr. Simmons is an energetic speaker for education, religious, and civic groups of all ages. He may be contacted at the following email address: egsimmons6@gmail.com

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