My argument here is not with that essay, or whether or not it is a “Christmas film.” My argument here is that violence as redemption goes way deeper than Die Hard. It’s part of our national DNA, and it actually originates in some of our most cherished mythologies, like Christmas itself. When any movement (whether USAmerica or Christianity or any other movement) is founded on “violence as redemption” it is difficult to stray far from that core tenet because it gets built into everything that follows. I’m looking here at “the disturbing message of Christmas” (which necessarily includes the rest of the Jesus story). The story, and the season, is a vital part of our national consciousness, it drives our politics (the Fox News annual War on Christmas bullshit), it drives our economy (“Black Friday” officially begins the holiday spending season). It doesn’t matter to me if you are Christian or not, if you take the story literally or figuratively. It doesn’t matter to me if someone thinks Die Hard is a Christmas story or not. I’m arguing that Christmas is a Die Hard story and that, as they are told, they reflect the same national mythology.
A close reading of the “Christmas texts” in the gospels, as well as historical descriptions of the cultural settings in the time of the “traditional” Christmas story, gives us a more complete narrative than the popular gooey one where all wars end, where injustice is no more, and where we’re all home for the holidays. Here is the R-rated sequence of events, as described accurately in the best scholarly research we have available. It’s so full of violence that it would make a Die Hard film right proud:
- A poor, unmarried Hebrew girl, probably named named Miriam, probably about 14 years old, was pregnant, most likely from a rape or incest. Here we have a scene of sexual violence and child abuse. Attributing her pregnancy to a so-called “holy spirit” of a god-the-father does not mitigate the violence, it makes it even more abusive. And for those who would point to the virginity of Miriam: the word mis-translated as “virgin” does not mean “never had sexual intercourse” (there is a different, specific word for that). It is more accurately translated as “young woman of marriageable age” (meaning she’d started having menstrual periods and was therefore capable of bearing children). The whole “immaculate conception” business actually refers to Miriam’s mother. In those days, “marriage” consisted of “covenant and consummation.” A couple simply took up life together, recognized by their community. Weddings were only for the rich. An unmarried/unpartnered pregnant young woman was in deep trouble. Her punishment for fornication would have been death by stoning.
- An older man, probably named Yosef, probably saved her from death by “taking her” as his wife. There is no indication that Yosef was the father of Miriam’s unborn child. We do not know his motives. The biblical narrative tells us that Jesus eventually had siblings. But in terms of the Christmas story, we can assume that Miriam had some forced choices. Here we have two scenes of violence: the impending unjust and brutal execution-by-stoning of the victim of a rape, and a pregnant 14-year-old forced into marriage in order to avoid death. Are there any current “forced-birth with no exception for rape or incest” examples out there?
- The Roman emperor Caesar Augustus decreed that everyone had to register to be taxed, including the occupied territories (like Judea). This was a forced conscription and, as the story goes, the older man and his pregnant child-bride traveled to Bethlehem to enroll. When the two arrived, the inn had no room and so they were shown to the stable where, the story continues, Miriam went into labor and birthed a boy child. Here we have another scene of violence: the birth of a child of rape or incest in a dirty stable that would have reeked of shit, donkey piss, and rotted straw, some of which was used for the newborn’s bed.
- Foreshadowing of death: in the narrative, the Magi (astrologers) bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Frankincense and myrrh were oils used in embalming dead bodies for burial (those particular scents helped to mask the stench of a decomposing corpse). Here is more violence: this child is doomed from the start, born into poverty in an occupied land with no prospects ahead but certain death. Sanitizing this violence by framing him as sacrificial lamb/savior of the world just makes it worse, but we’ve used that exact language to “honor” fallen U.S. soldiers who “gave their last measure of devotion and made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.” I’m not saying they should not be honored. I am saying the whole paradigm is set a deep in our collective national consciousness.
- Herod the Great, King of Judea, the narrative goes, hears of a “rival king” born in Bethlehem, and in his jealous raging he orders the murder of all male children in the region two years of age and under. The family flees for their lives to Egypt. Here is another scene of violence: the wholesale massacre of children for the political gain.
- Let’s complete this story of violence-as-redemption. As the story goes, the child born to Miriam is none other than the Christ of faith, the identified patient/sacrificial lamb who, the story goes, is executed in the place of all of us condemned, poor miserable sinners who have been sitting on death row and are now free to go. In this case, Miriam’s now-grown child was nailed to a wood-beam cross posted at a busy crossroads along with others, and she was there watching it happen. Crucifixion was the Roman punishment for rebellion, and the crosses of the dying rebels littered the crossroads of Judea. Theologically, this is called “substitutionary atonement.” This kind of violence is well known in our world: we take everything we cannot accept in ourselves, and we dump it onto another person or group and blame them for everything that is wrong, and we hate them for it, and then our violence against them is justified.
I was a pastor for 20 years (I am no longer), seminary-trained at one of the best schools. For twenty years, every year, I had to deal with the violent part of the story that nobody wanted to hear. They wanted to hear the sugar-coated Joy to the World and Peace on Earth, and there is certainly room in the story for those intentions. But the first century was ugly and violent, as is ours, and Judea under Roman occupation was murderous, as is ours. The people living under Roman occupation were brutally oppressed, their resources plundered, their economy stolen, as is happening in our time. The Jesus story is one of the most violent stories ever told from start to finish. Theologians have had to twist their brains pretty hard to justify any redemption to be wrung out of it, and honestly, I find the idea of all this violence being part of some kind of divine plan to be utterly reprehensible. The tacit message is, if you are poor, and powerless, and up against money and power, it’s the shitty stable for you, and you’re gonna get crucified, and that’s with divine intervention. Any theology or national mythology that justifies that kind of violence with some magical notion of substitutionary atonement is just plain bankrupt.
Violence as survival may be unavoidable, we are creatures of the earth and we need to eat to live. Violence as protection may, unfortunately, also be unavoidable at times. But violence is not redemptive. It has never been redemptive. It will never be redemptive. And the kind of violence we’re capable of these days all but insures we will not survive.
My point: only when enough people in the world do what is known as “taking a fearless moral inventory,” only when enough of us have the guts to look at the lies we tell ourselves and stop telling them, only when enough of us are willing to clean out the piss and shit and rotted straw from our own stables, only then will there be even a remote hope of “peace on earth, goodwill to all.” It will be a new story because it has not happened yet. And that hope will remain empty until enough of us are good-willing enough to roll up our sleeves and go to work to make it a reality for all living beings. There will be no peace until there is justice. There will be no peace until there is plenty — food, shelter, safety, opportunity for a good life — for everyone. There will be no peace until all the world’s children are our children because now it takes a global village to raise a child. There will be no peace until we take off the price tags that have commodified everything including the ability of earth to support life. There will be no peace without universal education that “leads us out” (the meaning of the Latin e duco) from ignorance, and from violent biological patterns of value, and from violent social/cultural patterns of value. There will be no peace until enough of us make a committed daily practice of awakened, compassionate engagement, and that engagement absolutely begins right where we are, with what we have, with what we can do… and we can do a lot.
In my view, that is the meaning of Christmas.