For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
We are in for what political scientists like to call a “humdinger” of a year. Not long ago The Atlantic ran a special issue titled “How to Stop a Civil War,” with an illustration on the front cover of a handprint in dripping blue and red paint reminiscent of blood. The New York Times dedicated an entire issue of its weekly magazine to “The 1619 Project,” making the case that the American founding is better understood as springing from the beginning of the trade in African slaves on our shores, rather than the American Revolution’s 1776 dedication to justice, equality, and freedom for all.
It’s an uncomfortable thought, if true. It suggests that the American experiment isn’t an outworking of our founding dedication to freedom and justice for all – a dedication that was inconsistently and hypocritically applied at first but gradually extended – but that instead it was from the very start, intrinsically and inescapably, an exercise in exploitation, violence, and oppression. Instead of inhabiting a national imagination where it makes sense to re-tell the American founding through an African-American art form, as in the rap musical Hamilton, such a project implies that we should give up the notion of extending the principles of the American founding to an ever-more diverse nation, and instead recognize them for what they were all along: nothing more than cover for what was and always has been an oppressive and violent slaveocracy.
I raise this not to resolve it in a single column, but instead because I think it powerfully illustrates a meta-question that today is often behind pressing questions passionately debated in American public life. Is there any such thing as legitimate political authority, in service of the civic common good? Or is there merely power all the way down, exercised violently, oppressively, and inevitably by some individual or faction over others?
This question is being asked with more force today than it has been in some time, and more and more of us are approaching the conclusion that Nietzsche was right: There is only power, and those who are too weak to seek it. If that’s true, then the best we can do is make sure that we get our hands on as much of it as we can muster.
I say approaching Nietzsche’s conclusion rather than arriving at it, since it’s obviously the case that most of today’s passionate political debates are deeply moralistic in nature. Americans believe that one or another identity group — often the ones we belong to — are unjustly oppressed, and that reparations should be made. Yet the more we see other identity groups as nothing more than rivals and enemies, the closer we get to the world of Nietzsche. Either they win, or we will; they are evil, and we are not. The ends justify the means.
Hence, as I say, the humdinger of the year we are in for as Americans in 2020. It’s often now pointed out that white males increasingly see themselves as one more identity group, who’ll be damned if they’re going to let all the others take what’s rightfully theirs. In such a world, truth, justice, and due process increasingly count for little. Show trials and cancellation via Twitter predominate. The search for truth or justice is shunted aside by the impatient question: Whose side are you on? Who cares what Trump really did? He’s on our side. Who cares what Brett Kavanaugh really did? He’s on their side. And so on and so on it goes, all while the justice system is clogged with immigrants facing deportation, with inner-city poor without anything close to adequate legal representation, and with rural poor dying of an opioid crisis that so far the courts seem powerless to resolve.
“Are you the one who is to come,” John the Baptist asked Jesus from Herod’s prison, “or are we to wait for another?” I imagine that John, the very same John who baptized Jesus and saw the heavens open and the Spirit descend, was asking the question: Are you actually the savior, the deliverer, we’ve been waiting for? I don’t feel very delivered right now. Israel doesn’t look very saved. Where are the mighty cast down from their thrones? Where are the hungry being filled with good things, the rich sent away empty?
One way of answering John’s question is with a forthright: No, Jesus is not the one, and I’m not about to waste time waiting around for another. It’s time for me, and for us, to stand up and deliver ourselves, whatever it takes, come what may. There is no Prince of Peace with the government on his shoulders, to whom all authority on heaven and earth has been given. No, there is in the last analysis only power, and those too weak to take it for themselves. If I don’t get mine, by any means necessary, then someone else is sure to take it, and I’ll be damned if they do.
It is easy, too easy to believe this. As I say, one way of understanding the present anger and turmoil of American civic life is that more and more of us believe it and act accordingly.
Yet to gaze upon the face of the Deliverer-Child, the infant King, is to experience our universal suspicion beginning to melt away. This is the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, on whose shoulders the government shall rest? There can be no power-play at work here, not from the hands of one who has emptied himself of power entirely, a crying babbling newborn King who places his very life in the arms of his mother, and of you and me.
You might say that the possibility of genuine politics begins with the first Christmas, with the Incarnation. It is finally and only here that we see there might actually be a peaceable Prince of all the world, with a government on his shoulders that serves not simply the private good of the governors nor the good of some identity group over others, but the common good of all humanity.
The term common good comes from Catholic social teaching, and arguably the very notion that there is a civic good common to all humanity is at Catholic social doctrine’s heart. It’s a truth of nature that there is such a good, so the argument goes: it’s the way God made us, all of us created equal and endowed with certain rights and duties, created to share a common civic life together that’s more than the sum of its parts. Yet it’s only divine revelation that would ever prompt us to believe such a thing, down here in the bitter, fractious fallen state of warring identities where we live and vote and rub elbows against our neighbors.
It’s no wonder that as fewer and fewer of us believe in the Prince of Peace, fewer and fewer of us believe that civic peace and legitimate authority are goods worth working toward. Why would we ever believe such a thing is possible? Isn’t it just a cover, a scam, a ruse that some people use to justify their power?
Yet here in the Christmas Season, the Deliverer-Child’s powerless little arms open wide toward ours, the King of kings emptied of everything except love. Unto us a Child is born; unto us a Son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder. And his name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him.
Come, let us adore Him: our Lord and our King.
The Rev. Canon Dr. Jordan Hylden is canon theologian for the diocese of Dallas and co-vicar of St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.