What signals a war’s end? We probably will never see again a formal surrender ritual, like the picture of General Umezu signing papers before General MacArthur on the USS Missouri to close World War II.
Our military left Iraq with handshakes. Other than a couple of hundred American troops in Baghdad who will guard the United States Embassy, the last American troops in Iraq crossed into Kuwait early on Sunday morning. They left their base in southern Iraq without notifying their Iraqi counterparts and under the cover of darkness. Several days earlier Secretary of Defense Panetta delivered some closing remarks in a fortified, concrete courtyard with helicopters flying overhead.
Leaving stealthily under the cover of night. Delivering a valedictory under heavy security. It’s probably better than the image that closed out our war in Vietnam, people trying to board the last helicopter leaving the American embassy in Saigon. Still, what do these departures say about the war in Iraq? Victory was ambiguous at best. Some could argue that we lost and squandered hundreds of billions of dollars. Others could claim that we achieved some significant changes, a despotic ruler was deposed and executed. Iraqis are not sure what to expect.
We went to war in Iraq because we could. The Bush administration believed that our military, second to none, could make a quick and decisive military intervention to make the political and economic situation in Iraq more favorable to us. Whether it was for a more secure oil supply, establish a beachhead for democracy in the Arab world, or rid an unreliable and cruel dictator of weapons of mass destruction (which did not exist), we used military force to serve our nation’s interests.
Our invasion was a mark of an empire. We used our military power to depose a ruler and to install a government which we hope will be sympathetic to us. This isn’t new. We’ve heard a similar story many times before, Ancient Rome’s conquest of Palestine and its installation of King Herod. That our departure from Iraq took place on Sunday is ironic happiness. It makes the song I’ll be Home for Christmas especially poignant because for thousands of troops it won’t be in their dreams.
The close of the Iraq war is a Christmas story. That which seemed unimaginable has finally come true. It’s the underlying theme of so many stories such as A Christmas Carol or movies such as It’s a Wonderful Life. Television series have their special Christmas program showing that on Christmas any differences that come between us all year can disappear. There are the Christmas specials where someone who is in great need gets his or her wish fulfilled – a Christmas miracle.
Miracles are re-enforced, too. We’re bombarded with ads to encourage us to find just the right present in order to show how much we care about the special people in our lives. Our mailboxes are crammed with end-of-year appeals from all sorts of worthy charities for worthy causes. All of this to remember the birth of Jesus.
Of course, the birth of Jesus is beautifully rendered in our minds. A young woman, about 16 years old, gave birth in a stable. The angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:14) Shepherds hastened to the stable to find a baby wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. We sing hymns set to beautiful music in order to tell this story.
But this is not a beautiful story. I doubt any women would choose to give birth in a stable. I don’t care how clean it is, a baby’s first bed should not be a feeding trough for the livestock. I think it’s shocking that there was no room at the inn – didn’t someone have the decency to make space for this pregnant girl to labor?
Whether lovely hymns, beautiful Christmas cards, or soldiers coming home, if we only look at these as our signs of Christmas, we’ve robbed the birth narrative of its shocking power.
Christmas is more than the birth of baby, albeit a special baby. Christmas is God’s incarnation in human flesh. Christmas ends Advent’s wait. It fulfills the promise of a new day when God’s reign of peace and justice rules our world. God’s reign overturns our world and its assumptions and organization. In God’s reign God will look with favor upon the lowly. God will bring down the powerful and mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly. God will fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty.
Jesus was not just a baby born in a stable. Jesus posed a threat to the very existence of a political, economic, and religious system that supported an empire which enforced peace through fear and violence. The people in the early decades of the church didn’t hear just the birth narrative. They heard the entire gospel told to them as a story. In that story they learned that Jesus was a king who fostered peace through the bread and the cup, not through weapons of violence. They heard that King Jesus proclaimed that love had power to transform the world radically. Love, the true path towards peace, casts out fear.
The ambiguous and messy end to the war in Iraq… Let’s not look at this politically. There will be plenty of time to discuss the merits of this war. We can analyze its costs and benefits later. We can debate its value in bringing democracy to the Arab Middle East later. Now, however, we should look at this war in light of Christmas and understand the limitations of an empire (even with a military second to none) organized by the barrel of a gun.
Christmas is far more than beautiful hymns and gauzy images of a poor family with its baby in a stable. Christmas is more than erasing our differences once a year. Christmas’ message is more than having one’s material desires fulfilled. Christmas is even more than men and women coming home from an ambiguous and messy war to feast at the holiday table.
Christmas says “NO” to a world organized by scarcity and ruled by fear. Christmas rejects the nations that strive to be empires in order to make the world politically compliant and economically dependent. Christmas is the world turned upside down. Christmas is God’s reign of peace and justice. Christmas is a world where God’s abundance is shared so no one ever has to know scarcity or deprivation. Christmas is love that extends beyond an emotion and embraces actions of care, compassion, and reconciliation and that it has the power to transform this world. Christmas is peace that comes from sharing the bread and the cup. Christmas reminds us that this creation is God’s gift to us and as its stewards, we are bound to care for each other, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or ability, as well to care for this planet so our children and our children’s children can enjoy it as we do.
Christmas. Let’s not be satisfied that it will be here on December 25. Let’s continue to work in order to hasten that day when it will not be 12 days in the church calendar, but will be God’s kingdom on earth. Merry Christmas.
Note: As I’m not in a church right now (I will be soon) I don’t have a church where I can preach this. Then again, this is not a Christmas sermon many would want to hear.