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Searching for a political Messiah

This column originally appeared in the Southern Nebraska Register Dec. 22, 2017.

George Frideric Handel’s famed oratorio, Messiah, recounts—in a musically dramatic way—the life of Jesus Christ. In Part I, Handel relies on the prophecies of Isaiah, reminding us of God the Father’s promise to Israel—and all the nations—that a Lord will be given to them to rule in justice and peace. Particularly, Handel draws from Isaiah 9:6 which foretells the birth of the Messiah: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder.”

As we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we would do well to consider the implications of this decisive fact of human history for our political life. Do we place government on the shoulders of the Christ Child, who has fulfilled the prophecies of Isaiah? Does Christ shoulder the burdens and evils of our politics? Do we allow Christ to be the foundation for our government? Or do we put our hopes in false messiahs, the political demagogues of our day?

Christ, Hope for Humanity. While Christ invites us to suffer with Him and enter into His redemptive work, the burdens and evils of this world were not meant for us to shoulder. From the outset of salvation history, God the Father has promised the Messiah to atone for our sinfulness (see Genesis 3:15).

This promise is necessary to overcome the “structures of sin,” as St. Pope John Paul II called them, created by our personal sins. The structures of sin are produced by a “world divided into blocs, sustained by rigid ideologies, and in which instead of interdependence and solidarity different forms of imperialism hold sway[.]” They create the “sum total of negative factors working against a true awareness of the universal common good, and the need to further it[.]” Such ‘structures’ give “the impression of creating, in persons and institutions, an obstacle which is difficult to overcome.”

Deeply embedded in our political situation, structures of sin create obstacles to relief for the poor and vulnerable, the immigrant, the unborn, the un- and under-educated, the prisoner, among others.

Christ, Hope for the Nations. N.T. Wright, an acclaimed Anglican Scripture scholar and theologian, has commented that “[w]e place too much trust in our politicians because we place too little trust in God, and in the self-revelation of the living God in the child who is born to us. And when our politicians let us down, all we can think of is how to find another politician, who will get it right this time.” This tendency to find ultimate hope in a particular political leader or party has been known as “political messianism.”

But political messianism is nothing new. As the author of Ecclesiastes reminds us: “[T]here is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9).

Even at the time of Jesus, His role as Messiah was misunderstood. The Christ, it was thought, would overcome the political rulers of the day, to reestablish the kingship of David and the power of the Israelite people over the other nations. But, as Pope Benedict XVI has stated: “[T]he true messiah is not David’s son, but David’s Lord. He sits, not on David’s throne, but on God’s throne.”

It is the Lord who brings about the greatest freedom, peace, and justice that humanity could ever desire: salvation from the bondage of our sinfulness. No politician can generate this freedom, despite our hopes to the contrary. While this reflection could be true of many political leaders, as Wright preached shortly after the election of President Obama: “The irrational joy and hope at his election only shows the extent to which other hopes have failed, making us snatch too eagerly at sudden fresh signs. And that can only be because we have forgotten the Christmas message, or have neutered it, have rendered it toothless, as though the shoulder of the child born this night was simply a shoulder for individuals to lean on rather than the shoulder to take the weight of the world’s government.”

May Christmas cultivate in our hearts a reliance in the true Messiah who renews our fragile, broken political system and brings true freedom, justice, and peace.

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