Iowa is a state for reflection. For many years Christmas in Iowa was a family tradition, but living on the east coast makes such pilgrimages rare. On Christmas Eve in Ames, we drove past a Nazarene Church decked out for the holiday with a sign reading, “Jesus Came for You.” Perhaps I watch too many movies, but the images that came to mind were of Rambo and The Terminator—menacing figures who’ve sought out their victims for revenge. Coming for you was a threat rather than a promise. Who can forget Arnold’s “I’ll be back”? Was the child who came sent with a mission of punishment or of peace? To hear presidential candidates and other evangelicals tell the Christmas story, it is clearly the former—the Rambo of God who blows away the sins of the world—that we should expect. The Prince of Pieces.
That version of Christianity that likes to present itself as the default, the natural form of what the church has taught all these years, has a strong current of threat running through it. God never shows up unless there is a problem—an absentee father only too swift to remove his ample belt to begin a sound thrashing. Religion often thrives in the context of menace. Teaching that people are evil by nature and only good when under promise of Hell, such believers understand the coming of Jesus to be cause for fear and alarm. According to Luke, the angels began their message with “Fear not.”
How Christmas is understood reflects on the view of Christianity that believers choose. For the advent and arrival of an emissary can be cause for celebration or of fear. In some mangers the infant conceals a cudgel and woe to those who suggest equal treatment of all or a non-literal reading of favorite prooftexts. This time of year stands as an excellent test of what this child will grow up to be in the minds of his latter-day cohort. What arrival should we anticipate? If it is the Jesus of the politicians and evangelicals, we only have to look at the headlines to discover the answer.