Occupy Bethlehem

This is an advent story: a familiar tale told from an unfamiliar angle. Listen and remember…

Just over 2000 years ago in the region of Judea – in the town of Bethlehem – a movement was birthed. It all took place during the reign of Herod the Great, king of Judea, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. By this time Herod had been in power for over 30 years – appointed by the Roman Senate in the midst of political turmoil. Never fully embraced by the Jewish people, he was always considered an outsider, and his expensive building projects and lavish lifestyle caused financial strain. He was a client-king – operating primarily under the interests of Rome – not the true King.

Also in those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree through the Senate that everyone living in the Empire must be registered for tax purposes, including the Jews. Since general Pompey secured control over Judea 60 years earlier, the Jews were subjects of Rome. This census was yet another reminder that they lived in exile – captives in their own land. Although Judea had experienced a brief period of independence after the Maccabean revolt, the often-corrupt Hasmonean priesthood was characterized more by vying for power through political means than returning to God with true sacrifice and praise. These times were a pale reflection of generations past, before the Assyrians and Babylonians conquered the people and desecrated the Temple, like the Golden years under the great King David. They were living in the land again – the Temple rebuilt – but life was not the same. Exile was, after all, the inevitable consequence of the nation’s obstinacy. Jewish oppression under Roman rule was linked, ironically, to the oppression that the Jews first perpetrated.

Things were business-as-usual in those days some might have said, at least up in Jerusalem at the Temple. Sacrifices, festivals, Sabbath, circumcision, Torah-keeping, dietary restrictions – all the right markers of Jewish identity were in place. But everyone also knew that things were not as they should be.

In the midst of their exile the Jews were actually quite expectant for an occupy movement. Beginning with the first exile, the prophets spoke in veiled images of a time when God would return to occupy His people in His land in order to make things right. Justice would flow like a river and God’s law would be written not in stone, but on hearts. This hope grew over the years and assumed different forms. It was said that God’s occupation would be realized under the leadership of the Anointed One. By the first century the image that predominated was one of a military ruler who would come wielding a sword to gather his people together and overthrow Rome outright.

The time was pregnant with revolution. Nothing would be the same after the movement took root, and everything that came before would be seen differently. And so, in the midst of socio-economic, political, and religious crisis, it began: Joseph returning to his hometown, Bethlehem, to register, and Mary with child.

Occupy Bethlehem was birthed. Quietly.

The thing about Occupy Bethlehem is that it did not begin as Occupy Jerusalem, or Occupy Rome, as some might have expected. There was no grand entrance heralded by the horns of war. No march on the steps of the Temple Mount. Rather, the movement was inaugurated with an announcement to shepherds in a field. Other occupy attempts previously emerged in different regions around Judea – like the occupy movement led by one called Judas. He raided the palace at Sephoris and seized the armory. That movement burned out bright and fast. But none like Occupy Bethlehem. It was a real threat to the powers-that-be, however. Its Anointed leader, Jesus, threatened the essence of Caesar’s lordship – the heart of Herod’s kingly reign – the uniqueness of the high priest’s sacrifice.

Occupy Bethlehem was in every way characterized by the margins: a marginal birth on the outskirts of the city, a recruitment that drew from the margins of society, a message received by those on the margins of power, and an execution reserved for the most marginal dissidents. This occupation on the margins was about redeeming those who were in captivity and inviting in those who were not in by rights. Jesus said it himself when he quoted those who spoke long before in hope of this movement, “The Spirit…has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the regaining of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed.” This was the Jubilee.

This movement Jesus led was no empty politic. It was the occupation of one kingdom by another – the invasion of the faux by the Real. It was not legislated, but inaugurated. It was not an uprising, but a descent. Not a massive footprint, but a mustard seed. The Pax Romana met the Via Crucis. The occupation of the Roman state signaled a reversal in its modus operandi: prevailing systems were no longer self-apparent because there was a new Benefactor, thus a new way of being human.  The implication of Occupy Bethlehem was that those who were poor, sorrowful, hungry, and persecuted were really blessed. Those who were first were really last, and the last first.

It must be remembered that the telos of this movement was comprehensive in scope – no realm un-occupied. Its leader, the Son of God, came to occupy all of creation. Because, as his followers would later affirm, that which is not “occupied” cannot be redeemed. So he became every bit of us. He invaded all of our space by setting up his tent here. His protest – his mission – was one of reconciliation, not through force but by willing submission to the worst of our mess. Death. And so his occupation was our liberation out of death and into life because he triumphed over the powers that held creation in captivity. The Son’s successful occupation, in fact, was a victory march – a procession with the defeated foes in tow. They were disgraced by the occupation’s counterintuitive means: the cross. Indeed, the Son’s great Demonstration was his humiliation there. It was only through his emptying that there was vindication as he was raised the true Lord over creation.

Soon Occupy Bethlehem went viral. Throughout the Roman Empire other movements took hold: Occupy Judea, Occupy Samaria, Occupy Ephesus, Occupy Corinth, Occupy Rome, and beyond. The Good News of the movement grew by the force of its inherent power and the witness of its followers.

Now we join in Occupy Bethlehem by participating in the self-emptying demonstration – becoming occupied ourselves. All of our allegiances are thus redirected and redefined, and we submit to being transformed by the same Spirit that always energized Occupy Bethlehem with the Son and Father. Outward now we move into the public and private spaces of occupation – to the 99 and the 1% – witnessing to the character and power of Occupy Bethlehem.

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