Jesus was born during a Totalitarian Regime.
It may seem bold and anachronistic to apply the term Totalititarian Regime to the 1st Century. And in the current political climate I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that the title feels a lot like another leftist anti-Trump propaganda hit piece – this time with a Christian twist.
But hear me out. Because I am currently in the middle of a depression tornado of winter, living in a neighborhood with a lot of stressed out neighbors (the four closest businesses to my house are owned by Somalis and Latinos), and my own protest fatigue.
And I am trying to cling to my Christian values of hope and love and not give into hopelessness and resentment. And realizing that Jesus preached love during his own oppressive regime is giving me reason to hope.
Jesus was born 60 years after the Roman Empire captured Jerusalem.
That means that Jesus’ grandparents fought in a war for independence – and they lost. After the war, the Roman Empire restructured the political, religious and social institutions.
Everyone position of power in Jewish nation was replaced. From the King, to the High Priest, to the local security guard – everyone had to be TOTALly faithful to the Roman occupier. Hence the term – TOTALitarianism.
The new Jewish King Herod was put on the throne in Jerusalem as a puppet for the Roman empire. King Herod was told to kill anyone and everyone who looked like a populist threat to Roman order.
The Jewish High Priest was put on a throne in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and told to report any religious leaders who were stirring up trouble.
And everyone reported directly to the Roman Governor who in turn reported to the Emperor in Rome.
Jesus born into this totalitarian regime.
A regime that wanted him dead since Day One.
If you remember when Jesus was born, there was a prophecy from three kings about a new King of the Jews being born. And this prophecy made its way to King Herod’s ear. And King ordered every baby in the region to be killed.
Let that sink in. Try to imagine the level of paranoia that makes a king kill all babies under the age of two in an entire district because of the musings of three strangers.
And what is insane is that this was not new for the Herod Family. Herod had his wife Mariamne killed after sensing the Jewish people saw her as a populist symbol. He had his political chief strategist drowned in the palace pool for the same reason.
He ruled out of fear. And the only thing he feared more than a populist uprising was the Roman Empire who appointed him.
And Jesus grew up during this mess. Jesus grew up hearing the news from Jerusalem about Herod murdering his wife, knowing full well what Herod would do when he found out the baby he tried to kill was still alive.
Then Herod the Great passes the crown to his son, Herod Antiopas.
And the cycle of paranoid murder continues in the Jewish palace. Herod Antiopas goes on a trip to Rome and falls in love with his brother’s wife Phasaelis. So Herod marries Phasaelis in flagrant disregard for Jewish law. And when Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, starts preaching about how Herod is a disgusting pig, John winds up with his head on a silver platter in the palace.
And that’s just the puppet Jewish government!
Pontius Pilate is the Roman governor of Jerusalem. He is the real power player. And he’s just as bad. Pilate installed a Roman monument in Jerusalem and a bunch of Jewish protesters gathered during the opening.
And Pilate has his soldiers round up the protesters, kills them, and burns their bodies with the day’s animal sacrifices.
Pilate controls Herod and he controls the high level Jewish religious officials. They are the religious eyes and ears of the Roman empire.
And amidst this political and religious madness…Jesus is wandering around with a small band of followers declaring themselves “The Kingdom of God.”
The KINGDOM of GOD.
Why not just name your movement: Hey Pilate and Herod! Please Murder Us…
And this movement is a motley crew. They have a tax collectors who exploited Jewish people and collected taxes for the regime. Women who lived without the support of their government and community and have been reduced to sex work. Fisherman and intellectuals.
All with a common enemy in the regime. A regime led by a betraying murderous Jewish king, a Roman governor, and religious elites who sold out their own people.
And in the midst of this chaos and violence, Jesus calls his followers to resist with peace and love.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount.
Blessed are the peacemakers – like the peaceful protesters that Pontius Pilate burned with the animal sacrifices.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Blessed are the persecuted – like the parents whose babies were murdered by a paranoid King.
When they have so many reasons to hate their enemies, Jesus asks them to choose love.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”
Jesus told his followers to love their enemies. To find some way to love Herod and Pilate and the Roman soldiers and the turn-coat priests.
And he didn’t stop when his cousin was murdered.
And he didn’t stop when he heard about the protesters being killed in Jerusalem.
And he didn’t stop when his followers told him not to go to the capital.
He marched into Jerusalem during the national celebration of Passover and flipped over tables in the Temple.
Knowing full well that it was going to get him arrested, beat up, and killed.
The words Love your Enemies are not some feel good truism.
They were spoken by a resistor during a totalitarian regime. A regime that murdered his grandparents’ generation in a war, murdered his cousin, murdered him, and then murdered all his friends.
And that is why I have been holding on to those words. I don’t know how to love my enemies very well. But knowing that Jesus commanded this during a totalitarian regime gives me hope.
I don’t know how to love Trump, his billionaire cabinet, and the religious people who supported him. When I am marching in the streets, I do it out of love for my neighbors, but I don’t feel much love for the administration.
I guess that’s what so hard about Jesus’ call. He doesn’t let us just resist. We have to resist and love the person we are resisting. We have to find someway to love the people who are destroying our country.
In Jesus’ day there was a story told by a the butlers who worked in the Herod Family palace. After Herod the Great killed his wife Mariamne, for years the butler would hear Herod wake up in the middle of the night screaming her name.
I tried to imagine little Herod Antiapas as a child. Laying in bed as his father screams his dead mother’s name in the middle of the night.
And for the first time – I experienced the beginnings of compassion for him. I finally saw Herod as something other than a monster. I saw him as a boy who grew up in a home where you killed anyone who threatened you.
I wonder if this something Jesus thought about when he tried to love Herod.
I am trying to cultivate stories like these. Stories that humanize Donald Trump, Kellyanne Conway, Franklin Graham…
Trump’s biographer, Michael D’Antonio said that when Donald Trump was 13, his grades went down. And the young Donald Trump“was essentially banished from the family home, he hadn’t known anything but living with his family in a luxurious setting, and all of a sudden he’s sent away” to military academy.
Even as I read those words my mind was immediately clouded with all the anger I feel at him. But I’m trying to hold on to that image of a 13 year old being sent away.
There is something so powerfully humanizing about reading that the man who keeps shouting about banning and deporting – was himself banned from his house and deported to military school.
And seeing someone as human is a first step toward compassion and maybe showing love to them.
Because even as I resist this administration, protest their bigotry, and organize against their legislation…
I also have to try and love my enemies, and right now Donald Trump and his regime are definitely my enemies. And that maybe loving everyone – including our enemies – will bring about the world Jesus was talking about.