Why Christmas is deeply political

December 23, 2015

Christmastime is uniquely joyful and awe-inspiring, one in which we commemorate the coming of our God to earth, who took on flesh and dwelt among us.

And yet it can be far too easy to leave Jesus in the manger. For many, the little Lord Jesus lays down his sweet head, and is to be admired and even worshiped. But Jesus did not take on flesh and bear the fullness of humanity for the sake of sentimentality. Instead, the manger scene at Bethlehem is the opening salvo of world war—the invasion of a world in revolt. And this baby in the manger comes as one who will overthrow every worldly and other-worldly power.

So in a very real sense the Incarnation is deeply political.

This may seem counter-intuitive. After all, for years we’ve been told that the gospel must not be co-opted by any political program, and that’s true. Many plead for society to take a break this time of year from the typical arguing and partisan strife, and that’s understandable.

But for those of us in Christ, the Incarnation is vitally connected to Jesus’ mission and the church’s Commission, and we would do well to observe the ways Christ’s coming both animates and grounds our public advocacy and efforts.

1. The Incarnation is a public act with public implications. The Incarnation, Scripture reveals, is the moment at which God invades his fallen world. The whole point is that God has stepped onto the public scene—he is “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). This point was missed neither by Mary, who praises God for this birth, which will bring down thrones (Luke 1:52), nor by Herod, who is told of this “king of the Jews” born in David’s city and lashes out in fury.

And yet too often in our own ministry contexts, in our efforts to “focus on the gospel” we can bristle at things that Jesus saw as central to his own ministry. Among those things that often get overlooked are things that seem “political” in nature: speaking truth to tyranny, caring for the oppressed and marginalized, and contending for life at all stages—knowing as we do that our Incarnate Lord was once both a fetus and a corpse.

It is indeed true that the church must be vigilant to never to be co-opted by any partisan agenda, but the church must also bear in mind that Jesus taking on humanity and entering into public life means that God is not interested exclusively in “saving souls” but in the redemption both of humanity and the fallen universe over which this triumphant human Warrior-King will rule.

2. The Incarnation and its message brings continual disruption. Across all four of the Gospels, moments of coronation give way quickly to conflict. Immediately following a triumphant birth, Herod’s rage is unleashed (Matt. 2:13). After the Spirit descends on Jesus at his baptism in a moment of kingly coronation, Satan does battle with Jesus in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11). Shortly after riding triumphantly into Jerusalem, and thereby making a public claim to be Messiah (Zech. 9:9), Jesus is persecuted by an unlikely political alliance—Pilate and the Sanhedrin—who share nothing in common except the desire to neutralize this One who threatens their grip on power.

We must also see that, while a heavenly host revels in the “peace on earth” that God will bring (Luke 2:14), the Incarnation brings division before it yields ultimate peace. This is why Jesus speaks of his ministry as bringing not peace but a sword (Matt. 10:34). Similarly, those who carry Jesus’ gospel and give witness to his kingdom should likewise expect conflict (Matt. 5:11; John 15:21).

The message of the gospel means that our ultimate allegiance is to a kingdom that has yet to come in its fullness. It means that our end game is eschatological more than electoral, and this being the case we will work for the common good so as to testify to the ultimate good. It means that we will be confronted with opposition from all corners, either when we don’t fit nicely into partisan molds, or when alliances form in opposition to the strangeness of our convictions. So we engage with the tranquility of those who know to expect conflict but have in view a supermajority from every tribe, tongue, and nation.

3. The Incarnation compels Christian public witness. The Incarnation is the starting point of Jesus’ personally-present public engagement in the world. At the Incarnation, Jesus takes on flesh—he is God with us bodily, personally, in time and space. But the personal presence of Jesus does not terminate when Jesus ascends to heaven. Instead, with the sending of the Spirit, Jesus is personally present in the lives of those united to him in faith and in the life of the local church, and he summons his people both to demonstrate and to cultivate the virtues of the kingdom in the life of the church.

As they do so, Christians bear witness to the consciences of others and contribute to a public morality within a secular society as they show the watching world what the kingdom of God looks like. Armed with Word and gospel and enlivened by the Spirit, the church is also the agent through which Jesus is acting in the world to bring about redemption and reconciliation.

Bethlehem leads both to the baptistery and to the ballot box, as our Incarnate Lord addresses justice, justification, and everything in between. Christians are to care about “political” issues because we love our neighbors and have a better way to show them, because we have in view the heavenly “polis” which is to come, over which our Incarnate Lord rules, and into which he welcomes whosoever will pledge allegiance to the cross.

At Christmas, we celebrate the fact that Jesus is God Incarnate—the perfect union of God and man. Beyond this union, though, the believer is also united to Christ by faith through the power of the Spirit; the church is united to Christ like a head to a body (Eph. 5:22); and all the saints together look forward to the union of heaven and earth (Rev. 21:1-2) at the consummation of the kingdom. All the while, the Incarnation compels us both to work for the common good and for just societies in our earthly republic as we proclaim this kingdom and anticipate its fullness in the age to come—in which we the people of the cross will experience a far more perfect union. 

Daniel Patterson

Daniel Patterson is former Executive Vice President of the ERLC. He holds a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife Molly have been married since 2010, and together they have three children. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24