I have lived, and will upon retirement live again, over the road from the Auckland Domain. In 1843, after agreement from Ngati Whatua, it was set aside as Auckland’s first park. It wasn’t called a park, but rather the Auckland Domain. This sense of a domain that belonged to Aucklanders featured in the 1850s dispute between the Governor-General Gore-Browne (who wanted to build a new Government House in its grounds) and the Premier, Weld, who was politically worried about the alienation of domain land from public usage. The Premier won. This domain belongs to all the people of Auckland.
The egalitarian sense of the word ‘domain’ is also prevalent in the thinking of theologians who discard the concept of ‘kingdom’ (which needs a king) and use ‘domain’ instead. The topsy-turvy God has a domain in, among, and empowering the lowest and the least. It is a domain can belong to. Christmas is a celebration of this domain. It is not about celebrating the birth of baby Jesus; it’s about celebrating the domain of the adult Jesus. And it’s a domain without a ‘Government House’ for its elite sitting in its midst.
In Advent our Church calendar remembers John the Baptist. He believed that an avenging warrior messiah would come from the clouds with blade and fire to smite the Romans and establish the kingdom of God. A divine rescuer would use retributive violence to establish justice.
Jesus didn’t share that belief. He didn’t believe in swords and fire and descending saviours. Rather he believed God’s domain was among us already, if only we had eyes to see.
In the first century after Jesus’ death however the Church rekindled the message of John the Baptist and developed an end-time theology whereby Jesus would ‘come again’, descending in glory and power to rule the world. The message of Jesus about God’s domain being already here got forgotten.
Drawing on prophets like Malachi, Ezekiel and Daniel, John had an avenging God, an axe-wielding forester who slashed and burned. This God had two categories, good and bad, and it was up to us to choose which side to sign up to, and then do it quickly, for ‘the Saviour’ was coming.
How do oppressed people, like the 1st century Jews in Roman-occupied Palestine, react to overwhelming cultural, political and military domination? You could ask the same question of oppressed people in Iraq or Syria, regardless of whether they are part of ISILS or victims of ISIL. One way is simply to fight and lose, fight and lose, and fight and lose again. And many did. Each insurrection in Palestine was led by a messianic claimant, blending religious, cultural and political hopes.
Another response to domination is apocalyptic prophets. They simply announced the end was nigh for the Romans and a heavenly messiah with a heavy sword would shortly make mincemeat of the invaders. Such prophets often formed large movements. John was one such prophet.
The references to the Jordan and to the wilderness are not references to water and desert. Rather they are pointers to the historical and political works and words of Moses and Joshua. They are about crossing over the Jordan from the wilderness and taking by conquest the Promised Land. John and others of his ilk were proposing a similar conquest or re-conquest of Israel.
John’s strategy was different from other apocalyptic prophets. He was forming a giant system of sanctified individuals, a huge web of end-time expectations, and a network of ticking time bombs of resistance all over the Jewish homeland. You can hear the echoes of such strategy in the Middle East today. These followers of John were to wait until the shining avenger arrived, and then they would join his army. Herod Antipas killed John for being a political threat rather than for upsetting his family.
Jesus was a disciple of John. He joined the John movement, and then later left it taking with him some of John’s adherents. The Christian tradition has long been uncomfortable about this. The ideas of John being superior, as a master is to a disciple, and Jesus repenting of his sins in John’s baptism, were disdainful. The Christian authors rewrote the script trying to make John’s prophesies point to Jesus and his baptism a commissioning by God, not by John.
Yet it doesn’t work. Any Sunday School graduate can read John’s prophesies and see the dissonance with Jesus’ mission and ministry. Whoever John was prophesying about it certainly wasn’t Jesus.
In the Advent season our Christian calendar serves us up John the Baptist, with a sprig of Isaiah on the side, as part of a ‘get-ready-the-King-is-coming’ platter. The valleys and hills being filled and brought low are references to imperial road works, preparation before an army comes to town. The imagery is full of war, kings, and conquering.
It is a stark contrast to that which is served up on Christmas day: a baby, born illegitimate in a barn. He was a peasant. No royal robes or crown adorned his head. No army, angelic or other, waited in the wings. As St Paul says ‘he came in the form of a slave’.[i] And that has been very difficult for the Church with all its aspirations for power and glory to swallow.
Realizing that Jesus didn’t fit John’s expectations, or the expectations of many in the nascent Church,[ii] a ‘second coming’ theology was developed. Mark and Matthew were influenced by the fear and politics of the 60s culminating in the Romans destroying the Jerusalem Temple in 70. In the midst of the turmoil they encouraged their fellow disciples with the hope that Jesus would literally come again. But this time he wouldn’t come as a suffering slave but as a conquering king. They still wanted the physical kingdom restored to Israel and for the disciples to be seated at King Jesus’ right or left controlling admission and favours.
Second coming theology is still unfortunately alive and well. Taken literally the ‘coming again in glorious majesty’ sentiments are more reflective of John’s theology than Jesus’. Taken metaphorically, as the well-known Advent hymns do, to refer to the triumph of Jesus’ vision they fail to use that vision’s non-hierarchal language and concepts. We would be better off without this theology.
John was baptizing in the wilderness, inviting people to repent and prepare themselves for the Coming One whom they would join in the slaughter of the foreign overlords. Jesus however did not follow where John led. Jesus did not want to wait for a future kingdom but to enter a divine domain here and now.
That divine domain for Jesus was something already present. It was also something to be celebrated because it embraced everyone – Jew, gentile, slave, free, male, female, children… Circumcision, kosher, and Sabbath observance were extraneous. Everyone had equal and immediate access to God, anywhere and anytime. The brokerage system, having to go through priests and temples, elites and their procedures, to get admission to and favours from God, was obsolete.
This Jesus had nothing to say about himself, other than he had no permanent address and no respect on his home patch. He did not ask his disciples to convert the world and establish a church. He did not believe the world was going to end in the near future, unlike John the Baptist. Jesus did not even call on people to repent, and he did not practice baptism.[iii]
For Jesus God’s domain was not a royal or political kingdom such as the Israelites had under David and Solomon. God’s domain was not an apocalyptic creation with an external saviour. God’s domain was not something at the end of time when the bad would be punished, the good rewarded, and the saviour would rule.
Rather God’s domain was a set of relationships between people, and between people and God. These relationships were political, social, and spiritual. This was a domain of nuisances and nobodies, a domain of reversals and surprises, a domain of grace.
The biblical texts do not have Jesus being directly critical of John the Baptist and the apocalyptic visions of Ezekiel and Daniel. He just developed and exhibited an alternate reality. The parable of the Good Samaritan is one example. Not only does Jesus portray priests and Levites in a bad light he elevates to fame a despised half-breed, a social and religious other, the Samaritan. For the marginalized, those who identify with the man in the ditch, help does come. That is a miracle in itself. That it comes from a surprising and unexpected source, the Samaritan, is more amazing still. This is the essence of God’s domain.
There is no super saviour descending with a sword, there is only the tainted Samaritan. There are no streets of gold and subsidiary thrones for male apostles, there is only unexpected help for those in the ditch of life. There is no burning of bad guys, wailing and gnashing of teeth, while the good guys feast up large. There is only the risky grace of breaking bread and breaking boundaries of class, race, gender, and power.
This is God’s domain if only we could open our eyes to see it and our hearts, priorities, and wallets to live it.
Christmas is a celebration of this domain. And all the mythological stories of Christmas are simply trying to point us to God’s domain.
But make no mistake this domain is repulsive to those who want to lord it over others and who like Governor-General Gore-Browne want to build their mansions on public property, using the common good as their personal estate.
[i] Philippians 2:7.
[ii] Acts 1:6b.
[iii] P.41-42 Funk, Robert Honest To Jesus.
Further reading: Crossan, J. D. A Revolutionary Biography and Funk ibid.