Wait, what? You mean Santa isn’t real?” It seems every kid remembers that moment when they realized for the first time that Santa Claus wasn’t real. For some, they may have known this from the time they were 3 years old, while for others they may have believed in him until they were 9 years old, continuously put their hope in him despite the odds. I was among the “late bloomers”, knowing in my heart that it logically didn’t make sense that one man with an oversized belly could fit through chimneys of various sizes, deliver every present specifically wished for by each child, and make it back to the North Pole all within a single night. I remember that other kids at school would laugh at me while I vigorously defended my position that Santa did in fact exist. After my parents told me when I was 9 years old, that after all of my wishful thinking he really did not exist, I was disappointed to say the least. At first, I was out right furious. Why would my parents continue to feed my hopes and dreams for 9 years of my life, only to let me down in the end? In addition to my parents, I was frustrated with all of the Christmas shows and movies that continuously misled children everywhere to believe in the false hope of Santa. I began to wonder, if Santa did not exist were there such things as miracles or were they just a bunch of fables as well made to make people enjoy a false sense of hope?
Years later, I continue to see how even as adults we still long for that feeling of excitement that came with knowing there was someone out there who truly could bring hope and joy when we were surrounded by a world of darkness and despair. Even though I had lost hope in Santa, I continued to see this sense of hope shining forth like a light in the darkness around me. Although I couldn’t put a name to it at first, I eventually came to realize what, or rather who, this source of hope truly came from: Jesus. When we hear the name Jesus most of us automatically think of the little white baby Jesus in the manager in our childhood Christmas pageant shows. We see this as a cute story for kids, but many of us are unwilling to accept this story as truth. Maybe this is a good thing (don’t jump to conclusions yet, just keep reading).
The actual story of Jesus’ birth probably would have looked quite differently than it is portrayed in the typical Christmas pageant today. First of all, Jesus was not white. For some this may seem like a “well, duh” moment, but I think it is a necessary reminder when reflecting on who Jesus truly was. This means that he was NOT a European-American; he grew up in the culture of the first-century Galilean Jews and ethnically looked like others around him that descended from Afro-Asiatic Hebrews. In the December 2002 issue of Popular Mechanics an image of Jesus was re-created by forensic anthropologist Richard Neave entitled “The Real Face of Jesus”. Using scientific evidence based on the archaeological discoveries of Galilean skeletons from the 1st century A.D., this image of Jesus (seen above) is considered one of the most accurate to what he may have actually looked like when he was 30 years of age.
Charles D. Hackett, director of Episcopal studies at the Candler School of Theology in Atlanta says of the scientific reconstruction that “it is a reminder of our tendency to sinfully appropriate him in the service of our cultural values.” This idea that the way in which we view Jesus and our own Christian faith is due in large part to the culture around us, describes the term known as “cultural captivity”. “Cultural captivity” is affected in large part due to colonization. When I use the phrase “decolonization” I refer to the process of critically reflecting on how our society has been affected, and still is affected in covert ways, by the history of colonialism in the United States and around the world. Decolonizing our perception of our faith means to remove ourselves from the western imperialistic ways in which we have been socialized to view Christianity, and begin to examine what it means to follow Christ as one who seeks to liberate rather than oppress. In order to fully decolonize our perception of Jesus, and our own faith, it is necessary to reexamine what has been engrained into our thinking because of our culture (for example, beginning to see Jesus as he truly was, an Afro-Asiatic Jew rather than a European American). Once we begin to redefine our view of Jesus, we can begin the process of decolonizing Christianity. By understanding how greatly colonization has affected the Christian faith, even to the point of making the image of Christ conformed to the image of an oppressor, we can begin to understand the importance of releasing ourselves from the grip that colonization still plays into our faith today. Through reexamining the story of the birth of Christ through the cultural lens of that time period, we are able to more fully understand some of the misconceptions of the Christmas pageant story, and as described above, leads us to decolonization of our view of Christ.
The shepherds were the first group of people to hear about Jesus’ birth. This group of people, who during that time period were among the lowest group of people by socioeconomic standards, were the first ones chosen by God to hear about the birth of our Savior. Shepherds were a group of migrants who moved with their flocks according to the season. Imagine what this group of people might look like in society today. The underpaid migrant farm worker that picks all of your produce that you buy at the grocery store would have been among the first to hear the good news of Christ (if the birth of Christ had occurred in the U.S. today). Also, during the typical Christmas pageant we have grown accustomed to the idea of the “Magi” as powerful kings or men among the elite. On the contrary, they were foreigners from Persia, Babylon or Arabia coming to Jerusalem who were by no means among the elite. Humble foreigners foretold the coming of the birth of Christ and migrants were the first to receive this good news.
After Jesus was 2 years of age, an angel appeared to Joseph saying, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him (Matthew 2:13). Jesus and his family became political refugees in Egypt. The image of Mary and Joseph with baby Jesus fleeing persecution is one rarely displayed in the typical Christmas pageant. Rev. Joan M. Maruskin, National Administrator of the Church World Service Religious Services Program, wrote about in her article “The Bible as the Ultimate Immigration Handbook” an analogy of what might have happened if the Holy Family had been seeking political asylum in the U.S. today. According to Rev. Maruskin, Jesus would probably be sent to a children’s detention center, Mary would be sent to a women’s detention center and Joseph to a men’s detention center. They each would be required to secure their own legal help and plead their case for asylum. Sadly, asylum seekers do not receive legal help from the government, and despite the fact that there are family shelters, the majority of families are separated upon arrival at the border.
Jesus and his family eventually returned to Nazareth, in Galilee, but Jesus always regarded himself as an outsider, with no true home. In Luke 9: 58 Jesus says, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he lived in poverty having “nowhere to lay his head.” The miracle of the gospel isn’t that Jesus became human, but that he chose to become human in order to be in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed, the foreigner and the outcast. Even when Jesus was crucified he had to be nailed to the cross “outside the city gate” because he was a foreigner to the land (Hebrews 13:12).
As I reflect on who the true Savior was in this time of materialistic frenzy and colonized perceptions of “the baby Jesus”, I begin to liberate myself from the chains of oppression that colonization has created in my own mentality as a follower of Christ. In order to become a follower of the great Liberator, rather than a follower of an oppressor, it is necessary that I continue seeking for answers as to who this Afro-Asiatic homeless refugee from Nazareth truly was and how that impacts the way I live out my faith today. Although I am still in the process of seeking out who the true Jesus is, and will be in the process of doing until I die, I have more hope now than ever before because I have set my eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith, Jesus Christ. During this Christmas season, it is my hope and prayer that you too will seek ways in which you can decolonize your perception of Jesus, while realizing that we do have hope. A hope that is much greater than any jolly, overweight man in a red suit could ever provide. This hope transcends all racial, economic and social barriers; this hope is not a fictitious fable; this hope is greater and more powerful than anything that is and yet to come. This hope is Jesus!! Our savior, provider, healer, counselor, redeemer and liberator who lives and reigns throughout the ends of the Earth even today amidst all the pain and suffering. He is the one who brings good news to the poor, sets the captives free, brings recovery of sight to the blind, releases the oppressed and proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4: 18-19). His kingdom will have no end! My prayer for you during this Christmas season is that your eyes would be opened to the work of Jesus around you everywhere you go. May His spirit guide you as you search for the true, Afro-Asiatic homeless refugee from Nazareth that was and is the Christ Jesus.
“And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you.”~Psalm 9:1