The missing figures from the Christmas crib

As we celebrate Christmas this year, it is easy to gaze at the crib and romanticise and get all sentimental about the tranquil setting before us: the baby Jesus and his family in a cosy manger among shepherds, cows and sheep, protected and heralded by angels, away from all the cares of the world.

Dec 22, 2015

Anil Netto
As we celebrate Christmas this year, it is easy to gaze at the crib and romanticise and get all sentimental about the tranquil setting before us: the baby Jesus and his family in a cosy manger among shepherds, cows and sheep, protected and heralded by angels, away from all the cares of the world.

But that is far removed from the historical reality: the world into which Jesus was born was a grim, oppressive and even violent one.

Let’s consider the figures we do not see in the crib.

The Roman soldier: Bethlehem in present-day Palestine was under oppressive Roman rule, even if it lay in a remote outpost of the Roman empire.

The Romans brought with them the trappings of ‘development’ — aqueducts, amphitheatres, roads, new ports, palaces  — and yet for all the ‘progress’ they brought, something did not jive, something was missing. People were suffering, excluded, marginalised, even hungry, longing for justice and hope.

The peace the Romans promoted was not the deep peace which everyone longed for. Instead, it was a peace based on military victory, secured through brute and violent force, if necessary.

The religious extremist: Religious zealots staged violent attacks against what they regarded as suppression and humiliation of their religious freedom and dignity and against Roman domination. Some of them had lost faith in the system, which they perhaps believed had been compromised by collaboration between the political and religious elites of the time. A number of ‘messiahs’ cropped up now and then. Some tried to lead the people out of their predicament.

The rebel: The rebels against Roman rule were crucified, and Jesus as he was growing up must have witnessed this.

The debt-ridden and destitute vs the landlords: Many ordinary people fell into debt, some fell off the edge into destitution, when their crops were hit by poor weather condition or other problems. They lost their farms, many were merged into larger estates run by wealthy landlords.Workers were casually paid, hired on a daily basis. No EPF, Socso, health care insurance or state-managed or private retirement savings, nothing of that sort.

It was a rough world all right. And this was precisely where the Father chose to send Jesus, right into the thick of it all.

Flash forward two millennia — and a lot has changed. But the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Development has brought out the best in the human spirit and mind — but it has also  heightened the worst aspects of the human condition: greed, violence, poverty, hunger, much of the latter two avoidable.

Whereas Jesus was born in a time when the bonds of family and community were tightly knitted, today those bonds have been loosened by the onslaught of globalisation, selfish individualism and consumerism.

Neoliberal corporate-led globalisation has widened income inequalities. Small farmers earning a secure income are being gobbled up by large food producers, who are even eyeing control over seeds and producing questionable genetically modified food, much of it not labelled as such.

A new problem has cropped up — envi ronmental degradation, the logical destination of the path of unbridled greed. Across the country, every state has its own problems. The challenge is how do we ensure the economy serves the people in harmony with the environment — not the people serving the economy at the expense of the environment. How do we balance holistic human development with care for the environment?

So what do we do with climate change? Ever heard of that song If Tomorrow Never Comes? Well tomorrow may never come, if the large corporations carry on producing and we carry on consuming at this rate. There is precious little time left. What can we do to arrest the trend before it is too late?

The world is in serious peril, but here we are twiddling our thumbs, merry-making and indulging in all sorts of pet projects, and hoping this problem of climate change will just go away and “the government” will do something about it. But you know what? It won’t, they are not doing much, and we are doing too little.

Meanwhile, a culture of high-level corruption has dragged down our country — a rampant problem that that has got worse over the years. Most of us would be familiar with all these scandals by now, given how they are all over the internet and social media.

Just like the zealots of the past, today we have religious extremists, some fanatical,  others violent — a phenomenon caused by any number of factors, including indoctrination, funding for the propagation of such thinking, alienation among youth, a loss of identity.

Mercifully, this sort of thinking remains only among a minority in this country. But it should be nipped in the bud. Unfortunately, we see narrow-minded groups given a free rein to spread their fanatical views.

Against this, we have new superpowers including Big Business and the multinational corporations who are selling us a false peace, an illusion of progress based on the trappings of modernity.

Today, the world is more enlightened about human rights as sees in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Why, even the ISA has been abolished in Malaysia. Unfortunately, in its place we now have an arsenal of repressive laws — Sedition Act, Sosma, Prevention of Terrorism Act, and the latest, the National Security Council Bill. Many are concerned about this bill as it appears to be a draconian tool that goes against the grain of human rights and democratic norms.

While the Roman rulers resorted to entertainment (e.g. gladiators were the celebrities of their time, glorifying a culture of violence) to distract the population from the grim realities, today we have the sports celebrities, English Premier League football and violent Hollywood movies, which keep large segments of the world enthralled, and in the latter case, sustain the culture of violence.

Against all this, what does Jesus’ entry into human history mean to us today? How can we act as agents of change in a world — though far removed from Jesus’ millieu — that still longs for real peace, progress, justice and truth? This is something to think about the next time we gaze into a crib.

Total Comments:0