News24.com article on the Christmas Complications #RememberKwezi: Kwezi Sermon was outside the brief
There were complications at birth.
Mary nearly lost the baby.
Jesus nearly didn’t see the light of day.
I am not talking about any complications during her pregnancy or during labour or the moment of delivery.
I am talking about life-threatening complications of a different type. These complications were the consequence of at least three things that, when mixed together and stirred almost always result in death. This remains as true today as it was 2000 years ago.
Life is threatened:
- When discrimination is written into law or at least saturates the dominant culture.
- When those called to hold the powerful accountable, don’t.
- When the powerful use their power for their own promotion and protection.
Once we have explored these three complications – witnessing how they conspire to threaten life – we will turn our attention to what it was that enabled Mary and the baby to survive – and thereby receive a few hints at how we need to live today in order to engage the same life-threatening complications of our time.
1] The first life-threatening complication – according to the text for today – occurs when the powerful use their power exclusively for their own benefit.
King Herod was such like. He employed his power for his own privilege and protection. In other words: The No.1 priority of No.1 was to look after No.1 . This determined every one of Herod’s policy decisions that he signed into law. It also informed every cabinet re-shuffle. For Herod, self-preservation was the only real item on every meeting’s agenda that he attended.
This meant that Herod violated the constitution of God who implored all leaders – especially No.1 – to shepherd God’s people – all people. In other words to lead with pastoral care which meant to take special care of the poor, the weak, the foreigner and the vulnerable. This meant it was the king’s responsibility to provide green pastures of food and still waters to drink especially in times of drought. It meant that No.1 . was to safeguard and guide the people through the shadowed valleys of death and to successfully negotiate with enemies around a table and provide housing for all … all the days of their life. King Herod was however more focused on building his holiday home and housing the homeless poor who surrounded him.
Though the Roman State-owned media gave him a free ride, the people on the ground grew in resentment. On a few public occasions king Herod was booed – so he soon stuck to his popular ghettos of support. King Herod was hyper vigilant ever adding to his army of personal bodyguards. He was more than a little paranoid with his speeches sounding like strange riddles. The police were on permanent standby and he relied heavily on spooks for the latest info.
One day Herod was informed that there were three so-called “clever people” looking for the king. But they weren’t looking for him … they were looking for another king! As this news were told in the ancient text that “Herod was frightened … and all the people with him”. Yes, because when the elephants fight the grass suffers.
Herod was afraid. A fearful leader is a very dangerous leader because fear casts out love. Therefore a fearful leader is a loveless leader. And a loveless leader is a ruthless ruler. Herod did not care how many casualties as long as he stayed No.1 . Some called for him to resign, but he lived by the motto: “If I go down all will go down”.
So we read that Herod called the priests and scribes to enquire of them where the Messiah is to be born. They correctly state – “it will be in Bethlehem”. King Herod then arranges a secret meeting with the three so-called clever people requesting they search diligently and if they are successful, to return to him with the address so he too can go and worship.
But it was a trap. Herod had never worshipped anyone besides himself and he wasn’t going to start now.
2] The second life-threatening complication according to our ancient story is when those who are called to hold the powerful accountable, simply don’t.
Here we see the priests and the scribes (the public protectors of their day) forsake their sacred duty. Their primary role was to hold the powerful, especially the king, accountable for his pastoral responsibilities and by doing so to uphold God’s constitution of care for the poor. Yet in our text we find them living in comfort and ease close to the king. Some investigative journalists named this “priestly capture”. It still happens to this day.
Instead of fearlessly speaking truth to power – they turn out to be praise-singers for the king. They tell the king what he wants to hear rather than what God wants him to hear. In this way, religion is used to validate and condone what it should challenge and correct.
Note, according to the story we see that these priests and scribes knew the constitution. They knew where the true king was to be born – in Bethlehem, yet they were happy to remain in Jerusalem. Go figure? To forsake the single most important task of one’s vocation can only mean that Herod’s system of patronage must have been extremely lucrative.
3] The third life-threatening complication according to our ancient story is when discrimination is written into law or at least saturates the dominant culture.
The system of discrimination – that was legal at the time – was the system of patriarchy. Patriarchy is simply understood as the belief and practice that men are superior to women. That women are inferior to men. That women are not their own person, but gain their human worth by either belonging to their father or husband.
In other words – it’s a man’s world and women exist in it to please and serve men while men get to decide about the role of women in society and this includes men having control over women’s bodies. This system of patriarchy was underpinned by the Scriptures – with numerous verses being quoted by men to support the view that it was in fact God’s design that women submit their worth to men.
One example, pertinent to this Christmas reflection is that some ancient texts state that if a woman is pregnant yet unmarried or worse still pregnant from one man while engaged to another man – she could be flogged or stoned to death for this “sexual deviance” that brought shame on her or her in-laws’ family. And don’t think for a moment that back then anyone was buying into the virgin birth – which would have been deemed “fake news”.
Mary’s life was in deadly danger resulting from the patriarchal laws and culture of her time. Not dissimilar to the terrifying vulnerability of gay and lesbian people in our land today as we were gruesomely reminded a few weeks ago with the murder of Noluvo Swelindawo – a lesbian woman almost certainly targeted specifically for being lesbian – by men. By insecure men. By men who locate their masculinity in their sexual domination of women and who are therefore offended by lesbians who by denying them sex deny their manhood. Despite our liberating and protecting constitution the dominant culture remains anti-gay and this is in no small measure a result of how the Scriptures have been used to validate such discrimination – enabling people to do evil while believing they are doing good.
For the combination of these three reasons stated above, Mary nearly lost the baby.
To see how she and the baby survived we must take note of the following three things:
1] First, we see the Magi – the three so-called clever people. They were not fooled by the charm of No.1 . They defy his order to return to him with the information he requested. This is a risky act of civil disobedience. Here we see the power of principle trump the abuse of power. It would prove to be costly returning home another way – certainly no royal tenders coming their way in the future.
Note that the three so-called clever people were from the East. In other words they were outsiders. In other words not necessarily religious but they were truth seekers. They carry a longing to know – for the R2K where true power lies. In their truth seeking they shame the religious insiders who had long since exchanged the search for the truth for personal comfort.
2] Second, we see that the discriminatory law and culture of his day did not determine Joseph’s behaviour. Joseph’s character was one of compassion and mercy – his humaneness revealed in how he honoured the humanity of Mary. He respected her. Whenever someone refuses to discriminate against another – especially when law or culture encourage one to discriminate – life is saved.
3] Third, we see Mary’s own courageous imagination. Mary dared to imagine another world. A world true to the ancient constitution of God. A world where the powerful exist to serve the least. A world where the public is properly protected from the abuse of power. A world where women and men are respected and treated as equal and of sacred worth – each bearing the priceless image of the Creator.
Mary’s courageous imagination released the first Christmas Carol – which is very unlike the soppy and sentimental carols we sing today. Hers was a carol about knowing of her own favoured worth despite the demeaning laws of her land. Hers was a song about God who rules above the kings of the earth. A song about mercy and not judgment for the vulnerable. A song about the powerful falling from their thrones. (Mary was the first “fallist”.) A song about the hungry being filled and the rich sent away empty handed.
In other words Mary pre-dated Jean Jacques Rousseau who said: “One day the poor will have nothing left to eat … but the rich”.
Mary pre-dated Frantz Fanon: “What counts today – the question which is looking on the horizon – is the need for a redistribution of wealth. Humanity must reply to this question or be shaken to pieces by it”.
Mary pre-dated Martin Espade in his poem “Imagine the Angels of Bread” when he imagined: “Squatters evict landlords”.
She pre-dated the four women who in silence loudly called the nation to #RememberKhwezi. Fezeka Khuzwayo – publically known as Kwezi wrote a poem. Her poem is no less courageously imaginative than Mary’s song of a different world. And she like Mary also had to flee for her life. The poem is called: “I am Khanga”.
I am Khanga
I wrap myself around the curvaceous bodies of women all over Africa
I am the perfect nightdress on those hot African nights
The ideal attire for household chores
I secure babies happily on their mother’s backs
Am the perfect gift for new bride and new mother alike
Armed with proverbs, I am vehicle for communication between women
I exist for the comfort and convenience of a woman
But no no no make no mistake …
I am not here to please a man
And I certainly am not a seductress
Please don’t use me as an excuse to rape
Don’t hide behind me when you choose to abuse
That’s what he said my Malume
The man who called himself my daddy’s best friend
Shared a cell with him on [Robben] Island for ten whole years
He said I wanted it
That my khanga said it
That with it I lured him to my bed
That with it I want you is what I said
But what about the NO I uttered with my mouth
Not once but twice
And the please no I said with my body
What about the tear that ran down my face as I lay stiff with shock
In what sick world is that sex
In what sick world is that consent
The same world where the rapist becomes the victim
The same world where I become the bitch that must burn
The same world where I am forced into exile because I spoke out?
This is NOT my world
I reject that world
My world is a world where fathers protect and don’t rape
My world is a world where a woman can speak out
Without fear for her safety
My world is a world where no one, but no one is above the law
My world is a world where sex is pleasurable not painful
‘This is also my home’
The Magi’s power of principle together with Joseph’s humaneness together with Mary’s courageous imagination are what saved Mary and her baby.
And to the extent that we imitate them will be to the extent many others will be spared from the life-threatening complications of the abuse of power and the failure to hold the powerful to account as well as the presence of deadly discrimination.
Central Methodist Mission – Cape Town
Christmas Day broadcast service for SAFM – click on link to listen to the full recording of the sermon as recorded 0n 2016 12 11.
Text in red and italicised was edited out of the broadcast.