On a recent Sunday, when I visited Holy Family Lutheran Church in Cabrini Green on Chicago’s north side, I was struck by the simple, iconic power of the altarpiece, a metal sculpture with an Afro-motif illustrating the church’s namesake, the holy family of Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus. The concept of family rides high in my thoughts these days as I await my culture’s re-enactment of its foundational silent and holy night.
Also, after a decade of teaching introductory classes in cultural anthropology, I have become thoroughly convinced that family and kinship is the essential core of all culture(s). Who we are as humans has grown out of the basic and enduring experience of birthing babies and raising the young to carry on the generational, accumulative, and creative adaptations that enable us to live sensibly and make sense of the world. Throughout the broad sweep of human history, there have been many astonishing innovations and surprises along our collective ways of being human: Moses, the Buddha, Mohammed, Darwin, Einstein, King, to name but a few of the identifiable. And then there is Jesus of Narazeth–born in Bethlehem, they say–who I have often pondered in my heart and mind.
I often trace my musical life back to a very early memory of playing in the living room during the Christmas season while my mom worked in the kitchen. We had the house to ourselves, as my sister was in school and my dad was at work. For some reason, I was intent on learning all the words to Silent Night. I made repeated trips to the kitchen to ask Mom for the next line, then went back to my toys and worked on memorizing the sequence. Mom, of course, knew all three verses by heart, and after some amount of effort that afternoon, so did I. Though Mom may have also known it in German, the English lyrics have never eluded me in the succeeding 64 or 65 holiday seasons.
Yet in spite of being raised in such a strong, good-German-Lutheran household, my religious life did go a bit off the rails when I reached adulthood. My native tradition’s insistence on sola scriptura, which morphed into a presumed “literalist” faith, drove me away. When I went to church, I would pay attention to the public reading of the lessons, but I had little personal engagement with either the Old or New Testament through most of my adult years.
However, the life of my mind has taken some shocking turns in recent years. I have been inspired to revisit the bible, though more as an anthropologist than as a devout bible-believer. In the last twelve months I became particularly obsessed with how archeology can inform us about the historical and cultural contexts of the Hebrew people and the spread of Jewish-Christian movement that became the church. The personal result has been an explosion of some of the most gripping internal dialogues I have ever experienced. Here I would like to share a fresh anthropological reflection on the Holy Family.
Where was Jesus born? According to the story as told by Luke, Joseph and Mary traveled from Nazareth in Galilee some distance south to Bethlehem in Judea, where Mary “gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” But a biblical scholar who is smarter than me says there was no inn. Following the King James translation, most English versions picture the Holy Family as having been turned away from Bethlehem’s crowded Motel 6. But the Greek word found in the oldest texts was kataluma, which is better rendered as ‘upper room.’ It does not refer to a commercial house providing accommodations for travelers–Bethlehem was, after all, a small village–but to a room in a domestic domicile, a house.
The traditional house-types built by the rural folk in Canaan/Palestine were two-story, pillared courtyard houses. The household’s animals resided on the lower level alongside a courtyard with cooking pits. Living and sleeping quarters for the human family were above. A reasonable understanding is that if Joseph’s large extended family all descended upon tiny Bethlehem for the census ordered by the empire, there was probably not enough room in the kataluma for all. And why make the very pregnant Mary climb the ladder to the upper room? So Mary and her baby were made comfortable among the animals on the first floor of the household. She laid the newborn in the manger, likely a feed trough dug out of the earthen floor.
Our usual Western/Lutheran reading is that infant Jesus as God among us was the lowliest, born at the absolute margins of human society. We picture his nativity scene in an outbuilding among the animals, away from customary human interactions. I do not dispute that interpretation. Still, I am struck by the fact that while Jesus was of low birth, he was nevertheless born into a full and functioning family. He was loved and nurtured–swaddled and fed–close to the hearth in a household packed to the rafters with cousins, aunts, and uncles. He belonged to that most basic unit of human society, a family. It was an extended family, that comprised much more than the nuclear family of father, mother, and 2.3 children of the typical suburban families in the United States in the last decades of the 20th century. We don’t know much about Jesus’ family life, except that he was a carpenter’s son, and we do hear later on of his brothers and mother. A key to understanding the lowliness of his birth is that his family was a working class family living on one of the lower rungs of a social system dominated by the occupying Roman empire.
Jesus’s humanity meant that he was not solitary and unique, but that he was fully enmeshed in human society. The Holy Family was not some special, rarified unit, but part of a whole bigger enchilada involving clan and village and tribe. An overiding fact that dominated this cultural milieu was the hegemony of Rome. Both Bethlehem and Nazareth were in occupied territory.
And the emperor, who died only a decade or so after Jesus was born, was officially regarded as “the Son of God.” The later scriptural claim that Jesus, a child born to a lowly Jewish peasant family, was God’s son was truly subversive. Herein is the key insight that I humbly offer up. The message of the bible resists the domination of human society by the state. The kingdom of God, as proclaimed by the grown man Jesus, opposed the ordering of the world by powers and principalities, who ruled for their own benefit.
This has all become more clearly relevant to me through another recent engagement of mine. In the wake of the presidential election of 2016–when the day after the election my community college students asked me worriedly if they were going to be deported–I became involved with the Albany Park Defense Network, to do my part to make our Chicago neighborhood a sanctuary community. Like many other neighbors, I wanted to fight the deportations and displacements that threaten undocumented families in our midst.
Now I don’t consider community organizing as one of my personal strengths, and I don’t have any promising strategies for responding to raids or for abolishing ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). I don’t know that I have been able to do anything beneficial on the social justice front. But I do know that through many monthly meetings, marches, block parties, and accompanying trips to immigration court, I have come to know and be friends with a number of families of undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers who are living under real threats from the empire. The state, our government, makes them live for years at a time in uncertainty and fear that their families will be torn asunder. That the breadwinner, or the mother, or the young spouse will be suddenly ordered to leave their home and return to a country that has not been home for years, if ever.
Some of the undocumented face a long, drawn-out process that requires much preparation and legal assistance in order to present a case in immigration court. For others, the process begins with a sudden detention and a strict separation from their families with few or no rights for visitation. Immigrant detainees do not have the legal protections enjoyed by the civilian prison population. And recent actions at our southern border have clearly demonstrated how inhumane the machinery of empire can be, even in the guise of a self-styled, liberal democracy.
But when I am in the presence of the families who live under the threat of deportation and displacement, I am always awed by a sense of familial familiarity. There is love and friendship. There is the sharing of handshakes, laughter, stories, and food. There is strength and determination. These people that I know will do what it takes to hold their families together in spite of threats the likes of which my privileged family will never face.
If there is any truth in Luke’s story of the holy family, if Jesus is God among us, that presence is experienced in the webs of kinship which make us human, through which we become ourselves. Whatever dysfunctions may show up in the day-to-day life of actual families, there is still a bonding force that does essential work in all of our lives. We rely on families to hold us up, and when necessary we create new kinds of families so that we are not alone. What Luke tells us is that God chose kinship, not kingship, as the social structure for the incarnation. If God is with us with mercy and justice in the holy family, then it incumbent upon us all to be with those families who face oppression and injustice at the hands of the empire.
I might not be able to do much. But I can stand with you and hope that you know you are not alone.