A political Christmas
A Public Spaces blog post
Political theorist Hannah Arendt contrasts two kinds of spectators: ancient Greek spectators and ancient Roman spectators. The ancient Greek spectators granted a kind of immortality to the Homeric heroes and later to their fellow citizens by witnessing, testifying to, and judging their words and deeds.1
This Greek triadic process of spectator becoming witness becoming judge reminds me of American philosopher Josiah Royce's Community of Interpretation, his notion of church as the Beloved Community.2 All members are involved in public life and in making meaning through it.
The ancient Roman spectators, by contrast, lost their ability to witness and to testify, retaining only their ability to see public matters from faraway private spaces. Arendt quotes the Roman philosopher Lucretius to explain this Roman need to, as she puts it, "keep yourself out of political involvement":3
What joy it is, when out at sea the storm winds are lashing the waters, to gaze from the shore at the heavy stress some other man is enduring! Not that anyone's afflictions are in themselves a source of delight; but to realize from what troubles you yourself are free is joy indeed.4
Marriage, work, and family
I thought of Lucretius's "joy" of private life and his "afflictions" of public life today while reading Neil Howe's new book, The Fourth Turning Is Here. In it, Howe summarizes the results of Gallup's recent private and public satisfaction surveys:
Americans have been reporting record-high satisfaction with how things are going in their personal lives since 2020 even while registering record-low satisfaction for how things are going in their nation. The recent gap between these two satisfaction metrics—over 80 percent for personal versus under 20 percent for national—is by far the largest since Gallup began measuring it back in the 1970s.5
The surveys' record lows, which I think correspond to Lucrectius's "afflictions" and "troubles" in the political world, didn't surprise me. But the recored highs—Lucretius's "joy" and "delight" from being at a safe distance from the political world—did surprise me. Lucrectius seemed to understand that for the private spectator (for us, for instance, as troubled consumers of national and international news), the distant, private view of politics comes with a certain joy and relief.
The Gallup personal surveys, Howe says, focused on Americans' satisfaction with marriage, work, and family,6 which are three aspects of life that Arendt locates in the private realm.7 Marriage, work, and family are also three excuses offered by those who turn down the invitations in some of Jesus's parables, such as in the great banquet parable:
One after another they all sent excuses. The first said, “I have bought a piece of land, and I must go and inspect it; please accept my apologies.” The second said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am on my way to try them out; please accept my apologies.” The next said, “I cannot come; I have just got married.”8
Jesus's real-life invitations, of course, also generate excuses based on these same three areas of Arendt's private realm. Some have careers to lose.9 One has great riches.10 One has to bury his father.11
All want to live their entire lives in the private realm. None will follow Jesus into a public realm, into what he and many of his fellow Jews call “the kingdom of God.” So they offer the demands of the private realm as excuses.
A private and public Christmas
An American Christmas, we must admit, usually celebrates these excuses. We invite to our feasts few outside our families. We give our biggest gifts to our spouses and children. We try out what our loved ones have bought for us. It seems that much of the joy and delight of an American Christmas comes from its almost-complete domestication.
We also usually read the Christmas story shorn of its disturbing political overtones. Our readings may be insensitive to what James C. Scott calls the "hidden transcripts" of the oppressed.12 But the Jews who followed Jesus found in his birth something like the natality that Arendt says can at anytime, by some miracle of faith, disrupt the most entrenched and oppressive political and economic regimes.13
I dusted off my old Anchor Bible edition of Luke to remind myself of what Luke's earliest audiences must have heard from his testimony about the manger and the shepherds, the sheep and the angels:
[The Roman senate] ordered the erection and consecration of an altar to Pax Augusta in the Campus Martius . . . In the eastern Mediterranean world Augustus was further hailed as "savior" and "god" in many Greek inscriptions . . . His birthday (23 September) was celebrated: "[the birthday] of the god has marked the beginning of the good news through him for the world" . . .
Thus Luke, writing from a later period in the Roman age, associates the birth of Jesus with a famous Roman emperor and suggests that the real bearer of peace and salvation to the whole world is the one whose birth occurred in the town of David and was made known by angels of heaven. . . . Jesus' birth is recounted in terms of lowly circumstances to contrast with the majesty and renown of him whom the rest of the Roman world regarded as its savior. . . . The child thus born under Pax Augusta will eventually be hailed as "the king, the One Who is to come in the name of the Lord"—and the result will be, "Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven" (Luke 19:38).14
Luke along with Matthew, Mark, and John is a witness; the gospel writers are not mere Roman spectators. John's gospel alone, for instance, uses the word "witness" in the King James Version twenty-one times. Like the Greek witnesses, "we speak of what we know, and testify to what we have seen."15 In our witness and our testimony, we assert that we are also the product of a miracle birth. Each of us is a beginner and a beginning, Arendt says,16 and these four gospels testify to a similar hope of "Christ in you,"17 calling us to witness, testify, and judge as members of the Beloved Community.
Neither Jesus nor Hannah Arendt is against the private realm, of course. But they often suggest that it ranks behind the public realm, the realm God promised when he declared to Moses that the earth, as his temple, would be "filled with the glory of the Lord."18 Jesus puts the public-private hierarchy this way: "Set your mind on God’s kingdom and his justice before everything else, and all the rest will come to you as well.”19
I wish you a political Christmas. More importantly, I hope that, during this new year, we all discover, create, and testify of public spaces.
Arendt, Life of the Mind, Thinking, 129-35.
Royce, Problem of Christianity, 119, 125, 314-15.
Howe, Fourth Turning Is Here, 246.
Arendt, Human Condition, 33, 85.
Luke 14:18-20 REB.
I extrapolate this from the story of the Pharisee Nicodemus, who “came to Jesus by night.” He dares to defend Jesus’s right to a fair hearing after his fellow Pharisees point out that no ruler or Pharisee has believed in Jesus. John 7:48-53.
Scott, Domination and the Arts.
Arendt, 246-47; Arendt, Between Past and Future, 167.
Fitzmyer, Gospel According to Luke I-IX, 394.
John 3:11 REB.
Arendt, Human Condition, 177.
Colossians 1:27 KJV.
Numbers 14:21 REB. The ancient world would have understood the Bible’s account of Eden, N. T. Wright points out, “not just of a garden but specifically of a temple, a place for the creator to live in. ‘God created the heavens and the earth,’ creating them as a home for himself.” Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness, 102, citing the work of John Walton. Eden is God’s temple.
Matthew 6:33 REB.