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Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite Headshot

Baby Jesus Was Poor: How to #OccupytheBible at Christmas

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He's cute, that little baby Jesus we see lying on a bed of straw in the Nativity scenes in so many Christian Christmas pageants.

But when we #OccupytheBible, that is, read the Bible from the perspective of those who are struggling in an economy structured by extremes of wealth and poverty, we can see something else happening where Jesus is born. We can begin to see the dirty straw and perhaps even begin to get a whiff of the stable smell. Baby Jesus was born poor.

What we can also start to see more clearly is that one-quarter of American children are in the same situation today. That's right. One in four children in the U.S. now lives in poverty.

The #Occupy movement in the United States and around the world is made up of people who are trying to make a concrete statement about how they have been driven out of their homes and jobs by big banks and big corporations. For a long time now, in the United States, the gap between the wealthiest 1 percent and the rest of us, the 99 percent, has been growing wider and wider. Charts like this one from the Congressional Budget Office tell the story:

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This alarming growth in the extremes of wealth and poverty needs a biblical message.

I started writing my new book, #OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power, at the beginning of the #OWS movement. But it was first a series of Twitter feeds called #OccupytheBible. I would tweet Bible verses on protecting the poor, or God's judgment on those who exploit them, or on paying workers fair wages etc. to highlight that the Bible had an #Occupy message. These tweets were so popular, I decided to write a book about what has been happening in our country on wealth and poverty, and what Jesus' teaching has to say specifically about that.

When Jesus announced his ministry as "good news to the poor" and to "proclaim the Year of the Lord's favor" (Luke 4: 18-19), he meant that he wanted his society to have a year when economic inequality was reversed. That's the "Year of the Lord's favor" or the biblical "Jubilee" as I write in the Chapter 6: "The Jubilee, or, Jesus Had an Economic Plan" in #OccupytheBible.

The Occupy movement has been growing. Today it is taking action on debt forgiveness, "operationalizing the Lord's Prayer" (Matthew 6:12) on "forgive us our debts," putting the Jubilee into action.

The greatest success of the #Occupy movement, however, has been to get the idea of the 1 percent and the 99 percent into mainstream American public discourse. It is a profound change of perspective for many; we have lived too long with our "American Dream" idea that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can make it into the middle class in America. That dream has died as now most Americans are poorer by the year and no amount of hard work is getting them out of a morass of debt and despair.

Here then is how we might #OccupytheBible on the birth of Jesus: Jesus was born so poor, his mother had to give birth to him in a stable. Jesus was born under a Roman military dictatorship that required, by a "decree" from Emperor Augustus, that his very pregnant mother had to travel to "be registered." (Luke 2:1) Why registered? Well, perhaps so the Romans could tax them more. The King James Version even says this decree was so "all the world should be taxed." The two engines of the Roman Empire, certainly, were getting all the money they could from those they conquered, and making some of the conquered into slaves.

No wonder that as an adult Jesus of Nazareth called for a "Jubilee," a time when the unjust economic systems of his time could be substantially reversed. Children of the poor in Jesus' time, as among those conquered by the Romans, would have fared badly. This may very well be why the adult Jesus rebuked the disciples for keeping children away who wanted to come to him, saying children are "the kingdom of heaven" (Luke 18:16), contrasting the Kingdom of God with the Kingdom of Caesar as it affected children.

Today there is a gap is between the "kingdom" of the very wealthy and the lives of the poor and middle class in the U.S. Fully one-quarter of American children now live in poverty. American child poverty is the second highest of all developed nations.

It's not that the U.S. is the only country to have suffered from an economic downturn, and thus see an increase in the number of children living in poverty. Canada and the U.S. start out with about the same level of child poverty, this report shows, or about 25.1 percent. But after you factor in the social supports provided in Canada, the child poverty rate in that country drops to 13.1 percent. The U.S. rate, after our so-called social safety net kicks in, barely moves for children as their poverty rate is then 23.1.

When we #OccupytheBible at Christmas, this is what we need to see: a baby Jesus in a cold, dirty stable, his mother exhausted from travel mandated by a Roman Empire only interested in what they could get from those they had conquered.

We need to truly read our biblical texts and then make the connections to U.S. children today. Then we can see that our whole society needs a biblical jubilee, a forgiveness of debt and an economic restructuring for fairness, equality and productivity.

In this season, Christians often sing the famous Christmas carol "Away in a Manger," trilling that baby Jesus had "no crib for his head." The sentimental carol tempts us to believe that the baby Jesus in the manger doesn't cry. But if you just listen, today you can hear the millions of American children crying in want and need.

Christians need to put the real baby Jesus in front of their churches this Christmas and truly see child poverty for the offense to God it is and always has been.