I went to a Christmas eve service tonight at an evangelical protestant church which shall remain unnamed (because I *really* like lots of people in this church, and I don't want them to feel bad, and my comments are more about christianity in general).
They sang lots of traditional christmas songs, had a traditional christmas play in which they read from the accounts in luke and matthew, and there were a couple playing mary and joseph, and a little baby playing jesus, and children playing sheep and shepherds and angels and wizards from the east and ... well, you know. If you live in America, you've no doubt seen this whole thing at least a couple times in your life.
It was astoundingly upbeat. God loves us. God gave us the most beautiful gift ever in Jesus, the precious little baby who would grow to become the god man and who can help us get our lives straitened out, and help us overcome our sins, and ... someday he's gonna fix all the problems and injustice and take the people who believe in him to heaven to be perfectly happy for all eternity. Ok see that? all that wasn't in there tonite. somewhere between the beginning of this paragraph and the end, I stopped objectively describing the Christmas eve service, and started talking about what I see as the underlying implications. But where that happened is something I can't quite nail down.
Some lyrics "He rules the world, with truth and grace" and "In his name all oppression shall cease."
I was mostly asking myself, "Self, are things *in general* worse or better than they were in ... say ... 1 C.E. (or A.D., as you wish)"
Now there is a question that is worthy of a doctoral dissertation. It's pretty hard to get at. It's just way too general and not defined nor operationalized.
Having said that, while the answer may not definitely be "worse", neither is it by any stretch of the imagination definitely "better"
Let us consider...
Upper estimates of world population in 1 C.E. are about 300 million. Yep. 300 million people alive worldwide. Or about 1 for every 22 people alive today. Another way to look at that is it's approximately the current population of the United States of America.
Alas--see that? I'm about to segue into an intellectual discussion of poverty, war, and human suffering. Stop that.
How about a quote from Brian McClaren's Everything Must Change
Why hasn't the Christian religion made a difference commensurate with its message, size, and resources?
When I got older, I realized that my entire life had been lived against the backdrop of genocide and violence, poverty and corruption. Over a million people died in my country (Burundi) in a series of genocides starting in 1959, and nearly a million in Rwanda, an din spite of huge amounts of foreign aid, our people remain poor, and many of them, hungry. So much death, so much hatred and distrust between tribes, so much poverty, suffering, corruption, and injustice, and nothing ever really changed. Eventually I realized something. I had never heard a sermon that addressed these realities. Did God only care about our souls going to heaven after we died? Were our hungry bellies unimportant to God? Was God unconcerned about our crying sons and frightened daughters, our mothers hiding under beds, our fathers croucing by windows, unalbe to sleep because of gunfire? Or did God send Jesus to teach us how to avoid genocide by learning to love each other, how to overcome tribalism and poverty by following his path, how to deal with injustice and curruption, how to make a better life here on earth--here in East Africa? ... Over the years, I have come to understand that something is wrong with they way we understand Jesus and the good news. Something is missing in the version of the Christian religion we received from the missionaries, which is the message we now preach ourselves. They told us how to go to heaven. But they left out one important detail. They didn't tell us how the will of God could be done on earth.
Claude, from Burundi
I guess what I'm saying is that the Christmas story is making some pretty freaking enormous claims, and it seems reasonable to me to say "Well, it's been 2000 years. What's the evidence for and against the claims?" Maybe Christians need to reconsider the way they interact with the Christmas story in light of the implicit demands that it makes on them.
I mean what if the Christmas story implies a demand from God that you act like Jesus, and wratchet your pleasure and your consumption down to third world levels, kinda like Jesus wratcheted his pleasure and consumption down to 3rd world levels. According to the story, the distance he had to move to make that shift was a lot further than any of us would have to travel. Just a thought.
Or maybe I'm just way off base, and instead that it's totally kewl with Jesus that we 20% of the world richest continue to consume 80% of the worlds resources while 30,000 children starve to death on Christmas day? But I just don't see that in the story. Maybe I'm just missing it.
Here's a 2005 photo of the little town of bethlehem (population: ~29,000)