A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
The Advent Revolution: Culture, Jamming, Jesus Style
December 21, 2003
Advent 4 Luke 1:39-49
Why is it that the capture of Saddam Hussein this week offered such hollow pleasure? After all, this was the reason for all the bloodshed in Iraq in the past months, wasn't it?
This was surely the type of reversal we love and hope for in the world. The tyrant is brought down to size. The mighty ruler is reduced to a hole in the ground, unshaven and at the hands of his righteous captors. The despot will now get what he deserves. This is what we've been waiting for all year. And what better time than Advent to get the news, amidst the narrative of the great reversal story of Jesus? Good eventually triumphing in its own time.
So why do I not feel hopeful after the capture of Saddam? Is it because the bombs in Baghdad didn't even pause long enough to acknowledge the capture of Hussein? Is it because even the global economic markets had only a minor shift in direction at the news? Is it because the 'good' or the 'right' has become very unclear in this whole drama? Is it because if this is a choice between Hussein's dictatorship or America's imperialism, the best we can hope for is the lesser of two evils and I'm not even sure which that is?
The Jesus revolution was all about reversals. However it was as much about the victory over violence (e.g. Hussein) as it was a reversal of the subtle violent power politics of imperialism (e.g. the USA).
Keep in mind that this whole Jesus drama began in the face of Roman imperialism. It was a revolutionary movement toward liberation. The context of the world into which Jesus came was a world in which the people of Israel, God's people, Jesus' people, were in a country occupied by a foreign power, a backwater province in a vast Roman empire. There was social disruption brought about by heavy taxation, loss of land, movement to cities, and the ever-present Roman legions. The period is spoken of as the Pax Romana, the Roman peace.
The Jesus revolution would critique and work for a reversal of the current Pax Americana movement.
The Gospel story today offers a fascinating lesson in reversal. It's a story of gender liberation, but not necessarily the type of gender reversal we might expect.
Women in Jesus' world were considered to be lesser beings than men, useful for child birth but not for the type of miracle which we would associate with God becoming flesh. So we have a woman, not even a full citizen bearing in her body the revolution's leader. The revolution which would be so concerned with inclusiveness and egalitarianism arrives via the labour pains of Mary.
What I love about all this reversal is that it comes via the very instrument which some would claim leads to women's oppression; child birth. Do you see my point? If according to the story a virginal conception takes place, would you not expect also that Mary might avoid those hot and heavy summer months, the morning sickness, the Braxton-Hicks contractions, labour and all the other trials of child bearing?
Here in today's gospel story, we have babies kicking and later in the story we have Mary and Joseph searching for a place for the birth. All so ordinary and human. The term "virgin birth" is a misnomer, even if it occurred that way. It was a virgin conception according to the story, but a thoroughly actual and conventional birth.
So the reversal is there, but not always in the way we might expect or hope.
In the 1990's, Naomi Wolf spoke about the reversal of fortune for women, but said that more reversals were needed. She spoke about the Beauty Myth which suggests that women are sex objects and men are success objects, meaning that society pressures women to ooze sex in their appearance and men to ooze success in theirs. She suggested that the beauty myth was more insidious, and harder to challenge than all the 1980s gains of women's' liberation:
"During the past decade, women breached the power structure; meanwhile, eating disorders rose exponentially and cosmetic surgery became the fastest-growing specialty. Pornography became the main media category, ahead of legitimate films and records combined, and thirty-three thousand American women told researchers that they would rather lose ten to fifteen pounds than achieve any other goal. More women have more money and power and scope and legal recognition than we have ever had before; but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers."
I get the impression with gender liberation, a little like the capture of Hussein, that we expect reversal. It's just that we don't always look in the right places. In looking in the wrong places, we just might thwart the very reversal we are working towards.
So, women are worse off, according to Wolf, and men are worse off as they now carry the double burden of having to compete with men to prove hardness and compete with women to prove softness. The sensitive new age guy is confused.
It's the media messages which confuse us. When Pax Americana controls the media, how do we get inside the real stories? When the media present idealised visions of women's bodies and men's success, where do we learn the reality? At Christmas, when the media is manically selling these messages in the interests of more sales, where do we find the signs of hope?
The Italian sociologist, Umberto Eco, coined the phrase "semiological guerrilla warfare", which became the catch-cry of the practice known as 'culture jamming'. It was a vision of freedom from the messages which bombard us, and a tool for fighting back. Eco wrote, "The receiver of the message seems to have a residual freedom: the freedom to read it in a different way. I am proposing an action to urge the audience to control the message and its multiple possibilities of interpretation. One medium can be employed to communicate a series of opinions on another medium. The universe of Technological Communication would then be patrolled by groups of communications guerrillas, who would restore a critical dimension to passive reception."
I recently saw a great example of culture jamming. It was a wrap around poster on a light pole which said, "Do you want to lose 2500 pounds in a day, call this number." Or there is the clever pamphlet which has the form of a religious fundamentalist tract, but in its detail spreads an anti-globalisation message.
This is getting close to the Jesus revolution. Always about reversals, but not always where we expect to find them. In Advent we honour the arrival of the greatest culture-jammer of all time. We tell the story of the arrival of one who sought a revolution; free from the dictates of society's rule makers, free to be fully alive in your own way and style. Into a world of social, ethnic and religious division Jesus way was all inclusive.
Personally, my hope for you for this Christmas is a wonderful reversal of any aspect of life which is holding you in the past. Believe that the Jesus story offers that possibility.
My hope for this church is the reversal of any aspect of its life which is held back by institutional expectation. There are too many people waiting for the church to be relevant.
My hope for our planet is to see that there is nothing yet being offered which effectively replaces the tyrant in Iraq. The reversal we look and work for is far more significant and earth shattering than arresting an aging murderer.
Reversals are the name of the game, even the reason for the season. Just don't look in the wrong places.