gift-bearers, gifts, unbridled greed

Those wise gift-bearers: do you think their journey and gift-bearing were some value-free adventure? The ecclesial interpreters and Church Tradition(s) may wish to have us believe this. They may come from the exotic places with exotic names but do not be fooled. While they may have been suspicious of sly Herod, and opted for another route those-were-the-daysback to wherever – it cannot be dismissed that they perhaps also had an agenda. Imagine having to retell and re-interpret this birth of a commoner’s child around commodities – gold, frankincense and myrrh – in the shadow of empire and in the current context of unbridled capitalism. How much of all the dressed-up interpretations make sense?

Lest you misread my intentions: I can see, like most, that these are the sort of gifts for gods and kings in that ancient world – gold as a precious metal, frankincense as perfume or incense, and myrrh as anointing oil. They are also gifts (often repeated in the scriptures) that underscore how implicated and complicated are the narratives in the context of and with the ideals of surrounding empires. While we ‘leather Constantine well and proper’ in our postcolonial critique of Church, do remember that the yearnings and ‘colludings’ have been there long before.

I am long past the view that these gifts were chosen for their spiritual symbolism about Jesus – gold representing his kingship, frankincense a symbol of his priestly role, and myrrh a prefiguring of his death and embalming – as we tend to belt out in that familiar carol. What appeals to wayward imagination is the fact that these commodities represent both the rape/exploitation of people and nations and the continuing scandalous disparity between the ‘stinking rich’ and ‘corner of the dead’ poor. I wonder how much of narratives of this sort created in the minds of whole nations (such as Europe as one example) some God-give right to embark on an excursion and incursion  of pillage, scramble for land and commodities (including human beings). Our good man David L, you would recall, set out on what he thought was a ‘call’ to open up Africa to the three C’s : Commerce, Civilization and Christianity (my re-ordering). Christianity, as we know was already there – not to mention all the other faith traditions. But we now know what they were really after – the commodities. The late Walter Rodney, among others, has documented this well in How Europe has Underdeveloped Africa (1972)

On my book self is a interesting book by Henry Hobhouse, Seeds of Change: Six Plants that Transformed Mankind (Folio: 2007). First published in 1985, this (it is claimed) is the first book to explore the causative role of plants (Quinine, Cotton, Sugar, Tea, Cocaine, Potato) in history. While the volume may not make the connections I making above, readers would be sensible enough to be able to trace how each of these seeds and the story around them can be linked to greed, the growth of capitalist ideals and the dehumanisation of others. The author notes that “the starting point for the European expansion out of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic continental shelf, had nothing to do with, say, religion or the rise of capitalism – but it had a great deal to do with pepper…[and that] the Americas were discovered as a by-product of the search of pepper.” Yet later, he contradicts himself by noting that this commodity above all else was so expensive that it swelled the coffers of Europe! It had everything to do with the capitalist project and the resulting greed!

We still live with much greed today, subtly (if not overtly) sanctioned by some of the theology of our ecclesial traditions. This is why we need to look at these ‘wise male gift bearers’ with suspicion. And let us be honest: the rhetoric about the ‘love of money as the root of all evil’ and a hindrance to our faith and faithfulness, while administering millions of pounds as religious institutions, do come across as hypocritical!  You see, money, wealth, riches will continue to have an interesting relationship with the Christian faith. At least since Moses smashed the golden calf, the borderland between the realms of faith and money has not been an altogether comfortable place to live. In the meantime, speculators continue to mint profit from gold, frankincense and myrrh! Is there another way around this idol?

© jagessar January 6, 2017

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