Service not surveillance

It is truth well known amongst emperors, dictators and democrats, that the most effective weapon of rule is not an army or a police force, but knowledge.

That is why governments have invested such enormous resources in the harvesting information. They are in effect knowledge farmers operating vast agricultural paddocks of data. From the Domesday Book in medieval England to the East German Stasi with its vast collection of files and tapes, to the surveillance cameras on every street corner in the United Kingdom, governments have been addicted to collecting facts about the populace. And the important thing is no so much that people are watched, but that they feel that are. And it renders us docile: there is something comforting in knowing that we are being watched over, if not by guardian angels, then at least by the state. In our time, of course, giving the impression of omniscience has become a highly sophisticated technological and commercial process – not just a bureaucracy, but an industry.

This is the pavoir/savoir, the power/knowledge, described by that French talking head Michel Foucault. It’s the business of naming and locating human beings; identifying and classifying them, tracing their origins, and their destinies, so that none disappear from the view of those who would rule. You cannot rule what you do not know. If you feel you are known, you will behave as if you are ruled. Big Brother is watching you.

So: it is unsurprising for us to learn from Luke’s Gospel that the Emperor Augustus was also in the business of collecting information about his subjects. Rome was an empire that achieved its omnipotence by giving the impression of omniscience. It seems that the Jews, at least, knew what was going on, for when a census was commanded in 6 AD, the historian Josephus records that there was an uprising led by one Judas of Galilee.

The decrees of far off governors affect the lives of the little people. And two of these little people were an expectant Jewish couple: Joseph, a small businessman from a remote northern province, had to return to his ancestral home of Bethlehem, 160 kilometres away. He was of the line of David, and Bethlehem was David’s home town.

And he had to travel with his pregnant fiancée, Mary, over those hot and dusty miles, doubtless at his own expense, all because of an imperial decree that was designed to control him and to tax him. Is it not too much to imagine Joseph cursing the name of Augustus as dragged himself and his tired woman down the long road to David’s town? And then to find himself without safe and comfortable accommodation for Mary, and far from the help of her female relatives when the time came for her to have the baby?

It was David’s town to which they came. The town of a long dead king – 1000 years dead, no less. He may have been a king, but he certainly seemed like no threat to the status quo. His descendants would be counted by the Romans, and ruled and taxed by them.

But it was to this king that God’s promises had been made. In 2 Samuel 7, God had promised him a promise for the ages:

When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom…you house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.

According to the verdict of the angels, no less, the fulfilment of this promise is exactly what had occurred in the birth of the new baby. The angel said: ‘to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour who is the Messiah, the Lord’.

Let us not miss the significance of this. It means that here, in obscurity and absurdity, is a challenge to the supremacy of Rome itself. Here is an alternate Lord to the Emperor Caesar Augustus and his bureaucratic attempt to exert control of the world.

But more than that too: the Emperor who can scarcely have known or cared about the inconvenience to some remote and lowly Jews was in fact and unwittingly bringing about the fulfilment of the prophecies of Israel – that there would be an everlasting king. He was attempting to engineer his own form of providence – to demonstrate to all his own form of divinity – but he was, it turns out, the servant of the plans of the true God. He was bent on establishing his own peace, the pax Romanum, but the angels in the sky declared to the shepherds ‘peace on earth, good will to all with on whom God’s favour rests’ – the pax Christi.

The rule of this Lord was written into the genes of Israel by the flesh, and sustained by the prophetic word – in the seed of flesh and the seed of faith. Both were handed down from generation to generation; and survived apostasy, war, exile, famine and rebellion. Barely survived it must have seemed – by the thin threads of flesh and hope. But nevertheless: survived it did till the time of Augustus’ census; when bizarrely, ironically, it sprang to life as an outcome of his attempt to rule his empire.

This is how it continues. The paranoia of human rulers and systems is boundless – the attempt to exert domination through total knowledge has if anything intensified in our age. They attempt to build monuments to their permanence, so that we think of them as impregnable and impassable.

But the one who does see all, the only wise God, does not have to resort to such tactics. His king is renowned for his humility and his poverty, and is crowned a king as a joke, with a crown of thorns, by those who executed him. He rules from the cross, under the sign ‘The King of the Jews’, while people pass by and mock him. His weakness is the very sign of God’s strength, since the truly powerful God does not need to squash us in order to rule us. The joke is turned on the comedians.

This is then a model for us of the non-paranoid, non-desperate exercise of power. Power as God exercises it in Jesus Christ is not established in surveillance but in service. The great machines of power-knowledge that surround us today – the data-gatherers, the government agencies, the financial institutions, Google – they do not have the tight grip on us that they claim. Rather, they are, like Augustus, doing the bidding of the God of Israel, even as they seek only their own gain. Like a skilful wrestler using his opponents’ strength and weight against him, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has woven the plans of human powers into his own plans, to overturn them and to chasten them; and by keeping our gaze on him, we can learn to see human power for what it truly is.


Feature photo: Jonathan McIntosh