IF we were shepherds, marveling at the Bethlehem star, startled by angels singing, what would we think of this great night of human history, the coming of the Prince of Peace? It astounds us still, this linkage between individual goodness and universal peace - a babe on whose shoulder the government would rest.
Those of us concerned about the integrity of both religion and government ardently support the separation of church and state. The Christmas story suggests how these two spheres can be seen as both distinct and related.
The ethical force of Jesus' life showed there is really not one private morality and another, separate, public morality. There cannot be one expectation of personal innocence and another, more permissive standard for governmental or institutional performance - or vice versa. If the individual is not permitted to intrude on his neighbor's relations or household, then governments or institutions cannot, without following the strictest due process, search or spy on individuals or entities; they cannot wantonly stir up rebellion in neighboring lands, or raid corporate domains.
Legislation lays out rules for public life. A simple spirit of fair play, however, must inform public laws. And we know vastly more about this equitable spirit because of the integrity of Jesus' life.
Sometimes we humans get too clever. Public figures can get carried away by the abstractions and clich'es of exaggerated responsibility, as if there is a higher form of public discourse that differs from straight talk. This discourse would distinguish international terrorism from brutality in the neighborhood or in the home, as if menace can be graded by its theater. It would make out that a public code permits distortion in political campaigns and justifies disinformation against foreign powers, as if these were somehow exceptions to the general injunction against bearing false witness.
Foreign relations and government conduct are not so very different from individual relations; they are not above or apart from the ethical code that Jesus' life exemplified.
In the innocence of Jesus we see our innocence. In the vulnerability of the child we are reassured that our own sensitivities may not be any emotional fault.
In the provision of a manger we see a love that will shelter the homeless.
The gifts of the Magi foretell, as for Scrooge, the potential to overcome our miserliness.
The angels' singing moves the stone that had stopped our own rejoicing.
Jesus' life was intertwined with temporal government. The circumstances of his birth in Bethlehem were the result of a census decree. Because this child would be perceived as a threat to Herod's rule, Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt to escape the slaughter of male infants.
The Christmas story tells us this:
Individual salvation is universal salvation. Individual peace is universal peace.