“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given. The government shall be upon his shoulder and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).
Christians understand this text to describe YHWH’s long-awaited Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. But how exactly does he fulfill this ancient prediction—“the government shall be upon his shoulder?”
Jesus’ first disciples expected him to replace the Roman Empire with his own imperium of just laws and administrators. Many Christians today make the same mistake, only they finesse it by setting Jesus’ reign far into the future when he will live physically on earth again. Both groups follow conventional understandings of “government” as top-down rule.
Some Christians explain the Isaiah text by saying Jesus is YHWH and thus by definition the One who created, orders and governs the cosmos.
Still others are convinced this text is indeed speaking of authority on Earth here and now, but not in the coercive, top-down fashion we generally associate with the word “government.” The authority in question is embodied by a child and it is not coercive. Parts of the Christian church, including the so-called peace church tradition, have through the centuries made a witness to the moral authority of non-coercive models of human organization. A similar phenomenon is embodied in the informal resistance of the oppressed, as documented in the writings of James C. Scott.
If Not Empire, What? calls to mind this latter understanding of authority. We read the text from Isaiah as looking ahead to the day when a significant part of the world will not work by violence, but by cooperation; by consent, not by coercion; by trust, not by fear. The text does not suggest government will become obsolete, but will depend on an authority greater than itself.
Such thoughts must have seemed too good to be true until they became flesh and blood in Jesus of Nazareth, until they became visible in his life and self-giving death, until they became part of a subculture of people who remembered his sacrifice and joined his ascendant and ongoing witness.
No, this way of Jesus did not achieve a once-and-done victory. Yet he has decisively undermined the autonomy rulers once enjoyed. Though their coercion and overwhelming violence remains intact, they have lost a divine imprimatur and now find themselves measured by standards from a competing realm, standards that always seem to erode their legitimacy.
Jesus has embodied a way that claims people’s loyalty, trust and devotion. If rulers wish to claim the authority to govern, they must pay careful attention to his compassion, forgiveness and nonviolent resistance to evil. Without the moral authority conveyed by his way of life, rulers will be perceived as bloody pretenders, here today but gone tomorrow.
What Isaiah imagined was that someday, the authority of rulers would depend on and be measured by qualities seen frequently in a child. In Jesus, this has been happening, slowly and inexorably. It is why we rejoice at Christmas.