What’s with the census?
Some question its historicity, seeing it simply as a narrative device to explain how a child from Nazareth was born in Bethlehem, in order to show that Jesus fulfilled certain prophecies.
But if the Gospel writers are shaping a world that is meant to shape our imagination, if scripture is there to instruct those who revere it, then that is not an adequate explanation.
We need to ask, how are we to respond to this account?
The problem for many is that the census doesn’t make sense to us. If the Romans wanted to collect data on the peoples they ruled over, data which would help them to maximise the effect of deploying limited resources, a finite number of legions, then you would want to know where people were living. You would not organise mass migration, with its potential to destabilise the Pax Romana. Joseph would register in Nazareth, possibly as ‘Joseph, from Bethlehem’ (then you could track population movement).
Our problem exists because we read the account from the perspective of the powerful.
From that perspective, yes, it doesn’t make sense. But what if we were to turn the census on its head, and read the account from the perspective of the oppressed?
What if this is a story about a people movement? What if this is a story of an occupied and oppressed people saying to themselves, We might not be able to stop them counting us, but we can try to ensure that the data they collect is absolutely useless to them…?
What if this is a story about civil disobedience; about defiance; about bricolage – taking something intended as a strategy of control and co-opting it as a tactic of subversion?
And what if this is a story of how God joins in – joins in with civil disobedience as a grassroots response to oppression? Of God adding his weight to the cause?
If that was a story – a fundamental, at-the-very-heart-of-it-all story – passed on to shape our imagination, then what tyranny might be frustrated by those who tell and retell the story of Jesus’ birth year on year?
Here’s to the unreasonable ones, the uncooperative ones, the subversive ones – the ones God can and does use to change the world.
Perhaps this is not a global census. Perhaps it is a local census, decreed by Herod, the local dictator backed by Rome; a census of the kind that will rise to the level of first-importance later, under Quirinius. And perhaps Joseph registers in Bethlehem because that is where he lives; perhaps he had only travelled to Nazareth to conduct the arrangements for his marriage to Mary. Later, when they return from political exile from Herod in Egypt, he intends first to go to his town, before deciding it will be safer to return to hers.
Perhaps this isn’t a story of defiance. Perhaps it is a story of a people so burdened by layers of injustice that they have no defiance left. Perhaps it is into this situation that God sends a saviour.
Perhaps our imagination might be shaped to go to those who are resigned to their lot, who have lost sight of hope?