The story of Christmas begins with a 90-mile trek in a dangerous world of robbers both private and public. It was the first imposition of a head tax in that generation, by the tyrannical Caesar Augustus, who ruled the Roman Empire from 27 BC until AD 14.
And you know he had major ego issues. He changed the name of the month Sextillia to name it after himself: August. The calendar still pays him homage.
His major ambition in his reign was to restore a centralized empire. Raising revenue was a major priority of the regime, and this tax was a means of accomplishing that goal.
Few people give voluntarily to any state. The state must rely on enforcement via coercion, including beatings and imprisonment. A state needs a standard by which to judge compliance, which means that taxation always and everywhere begins with accounting for all the people, their income and jobs.
It was precisely this with the Edict of Caesar Augustus.
Eugene W. Seraphin, writing for The Catholic Biblical Quarterly (January, 1945) explains as follows:
In the days of the Republic, no one had ever tried to settle how much money was needed to carry on the government, and how much of this sum each province ought justly to pay in the form of taxes. Augustus proceeded to put together huge census lists and property assessments, by which to determine the population and the total value of the property in each province
Suidas, a Greek lexicographer of the tenth century, wrote that
Augustus, having become the sole master, chose twenty men distinguished for integrity and probity, and sent them through all the earth subject to him, to make a census of persons and goods, in order to apportion justly the contributions which should be paid into the public treasury. This was the first census. That which had preceded The Edict of Caesar Augustus was sort of a spoliation of the rich, as though the state regarded the possession of property as a public crime.
The entire process was incredibly invasive and reminds us that state surveillance is nothing new. The emperor wanted the name, age, profession, and an accounting of the personal wealth of every person over the age of 14. All this was recorded in official records.
Getting revenue always and everywhere begins with accounting for all the people, their income and jobs. For every Roman, compliance meant registering in the town in which he or she lived.
For Jews, it was different. They had to return to their home of heritage, which in the case of Joseph was Bethlehem, the “land of the Jews.” Thus began the journey with his bride-to-be Mary who was already very much with child. To be clear, this was not a trip they undertook willingly; it was forced on them by the state. Augustus was effectively drafting people into his taxing regime.
And here too we see an early implementation of identity politics. Joseph and Mary were not just counted and taxed; they were counted and taxed as Jews. The state in these pre-liberal days considered it public business to assign everyone a tribe – a collective identity whether or not he or she felt an attachment to that tribe. No one could escape. They were forced to return to a homeland that the state defined for them.
Joseph had to leave his business behind. Mary, who should have been resting in bed, risked her life and that of a child to travel on dangerous roads for days, to comply with the edict.
As the couple arrived in Bethlehem, we are told that they were unable to find a place to stay, which today we render as some kind of discrimination. This is ridiculous. There were no commercial hotels in Bethlehem. There were only places to stay based on the kindness of strangers in exchange for small gifts. The whole place was overcrowded because everyone was rushing to avoid the penalties of law.
It was typical in those days, scholars tell us, that the living quarters of places were above where the animals stayed so that the animals could be a source of heat for the house. Mary and Joseph were generously given a place on the lower floor.
The actions of the “innkeeper” here were generous and benevolent in a way in which the state that was bludgeoning these travelers was not. The state dragged an expecting woman and her plus one, based on their Jewishness, across dangerous terrain for three days solely so they could be counted and taxed. Meanwhile, the private sector provided them with shelter, safety, and love.
What a paradigm of truth here! The story of Mary and Joseph on their journey sets up the essential conflict of our own time: compulsion vs choice, the former being the brutal, something we all must deal with and work around in service to the state, and the latter being the compassionate and loving, enabling new life and light to be born into the world.
As the story continues, recall that they were not safe there either. Face with a murderous order from King Herod, they had to leave again, this time for Eygpt.
Think about this story as you contemplate the surveillance, the identity politics, the impending internal passports, and the demographic controls of modern statism. These are tools of oppression. And think too of the beautiful opportunities afforded to us today by the benevolent hands of commerce and private charity. These are truly the saviors of the world.