“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against.” (Luke 2:34)
Politics is messy. I knew this before I started doing archaeology in Israel. I grew up in Frankfort, Kentucky, which is a strange blend of Democratic, Republican, and Libertarian. But actually putting my hands in the dirt of a town just as politically messy as my own was a new experience.
Sepphoris was a Roman (and Byzantine, and Neolithic, and Mamluke, etc.) city outside of Nazareth in the Galilee. It had a basilica, triclinium, marketplace, bathhouse, and Roman cart tracks going right through the center of town. And it was well known for its mosaics, which depicted Greek gods, zodiacs, and scenes from the Nile. There had been successive groups of people living in this place for thousands of years, but there had also been an eclectic mix of people cohabiting there across these different periods. And Sepphoris had been built up during the early first century, so there was much excitement about the possibility that a young carpenter from Nazareth might have worked there.
On site, the head archaeologist would often say, “People don’t get up one morning, find out there’s a new ruler, and decide to stop eating Cheerios for breakfast.” His comment stuck with me for its humor and insight. The idea being that we cannot attribute changes in the ways that people live their lives to the changes in power structures. Or even more to the point, we cannot assume that the written historical record explains the lives of everyday people.
At the time, this made a lot of sense to me. It’s common to look for a high-level cause for changes in human behavior, but it is too easy. Maybe if the people of Sepphoris changed what they ate for breakfast, it was due to more pedestrian environmental changes, or to complex changes in trade opportunities. We probably wouldn’t explain our own behavior based on changes in political climate, so we shouldn’t assume that people living two thousand years ago were somehow simpler or radically different than us.
But now, I do find myself adapting my behavior to changes in the political climate. I haven’t changed what I eat for breakfast (yet), but I’ve changed how I teach and where I travel. I’ve adapted to supply chain problems created by various political instabilities, and I worry about my access to healthcare when election season rolls around. I worry about the legal status of my marriage in the coming years, and I spend a lot of time thinking about the polarization of our political climate. Changes in our political leadership do trickle down to my everyday decisions, and I don’t think I’m alone in this.
In my head, I find myself arguing with my archaeology mentor from years ago, “It seems like a fantasy to assume that people are not affected by changes in political leadership and processes.” And this fantasy says more about us than it does about first-century people. We would like to be impervious to the sudden changes in our political climate, to think that what the “elite” do does not affect us, but it does.
But there’s a first-century carpenter who probably worked at Sepphoris who challenges the effects of political structures on everyday people. In this Advent season, we await his birth and his work building a movement that teaches us to locate ourselves in the power structures and bring our own challenges to them.
Rev. Dr. Kristel Clayville is a religion scholar and former hospital chaplain, ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). She currently teaches technology ethics and religion and medicine at the University of Illinois Chicago. She is working on a memoir about being a chaplain and ethicist during the pandemic.