In Hoc Anno Domini

Every Christmas Eve since 1949 the Wall Street Journal has been publishing the same editorial.  (The Journal doesn’t publish on December 25, the stock exchange being closed.)  Obviously the editors must be pretty proud of it.  It’s also one of my favorites.  From year to year the words are the same but the meaning changes with the times.  In the last few years its message has been clear: Jesus came to save us from government regulation. 

That was probably not the major point at the moment of intensifying Cold War when the editorial first appeared.  The dangerous allure of Friedrich Hayek’s “road to serfdom” was merely implied.  But the Journal readers of 1949, who would have spontaneously understood Caesar to be operating out of the Kremlin, have been replaced by the readers of 2015, daily instructed that today’s Caesar operates from the White House and the federal bureaucracies.  

Entitled “In Hoc Anno Domini,” the editorial describes the world at the moment of Saul of Tarsus’s conversion: a world “in bondage,” with but one state and one master, his oppressive power maintained through legions and executioners, persecution of free thought, and enslavement of nations.  “Then, of a sudden, there was a light in the world, and a man from Galilee saying, Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.” 

Having begun with Saul, the editorial ends with Paul:  “Stand fast therefore in the liberty where with Christ has made us free and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” 

There are a number of historical and scriptural oddities about “In Hoc Anno Domini.” 

Its sketch of a totalitarian empire under one master does not describe the Rome of Tiberius Caesar but the U.S.S.R. of Stalin.  For the editorial, the people who live in darkness are not the happy recipients of divine light but the imperial or, more properly, Communist agents striving to extinguish the light: significantly, they try to “lower a curtain.”  The new Kingdom of freedom offered by the “voice from Galilee” is labeled, curiously, the “Kingdom of Man.”  The possibility that by freedom from the yoke of bondage Paul meant something more that freedom from Caesar is left unexplored. 

Still, it was hardly unthinkable in 1949 to stretch things a little to trumpet the Gospel’s challenge to totalitarianism.  What does it mean, however, to make this, and only this, your Christmas message for sixty-six years running? 

The threat of totalitarian oppression always remains, although in this century it may have a theocratic as much as purely statist cast.  A “soft totalitarianism” may even lurk behind the dynamism of market capitalism.  But what about all the other obvious dimensions of the Christmas story: peace, for instance, or the identification of God with the humble, homeless, or exiled? 

I don’t dispute the Journal’s preference for freedom rather than the “yoke of bondage.”  I cannot read its prize editorial without noting the editors’ daily eagerness to spy that yoke of bondage in every business-adverse action by the Securities and Exchange Commission or the National Labor Relations Board.  Tiberius Caesar reigns forever in the Federal Reserve, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and the corporate tax; the yoke of bondage resides in the Internal Revenue Service and the Environmental Protection Agency.  The anti-government fervor of the paper’s editorial pages is relentless.  So I cannot be surprised that, year after year, this is the meaning the editors find in the birth in Bethlehem.  Such tidings of comfort and joy, it's touching.        

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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