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Another Christmas statistic.

Two thousand years ago, a young homeless woman gave birth to a little baby boy who would grow up to be our Savior. Even the earliest of his followers grasped the significance of the fact that he was born, not in a palace as the scion of a high priest or prince, but in a stable as the child of and unwed mother who would soon be a refugee in Egypt. Few people, however, have noted how the circumstances of Christ's birth contained within them the seeds of his life's eventual end as a death row convict.

In Talmudic midrash, the first and the last item of a series are often considered especially important and somehow linked. In the Decalogue, for instance, the key to obeying the tenth commandment--Thou shall not covet--is to obey the first commandment--Thou shall have no other gods beside me. The evangelists were all familiar with this way of thinking, so it is almost certainly no structural accident of the gospel narrative that we find groups of three--Jesus, Joseph, and Mary; Jesus and two thieves--at both ends of the story. If we pay attention, the evangelists are telling us, then we should see the connection between the extreme poverty of Christ's childhood and his execution alongside two other prisoners.

Modern readers of the gospels may lack the literary sensibilities of early Christians, but we have our own means of uncovering the structure of the Bethlehem-to-Golgotha, Christmas-to-Easter dynamic: socio-economic statistics. Had Jesus been born today, available demographic data would have indicated a high probability that he would end up in some kind of trouble with the law. Some things, it turns out, never change.

Perhaps the most obvious indicator of Christ's future involvement with the criminal justice system was his mother's age and marital status: sons of unmarried teens like Mary (whom scholars assume to have been in her late adolescence) are 2.7 times more likely to go to prison than sons of mothers who, though unwed, at least postpone childbirth until their twenties. If the child's parents are married, the probability of incarceration later in life drops even further. So Jesus already had one foot on the road to death row on that first Christmas when he came into the world.

Joseph's role in Christ's life may well have been the second strike against the Son of God. While Mary's husband was still acting as head of the household when Jesus stayed behind in the Temple at age twelve, Joseph is never mentioned again thereafter, though he might have been expected to accompany his wife and the other children when the whole family went to confront their eccentric relative while he was preaching (Luke 4:42, Mark 3:31-35). Indeed, the evangelist Mark may have referred to Christ as "the son of Mary" instead of the son of Joseph precisely because the latter had died, leaving Mary as the (in those times unusual) matriarch of the clan (Mark 6:3). If these speculations have any validity, then Joseph's possible absence from Jesus' life would have further heightened our Savior's chances of eventual legal problems, since 70% of all long-term prison inmates come from fatherless homes.

Children raised in single parent households are also six times more likely to be poor, and childhood poverty is another leading indicator of later incarceration. In fact, a seminal meta-analysis of 224 previous studies on social class and crime "concluded rather convincingly that members of lower social classes were indeed more prone" to end up behind bars. By conforming to this distressing pattern in his time on earth, our Messiah may have been trying to remind us that, while "the poor you will always have with you," we have a quite practical reason to "sell what you have and give to the poor": crime prevention (Matthew 26:11, 19:21).

Two other factors that correlate strongly with fatherless homes, poverty and subsequent stays in the penitentiary are lack of education and mental illness:

* 71% of all high school drop-outs and 85% of all children with behavioral disorders come from single parent families.

* 40% of all prisoners are either functionally or completely illiterate, and 20% are mentally ill.

From our point of view it is clear, of course, that Christ suffered from neither of these disabilities; but for many of his contemporaries, things may have looked different. The only writing that Jesus appears to have done during his earthly lifetime was doodling "on the ground with his finger" during the trial of the woman caught in adultery, and the scribes publicly accused him of "hav[ing] an unclean spirit" or mental illness (John 8:6, Mark 3:30). If our federal Bureau of Criminal Justice Statistics had examined the Son of God on the way to his execution, it would have classified him as a fairly typical fatherless, uneducated and crazy convict.

And it surely is the whole point of God taking on flesh at that first Christmas so long ago: "he had to become like his brothers in every way," just another statistic in his era's war on crime (Hebrews 2:17).

Of course, with a little "compassionate conservatism" and a school voucher pilot program, he might have escaped the socio-economic conditions of his birth and perhaps ended up running his own money-changing table in the Temple. But the truth is that, when you start life with as many strikes against you as Jesus, you are more likely to end up where he did: in jail, on death row. Two thousand years ago or today, some things never change.

On Christmas eve this year, 38,400 homeless people will be sleeping in the shelters of New York City alone. That number includes 16,700 children, each of which is a son or daughter of God, a beloved child of the uncreated light that made the universe. Like Mary and Jesus, their unwed mothers will love them dearly, and if you pass one the street, you may give them some loose change. It is Christmas, after all!

To stop them from traveling down the road that Jesus took--the road from the homeless shelter to a prisoner's death--will take more than a few dimes and quarters, however. It will require love and action and commitment and, sad to say, quite a few of your dollars. An impossible task? Perhaps. But if we love one another as that first Christmas child loved us, we can save at least some of today's homeless children from becoming another Christmas statistic.

This essay was originally published in a slightly altered form as "Another Easter Statistic" in America Magazine, Vol. 190, No. 13, April 2004.


1. Rebecca A. Maynard and Eileen M. Garry, Adolescent Motherhood: Implications for the Criminal Justice System (Washington DC: Office of Juvenile Delinquency and Prevention, January 1997).

2. Charles W. Colson, Justice that Restores (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publ., 2001), p. 101.

3. Barbara D. Whithead, "Dan Qualye Was Right," Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 271, No. 4 (April 1993), p. 47.

4. John Braithwaite, "The Myth of Social Class and Criminality Reconsidered," American Sociological Review, Vol. 46, No. 1 (1981), p. 36-57; see also more recent studies by D.S. Elliott, N.H. Rafter, M. Farnworth.

5. ____, This Rock (El Cajon, CA), October 1987, p. 15.

6. ____, "Education as Crime Prevention," OSI Criminal Justice Initiative, September 1997; Etienne Benson, "Rehabilitate or punish?", Monitor on Psychology (American Psychological Association), Vol. 34, No. 7., July/August 2003, p. 47, quoting Bureau of Criminal Justice Statistics.

7. Jim Reagan, "Beneath the Smoke of War," The Catholic Worker, June/July 2003, quoting the February 2003 report of the Coalition for the Homeless.
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Author:Soering, Jens
Publication:Cross Currents
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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