Matthew 2:16-18 (NIV): 16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: 18 “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Jer 31:15)
The “Slaughter of the Innocents” is read once every three years, on the first Sunday after Christmas, a low Sunday to be sure. I don’t remember hearing the story as a child; it isn’t part of the ‘sweet’ Christmas story. In the BBC TV sitcom “The Vicar of Dibley” (Episode 14) the local Christmas Pageant includes it with Mr. Horton playing “a more gentle Herod, emphasizing his soft-side”.
But there is not a soft-side. Herod is infuriated and afraid; at his orders children under two years old are killed. Although Rachel is weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, who hears her crying? In modern churches the story seems like an unfortunate side effect to the visit of the Magi. Between the beauty of Jesus’ birth and the hope of the secular New Year, we rarely ask: who is crying now for their children? Who is it that went and carried out this horrific crime? What kind of society existed where innocent children are killed and the result is three lines of scripture?
This year, as we are waiting in Advent, as we head into Christmas, as we anticipate the Magi, a voice is heard in Ramah, [Ferguson, NYC, Phoenix]. If we listen, we hear wailing and loud lamentation. As in Bethelehem, the oppressed are sobbing on the sidewalk next to their dead children; as in Bethlehem these mothers are without recourse, without power, without comfort or consolation. Their children are no more.
The children killed today are almost or already teenagers and some are adults; perhaps they don’t seem much like “innocents”. And yet we know that those that have committed crimes have not committed crimes for which a civil society imposes the death penalty. Our legal system did not indict them; they had no trial, no chance for a defense, no opportunity to take the stand, no jury of their peers. Killed on the streets where they walked, these children of Rachel were killed for crimes without a judgment against them.
Who carried out Herod’s awful crime? Were they evil? I doubt that. I expect they were hired to do a job, they worked hard, they needed income. I expect they usually were enforcing justice. We don’t know if they were soldiers, or security guards, or more like police. But certainly, like today, what they did was not punishable as a crime, was not worthy of prison time, or even a public accounting of what had happened. They were just following orders. It was not until Nuremburg that a human court would suggest “I was following orders” is not a valid defense. Perhaps they feared for their lives if they did not obey.
Today many people, especially white people, ‘fear for their lives’ in the presence of people of color, especially young black men. We can evaluate how strange it is that an armed, trained, big, grown man can be afraid of a teen or of an overweight asthmatic adult, but fear is not subject to logic. I believe the men who report they were afraid.
Who, or what, today, is playing the role of Herod, what is imposing such fear? Some argue it is the context, the man they were facing, but the facts make it clear that is not true. Even if one man grabbed for an officer’s gun, he didn’t have the gun when the officer used it to kill him. Even if one man had lunged, he was now pinned to the ground. Even if a man was holding a gun, he was in a toy store. And yet I believe the stories of the officers when they say they were afraid.
I know that I have been taught to be afraid. I have been taught by TV shows and by the news and by magazine articles that black men are a threat to me. I have been taught by my neighbors and in my school and at my work and in my church that Black is different, unknown, frightening. I internalize those teachings even as I work to not believe them. I work hard to be anti-racist, but in the heat of the moment, I know what it is like to feel fear. Herod was only a man, but the evil power of cultural racism is more powerful than any one person.
What shall we do as we hear Rachel weeping around us? How can we protect the innocents from another slaughter? How can we change a culture that has not heard the weeping over the decades? How can we fight a system that teaches us fear? One step is to hold people accountable when they kill someone who is not armed. No matter what they, and what we, thought or felt or knew or didn't know; it is not OK that our fear leads us to kill, even if the people we kill need to be arrested.
But justice is not vengeance and justice is not hatred. This problem is not solved once three or eight or twenty-seven or two thousand sixteen problem individuals are put in jail, because these individuals are the symptom, not the illness. Indeed these individuals are caught in a system that has caught us all. These individuals do have a soft-side and that matters. These individuals have a goal of creating peace and that matters. We have failed them.
Our police deserve better training about how internalized fear (read this related article on Moyers and Co.) affects what we see and hear. Our police deserve better training on how to de-escalate potentially violent situations. Our police choose to risk their lives to protect us; we owe it to them to give them the training to make that happen.
The slaughter of the innocents is a systemic problem, not only an individual problem — in the first century and today. Herod was afraid of a new baby, but Jesus instructs each of us to “be not afraid”. Each of us must learn to recognize the fear that we have been taught. We must not fall into the trap of believing that we only have a police problem, or a justice department problem. We must find ways to know people who are different from us, to be friends, to be neighbors, to be connected, so that our internalized fears can be defeated.
We must not relegate the slaughter around us to three lines of scripture, read and ignored once every three years.
(The Rev.) Elizabeth M. Magill
Minister of Worcester Fellowship
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