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Herod’s Long Shadow

By January 2, 2012 One Comment
Matteo di Giovanni, The Massacre of the Innocents at Bethlehem
Whether or not Herod’s “Massacre of the Innocents” in Matthew 2 is based on historical fact, and whether thousands of babies were killed or just a couple dozen, the account captures the swift response of earthly powers to the news of Jesus’ earthly presence.

This story tears us abruptly from the warm, sentimental images of Mary cradling baby Jesus in the stable. The little town of Bethlehem, lying still and dreamless in the timeless manger scene, quickly does become the place where the “hopes and fears of all the years” meet in a most terrifying way. Threatened by the magi’s news that a new king has been born in Bethlehem, and incensed by the magi’s noncompliance in reporting back to him, Herod orders the murder of all Bethlehem’s baby boys. Dreams warn the magi and Joseph, and suddenly all the stationary manger-watchers of our beloved creches are scattered, as though we swiped the holy scene with the back of our hand and screamed “It’s not safe here! Run!”

I guess it isn’t all that shocking that Herod would order a massacre; after all, he didn’t hesitate to kill off his own family members who interfered with his plans. What a harrowing picture though–instead of rooting out the rebellious magi, or just hunting down the supposed infant king, Herod impulsively slaughters however many children merely represent a threat to his power. For someone like Herod who was always trying to earn the admiration of the Jews, always trying to prove that he was one of them, this certainly wasn’t a wise plan. Not a good strategy for culling favor with the region’s Jewish mothers. But that was beside the point; for Herod, the crucial matter that trumped all other priorities was preserving his own power.

This account foreshadows future scenes in which Jesus’ actions and utterances strike fear and resentment among the established religious and political powers that be. And in Herod’s methodology, I see the antithesis to Jesus’ use of power. Herod will bring death to many in order to save his own life and power; Jesus will surrender his might and lose his life in order to free others from the power of death.

Unfortunately, Herod’s ruthless destruction of children also contains an archetype that is still alive and well. It can be seen wherever innocent children suffer at the hand of adults, whether due to intentional harm, “benign” neglect, or systemic failure to protect and promote the welfare of children.  A lot has changed over the centuries about how childhood is understood and valued, but children remain reliant as ever on the care, actions, and policies of adults.
And just as Herod carried out his plot under the guise of wanting to worship the new Christ-child, so today there are children whose victimhood is concealed under the pretense of helping. Like those in Jerry Sandusky’s charity for boys, for instance, who were not only tragically abused by him, but whose vulnerability was further trampled on by the many, many people who became complicit in the injustice by ignoring it, erring on the side of preserving a beloved reputation, coach, football team, and legacy.

Herod’s impulse to squelch any threat to power echoes down through the places where children continue not only  to be harmed by the decrees and behavior of adults, but also continue to lack recourse to seek justice. Here in Boston, the Penn State scandal stirred up the haunting memories and emotions related to the Catholic church’s clergy sexual abuse cases. As a clergy person who works with children, I am reminded of the weight of my responsibility as a mandated reporter, and of the corresponding legal and moral reality that my failure to report abuse would only ensnare me in the same evils being perpetuated by the abusers themselves. The shadow of Herod’s misdeeds lurks wherever the power differential between adults and children is manipulated to benefit adults only, or to absolve adults from the responsibility of caring for the children in their midst.

I could go on and on from here, but I’ll save my thoughts for another time. There just isn’t space right now to convey what it’s like to visit children in the hospital who have been abused, or what it was like, on the same day the Penn State story broke, to meet the family of a 12 year old girl at the hospital who is alive, but will never wake up, after crossing the street to get on her schoolbus and being hit by a car whose driver was texting. Maybe another time I will elaborate on my puzzlement about why the United States is the only other country in the United Nations besides Somalia that has refused to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Or on my wish that our nation was as vocal about the well-being of the recently born as about the unborn, and how I wish that we were as passionate about stories that impact the well-being of hundreds of thousands of kids, like this one, as we were about stories like the Penn State crisis.

In the meantime, I hope that this Christmastide, my awe and wonder at God’s willingness to come to us in a vulnerable baby will renew my resolve to foster and to advocate for the healthy physical, emotional, and spiritual growth of children in whatever way I can. After all, it was that vulnerable baby himself who grew up to say, “whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me” (Matthew 18:5).


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