In the afterdays of the first Christmas, brutal septuagenarian King Herod was eroding as he grew seriously ill with a number of painful diseases. His polarized legacy included credit for vast building projects alongside the murder of his favorite wife (of ten) and two sons who were judged insufficiently loyal. Ethnically Arab, culturally Greek, religiously Jewish and politically Roman; Herod could play to any needed constituency and accomplish even the most wicked goals. Ascertaining a new threat from the betrayal of the Magi, Herod ordered the murder of the (as yet) unidentified infant savior through a massacre of all the boys under two in Bethlehem and the surrounding region. Today we know this part of the Christmas story as the “slaughter of the innocents.”*
The murderous risk we bear involves the innocence of our presumptions.
Of course we don’t include Herod’s murder of infant boys from Matthew 2 on our Christmas cards or in our pageants. It’s rated MA, for mature audiences only due to scenes of violence and death. But at least one reason Matthew included this part of the story of the first Christmas, is so that no follower of Christ would ever be caught unawares by the potential for human evil.
The next 25 days seem fraught with such potential. In the penultimate chapter of wickedness, capacity for evil knows no bounds. Norms and values delineating noble human behavior and communal thriving hold no recognized worth. This kind of narcissism doesn’t have temper tantrums. It practices intentional violence.
As DJT’s presidency disintegrates toward its end date, 25 days lurks like communal capital punishment when our possible losses are considered. No, children will not be slaughtered. (But should we be grateful that separating children from parents and sequestering them in cages is as far as this goes today?)
It’s our innocence standing on the gallows.
A lesser-known definition of innocence features the phrase “lack of guile or corruption.” The murderous risk we bear involves the innocence of our presumptions – that all votes are counted, that all people hold equal value, that truth can be discerned, that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere (thank you Dr. King) – and so many more core values we treasured in common before malevolence moved into the White House. Finding innocence of this sort to be a profound threat, Donald Trump will continue to implement its long slow execution through at least January 20, 2021. Given the nature of human evil in the White House, the prospect of 25 after-Christmas days led by a wounded malignant narcissist ought to alarm even the most non-anxious among us. It’s going to get worse.
So what might we do with these 25 days?
Scripture presents a profound paradoxical challenge: to hold fast the high competing values of truth and love. Most of us lean toward one or the other. Truth-tellers may hurt you – their growth edge is love. Lovers may shield you – their growth edge is truth. Growing into their duality is high human art and the mark of maturity. Like Herod, Trump tilts away from both. In his White House, truth remains a shape-shifter while love inhabits weakness. So…
- Stand against guile and corruption. Evil thrives not in the absence of culpability but in the effort to escape it. The evil hate the light that exposes them – the light of truth that pierces their duplicity, the light of love that demonstrates their hate. You’ll recognize them by their murder of truth and their whole lack of love for the margins. They turn on their allies, endorse invented conspiracies, ignore that which imperils humanity, grant ally-ally-in-free to malevolence, and disrupt the good works of others. They pad their fortunes and laugh at the gullible. They do violence to goodness.
- Lean in to truth and love. Push nearer the one you know least. You’ll know you’re growing when you surprise yourself doing the negligible noble things that make community thrive.
- Wage peace over against the violence of wickedness, for peace is the plow for guileless innocence to emerge from the icy afterday drifts of Christmas 2020. It is, as Bonhoeffer said, the spoke driven into the wheel of injustice.
Bethlehem’s first Christmas afterdays were dreadful in the wake of Herod’s disintegration – a nightmare of wailing and heartbreak from which one could hardly recover. A lot like 2020 perhaps as Forty-Five erodes and slaughters what remains of our innocence.
But we know the rest of the story when it comes to the life of our baby Savior. He grew up. And as we grow up in Him, we learn His way of peace, and innocence may yet again occupy our land.
[*Don’t spend too much time doubting whether Herod was capable of such a thing. Correlating histories document his last order (5 days before his death in 4 AD) included the imprisonment of thousands of officials in a stadium in Jericho – to be executed upon his death. Herod, knowing that no one would weep for him, wanted to make sure there would be mourning across the region on the day he died. Mercifully, his command was not carried out. (“Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes”, Kenneth Bailey, 2008)]