Slaughtering the Innocents

On Friday, December 29, the Orthodox Church commemorated the slaying of the infants in Bethlehem by Herod, the puppet-king of Judah.

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. (Matt. 2:16)

This is the part of the story we don’t include in the Christmas stories we tell our children: The birth of Christ involved an act of mass murder. All hail the Prince of Peace.

Holy Tradition gives us the number 14,000 infants. The actual number would have been much lower, somewhere between 6 and 20. Bethlehem was a tiny village. It’s population today is only in the 20,000s.

I did a recent post about JR Forasteros’s Empathy for the Devil, a book that humanizes the villains in the Bible to help us see ourselves in them. When Herod was willing to kill 14,000 infants, he looks like a tyrant and a madman, both of which were true. But when he killed maybe a dozen kids…well then he looks a lot more like us.

Herod had fallen on Rome’s bad side around the time he ordered the killings. The last thing he needed was reports of a Messiah reaching Rome. Yes, Herod was looking out for himself. But it is also worth considering that the violence Rome was willing to inflict to impose order makes Herod look positively gentle by comparison.

The problem with making villains look really villainous is that they become unrelatable. “Okay, so I drove away after dinging that car’s door, but at least I’m not Hitler!” But ethics are not scored on a curve. At a certain point, the argument becomes ridiculous. “Okay, so I killed that person, but Hitler killed 6 million!”

I think the question to ask ourselves in light of the Slaughter of the Innocents is this: How many children is it okay to kill in order to make us feel safer?

If the answer is zero, then we’ve got a problem, because we kill kids all the time. As of July of 2016 The Council on Foreign Relations estimates that 474 “non-combatants” have been killed by drone strikes alone. There is no way of knowing for sure, but if 10% of that number is children, then we’ve killed about 47 kids.

There! Do you feel safer yet?

I know you may be thinking, “But the government did that! Not me! I would never do that to a child!” I am sympathetic to that argument. It may have had something to do with why Tradition inflated the number of innocents slaughtered by Herod. Judea was not a democracy. The enemy of justice was the state. The state was the villain.

But in a democracy, the villain is us.

I know we are functionally a plutocracy now, but the good news is that it seems that our institutions still work. The Trump administration has pushed democracy to its limits. But he has yet to become the kind of autocrat he would surely be if he were ruling a country with weaker institutions.

Our institutions will respond to what we care enough about. I  know it is hard. We have to fight to resist the effects of xenophobic rhetoric on our amygdalae. We have to find ways not to get exhausted by all the work we have to do. Most importantly, we have to refuse to give in to the cynicism, fear, and apathy. Otherwise, we become little Herods ourselves.

So it might help in closing to reflect again on the words of Matthew, slightly revised:

A voice was heard in [Pakistan],
wailing and loud lamentation,
[Rabia] weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they were no more. (Matt 2:18)