“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” Matthew 2:18
Few worshipers ever hear the above words read in church, for they are deleted from the gospel lesson on this second Sunday in the Christmas season. Matthew 2:16-18 appears only on the lesser Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28 in the liturgical calendar, never on a Sunday eucharistic celebration. Thus the Sunday Lectionary cycle attempts to do what the gospel writer could not do: keep the trouble out of Christmas.
The offending verses tell the horrific story of the massacre of male infants and their inconsolable mothers “Rachel” — crying out in despair. The beautiful story of the birth of the baby Jesus takes a tragic turn, for twenty or thirty other children around Bethlehem are slaughtered because of the political threat that the “newborn king” poses for the present king. What is good news for scruffy shepherds and well-heeled wise men is definitely bad news for King Herod, and it results in heartbreaking news for the ordinary citizens who happened to become parents in the wrong place at the wrong time. Well, we might say, life is tough; innocent people die all the time, and the survivors just have to get over it and put their shattered lives back together again.
Still, it is a terrible story, maybe even “inappropriate” for this happy season. Perhaps the framers of the lectionary were right to not have this read at Christmas, for this is scandalous material, stuff that shows up at the gospel party like an uninvited guest, breaking fine china and spilling eggnog on the Persian rug.
Did this senseless slaughter really occur? Only Matthew records the incident, a fact that leads many to doubt the historicity of the event. Matthew’s account of what happened after Jesus’ birth differs with Luke’s, which offers a more benign explanation for why and how Joseph and Mary move (or Luke’s “return”) to Nazareth. There is no record of the mass murder in secular history, nor in the work of the great Jewish historian Josephus, who describes King Herod as “a man of great barbarity towards everyone.” And yet it is not hard to imagine the ability of Herod to order up a murder of this magnitude: any tyrant who could kill his wife, her mother, three of his own sons, and over three hundred of his court officers is quite capable of wiping out all the male infants in one little insignificant village in his kingdom.
The truth is, we don’t want to believe the massacre occurred because we refuse to believe that the world could turn its back on such barbarity and not acknowledge that it happened. Surely people everywhere would raise their voices to cry against it; committees of inquiry would be formed, mass protests held, and the tyrant toppled. Surely Bethlehem would never allow the world to forget what happened there, nor would history books and Christian lectionaries delete this sad episode from their pages. “Never forget” would forever be on the lips of those who recalled this tragic story whenever the beautiful story of the birth of Jesus was retold.
And yet…and yet…the world remained silent. What happened in that small town was too terrible to happen, so gradually it did not. The speakable story of Bethlehem became the story of the miraculous birth, not that other story of senseless death. And when someone dared to break the silence by mentioning “those boys,” conversations stopped, eyes fell, and that which had been seen in the light became whispered about in the dark. Yes, Rachel wept…but behind closed doors.
Rachel still weeps today. Amid our adoration of the Christ child, we hear her cries in the distance. Not that many blocks from this magnificent Cathedral, Rachel mourns the systematic destruction of her boys from drugs, violence and societal neglect. A few miles from our suburban sanctuaries, she wails into the night for having too little food to feed too little bodies. A few continents from our mission agencies, we hear her crying in North Korea, sobbing in the Sudan, sorrowing in Soweto, lamenting in Latin America, holding in her arms a child murdered by modern tyrants who “out-Herod” King Herod in the brutality they inflict on their own people.
Holocausts are not new, but they are still forgotten. Denial is not just a river in Egypt (“The Nile”), but an everflowing stream when it allows us to not face up to our painful histories. When Adolph Hitler was asked by one of his generals how the world might react if they should discover his government’s systematic extermination of the Jewish population, he reportedly replied, “No one remembers the Armenians, do they?” Both holocausts of the Jews and Armenians are still questioned by some today, in the face of the overwhelming evidence of the truth of the horrors. And dare we in this country speak openly and honestly about the sheer numbers of Africans who were killed or left to die on the slave ships, in bondage on this soil, and slavery’s murderous aftermath? Can we speak honestly and admit our nation’s systematic destruction of Native peoples and cultures?
The purpose of bringing up such things now isn’t to instill guilt, but to open our eyes to better see oppression as it is before us today, and spur us to cry against it. How should we combat the evil of systematic violence on our own soil, and in foreign lands? One way is to fight violence with violence. Even now as we worship today, thousands of U.S. troops are massing in the Middle East, poised to strike against Saddam Hussein and to bring down his government in Iraq. Most American Protestant denominational church leaders, Roman Catholic and Orthodox bishops, the head of the Episcopal Church and the Archbishop-elect of Canterbury have all criticized the use of military force in bringing down the Iraqi regime as not meeting the moral test of the “just war”. Other Christian leaders support the apparently imminent war. It is not our purpose today to debate this issue during worship, but make no mistake about it: a debate there should be, free from demonizing those who differ from you as being trigger-happy warmongers on the one hand, or idealistic appeasers on the other who should not dare question the foreign and military policies of our President and the United States government. As a minister of the Christian gospel, and as a student of history, I can say without equivocation that violence cannot defeat violence; at best violence can restrain the murderous heart from carrying out its intentions in extraordinary circumstances, but it cannot cure the virus of violence that has already afflicted the human heart. Massive violence only unleashes its virus on the guilty and the innocent alike, and poisons the air in the search for peace, freedom and justice. The war against terror cannot be won by employing state-sponsored terror, no matter how many “terrorists” are captured and killed. The depressing situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories is perfect example of this. Rather, the war against terrorism is supremely a spiritual war; it is a battle for the souls, hearts and minds of persons. Only a moral force — what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “soul force” — has the power to disarm the powerful and topple tyrants.
Jesus, when faced personally with the violence of his day against his own people and himself personally, refused to combat that violence with more violence. His life, message of love, and his power was so threatening to the “powers” that the political and religious establishment both joined hands to have him killed. They gave him the death penalty, but Jesus instructed his disciples to not to unleashed vengeance against his enemies. Ultimately, his followers “defeated” — won over — the Roman Empire without lifting a single sword. Similarly, in the 20th Century, movements of freedom prevailed and foreign or despotic governments were brought down in India, Argentina, Chile, the Philippines, the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and South Africa to name a few, all by using essentially nonviolent methods. And please remember, the walls of the segregationist South during the Civil Rights Movement came a-tumbling down in our country largely because of the moral voice of nonviolently resistant blacks and whites.
Most Christians have considered the use of violent or military force to be legitimate only as a very last resort after all other means of nonviolent resistance to oppression have been exhausted. Did you know that there are at least 198 methods of nonviolent action (compiled by the Albert Einstein Institution in Boston, MA) that have proven to be effective in bringing down an unjust government or oppressive policy? We as a nation have been largely uneducated in the use of nonviolent weaponry, and have come to rely on our economic and military strength to force the rest of the world to conform to our vision of how they are to behave in the world, in such a way that largely benefits us. The great strengths of our nation, however, are not military might and brute strength, but rather the tremendous power of an idea: freedom! The dignity of the human soul. The infinite worth of every human being. The creation of a just society where everyone is free to worship, work and live in peace, and in which everyone has access to the adequate resources for living. Freedom!
As Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said on a program “A Force More Powerful”, a documentary and book (written by Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall) that traces the great mass nonviolent movements for social change in every part of the world in the 20th Century: “When a people decide they want to be free, nothing can stop them.” The power of an idea is much more powerful than the sword, the gun, or the bomb. What if the United States, populated 80% by those who call themselves followers of Christ, were to send one thousand unarmed volunteers to Iraq to stand with their people in a march for freedom, instead of sending one thousand bombs to destroy persons and property? Which has a greater chance of success of winning over the hearts and minds of the people, and bringing down the tyrannical government? Would you and I risk our lives to do this for the sake of the Iraqi people? Would you ever be prepared lay down your life for another human being, to put everything on the table for the sake of a powerful idea? It would be difficult, I know. But as G. K. Chesterton once wrote:
“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.”
Or maybe this all a pipe dream, a recipe for a murderous disaster, another unrealistic call by a meddling priest who should stick to religion because he does not know how the world really works.
Perhaps so. But if I leave politics and retreat back into religion on this Second Sunday of Christmastide, I’m still faced with those verses in the Gospel of Matthew that refuse to be deleted, and I can’t get Rachel’s cries out of my mind. You see, the Gospel sees a connection between the birth of the Prince of Peace and the world’s tyrants and the sufferings that they inflict. The clue to the connection is in chapter one, in the naming of the child: “…and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, ‘God is with us’” (1:23). Christmas is the story of God coming into the world to be among the common people: in Jesus’ ancestry being traced to a poor Moabite women (a foreigner), in his humiliating birth in a stable, in his narrow escape from death at the hands of a despotic leader resulting in his family becoming homeless, in his becoming a political refugee in Africa, in his becoming a poor carpenter in an impoverished country among an oppressed people under foreign rule by a faraway empire. In Jesus, God is saying to Rachel “I know your suffering and pain; I know it myself. I am with you, and the Herods of the day will not prevail, they cannot prevent my kingdom from coming, my will being done finally on earth as it is in heaven. I will redeem my people.”
God is with us. Those who cry today have God by their side. At Bethlehem, innocent children died on Jesus’ behalf. But years later, on a lonely hill in some God-forsaken place, Jesus died for their sake — and ours. I imagine he wept then, joining his voice with Rachel’s. Can you hear them? Unless we allow Christmas to point toward the Crucifixion, and all the crucifixions of the innocent today, then our celebrations this season will be hollow, and all over the world Rachel’s cries will be silenced again.
For yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen. </P