The Dark Side of Christmas

The Dark Side of Christmas
Brian Zahnd

Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents — an unflinching look into the dark side of Christmas. In his Gospel, Matthew tells a macabre story you won’t find on any Christmas card — King Herod’s massacre of the innocents. (Matthew 2:1-18)

Two thousand years ago Jesus was born into a world where vicious despots were willing to employ hideous violence to hold on to power — which is to say a world not unlike our own. The lethal violence directed at Jesus, first as an infant and then at the end of his life, accentuates the political nature of the kingdom of heaven. This kingdom does nothing less than radically reimagine how the world should be organized. The kingdom that Jesus Christ brings is not a kingdom restricted to heaven, but a kingdom for earth coming from heaven. Of course, the principalities and powers always view this heavenly invasion as a challenge to their tyranny. When the Magi inquired, “Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews?”, it wasn’t long before death squads were sent by Herod in an attempt to eliminate his rival. And what was the inscription Pontius Pilate placed upon the cross indicating the capital crime of Jesus? “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”

The kingdom of heaven is nonviolent, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be opposed with violence by those who seek to shape the world through lethal force. Jesus commented on this after John the Baptist was imprisoned by Herod Antipas: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent attack it.” (Matthew 11:12)

Our temptation is to try to overcome what we deem as unjust violence with what we call just violence. This is the myth of redemptive violence. In its American iteration, redemptive violence is mythologized by the gunslinger in a white hat who sets all wrongs to right with his trusty six-shooter. But the myth of cowboy justice only serves to keep us imprisoned in the bloody world of retaliatory violence. Jesus calls his disciples to live gently in a brutal world; to follow Jesus is to abandon the myth of redemptive violence; to take up the cross of Christ is to renounce the way of the sword.

The death of the innocent children of Bethlehem is what we today call in Orwellian language “collateral damage.” I realize that most American Christians don’t want to sully their sentimental version of Christmas with Matthew’s disturbing account of King Herod’s collateral damage — it too easily reminds us of drone strikes gone awry that end up hitting wedding parties instead of terrorist cells. When contemporary superpowers adopt the tactics of ancient tyrant kings, we need to be honest about the fact that innocent people, including children, will be killed. The dark side of Christmas forces us to ask uncomfortable questions about babies killed by covert operations in the name of “security.” We tell ourselves that our security forces are very different from those of King Herod, but Rachel weeps for her children all the same.

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)

O God, today we join Rachel in weeping over all the innocent ones who have suffered at the hands of the mighty, and we pray even more earnestly for your kingdom to come and your will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.