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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Slaughter of the Innocents
distributed 12/16/05 - ©2005

There are days when I wish that the Bible were not so painfully relevant. I wish that our scriptures could just be written off as an old book, and left safely in the past.

But a piece of the Christmas story speaks all too clearly about the pain and the struggle of our world, and it fills me with grief as I read it again. That old story, too, offers some help in my struggle to find a ray of hope that shines through the violence of our day.

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The Gospel of Matthew has a very short account of the birth of Jesus. It doesn't have the details from Luke that are so familiar to us. Matthew has only a brief bit about Mary and the angel, and he then jumps immediately to the Magi and the star. There's no stable, no donkey, no shepherds and no angelic hosts here.

It is in Matthew's brief narrative that I find uncomfortable truth about human nature, and it is here that I find distant echoes of this week's news.

Here's the stripped down story: Babylonian astrologers see signs in the stars about the birth of a king. They visit Herod, then go on to Bethlehem, give gifts, and leave by the back roads. Mary, Joseph and Jesus, too, slip away to Egypt. Herod is threatened by the possibility of a competing king, and orders the murder of all the baby boys in Bethlehem.

While the birth of the Messiah is a unique event, Herod's inclination to protect his power has all too many parallels throughout history, and in contemporary life. The handful of children killed in Bethlehem (a town of about 300 people -- how many toddlers would there be?) pales in comparison with the slaughters ordered by Pol Pot in Cambodia, or the destruction of villages carried out by many different armies in Latin America. Murder and violence are still standard tools in the preservation of power.

This winter in Iraq, we see the face of Herod as we watch the trial of Saddam and his buddies, vicious men who tortured and killed as standard policy. I see that clear parallel -- and I know that it is all too easy to point "over there" to show the presence of evil.

In the Advent spirit of self-examination and confession, I also see the spirit of Herod close to home. In this case, no soldiers are committing atrocities and there are no infant bodies in their cradles. This time around, the violence is more abstract, but great power is being used again to preserve privilege, and once again the innocents will suffer and die.

Over the last few weeks, representatives of 200 nations gathered in Montreal to address the ever-growing crisis of climate change. Among other matters, the delegates started to talk about what might be done after the Kyoto agreement expires in 2012.

In those diplomatic sessions, the US embodied the spirit of Herod. Wielding de facto veto power over the process, my nation blocked any movement toward new agreements that will make a real difference on climate change. In the face of human-caused climatic changes that will disrupt ecological systems and human societies for many hundreds of years to come, the United States is playing the part of a petty tyrant who will do anything to preserve his power and privilege. The short-term economic advantage of the US is the only thing that matters in my country's stated policy.

The US's diplomatic temper-tantrums and bullying in Montreal are only the prelude. In years to come, the innocents will be slaughtered. The innocent people whose homelands will be flooded by rising seas, and who will become destitute refugees. The innocent people who will be devastated by drought when the monsoon rains don't come, or when the glaciers have melted and the mountain streams dry up in late summer. The innocent people who will die from the heat in urban slums, and those who will starve when the corn crop fails in a mid-western heat wave. The innocent polar bears are slaughtered when the Arctic ice melts completely, and the rich and complex diversity of the Amazonian rain forest is slaughtered when crushing drought spreads across the region.

Herod and Saddam used armies to kill innocents in the preservation of power. A slaughter which is less direct is still murderous. The US refusal to even discuss reductions of carbon emissions, when our pollution will lead to increased climate disruption, is a slaughter of innocents. The US policy is as selfish and brutal as Herod's -- even if it is for a collective privilege instead of purely personal enrichment.

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In Matthew's story, the holy family slipped away to Egypt before Herod's pogrom was enacted. The miraculous child survived, and the saving work of God was not thwarted.

I can see some parallel glimmers of hope in this week's news.

  • The Montreal conference decided to delay any action on new treaties until 2009, when there will be a different President in the US. Is that four year postponement the modern "flight to Egypt" that avoids total disaster?
  • There is hope in the US Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement, a pact now signed by 195 municipal leaders who will work within their communities toward a real reduction of carbon emissions. Is this coordinated local effort the equivalent of the humble shepherds who came to the stable in recognition of world-changing events?
  • There is hope in the growing global outrage at the official US stance, a rising anger at the Herod-like behavior of the global superpower. Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin said: "To the reticent nations, including the United States, I say there is such a thing as a global conscience, and now is the time to listen to it." The nations of the world are not willing to tolerate the slaughter of the innocents for the preservation of US power.

As I search for hope, I also remember that the story which began in a Bethlehem stable did not end with conquering armies or a royal coronation. It ended on a cross, and with an empty tomb. God's healing, liberating, transformative power is different from the military and economic clout of governments -- even as it calls for justice and responsibility from those seats of power.

Part of the good news of Christmas is that God's intentions will not be thwarted by the selfish tyrants. Herod did not prevail.

This Christmas, may we take seriously the painful relevance of the biblical story. May we see the violence inherent in a quest for power and privilege, and may we see the promise of a new and different way brought to us in the child born in Bethlehem.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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