Today, on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the church remembers the thousands of Jewish male infants killed by kingly decree “in the days of Herod.” In the weeks after the massacre at Newtown, those of us living in the United States feel the agony of this Feast like never before. We hear of Herod’s slaughter and think of the children slain at Sandy Hook. We count them among “the holy innocents” commemorated on this day. Some of us also wish to include in this category of holy innocents aborted fetuses.
But in making this feast day about abortion or even Sandy Hook, we risk missing its meaning.
Some may see a resemblance between the “innocents” massacred by Herod and the “innocents” ended by abortion. But as Sonja has brilliantly shown in an earlier post, we err both when we identify fetuses as “innocent” and when we identify innocence as the reason they should not be aborted. Like Sonja, I remain wary of moral schemas that use innocence to distinguish those who deserve not to be killed from those that do. Too often, we define innocence ideologically in ways that support the status quo. For example, in a white supremacist society like the United States, a “black” fetus is innocent, but a black man (i.e., Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Sean Bell) is not.
An anecdote further illustrates the ideological operation of “innocence” in the contemporary United States. I remember a few years ago in a nearby town, an African-American woman named Tarika Wilson was shot and killed by police who stormed into her house in order to arrest her boyfriend for a drug crime. Shot while holding her infant daughter in her arms, her killing provides a kind of inverse Pietà. Though never even accused of any crime, I remember hearing white friends say of her, “That’s what you get for dating a drug dealer!” and, “What kind of woman would let a drug dealer in her house?!” and so on. Never mind that her boyfriend had yet to be convicted. Never mind the absurdity of inflicting capital punishment upon those convicted of dealing drugs.
In a similar way we impute guilt by association to the children we kill in war. The death by drone strike of the 16 year old American son of al Qaeda operative Abdulrahman al-Awlaki does not qualify as a tragedy, our government assures us, because this teenager was not innocent. As President Obama’s senior advisor Robert Gibbs quips, al-Awlaki’s son “ought to have [had] a far more responsible father.” His death was his own fault.
When we identify “innocence” as the reason fetuses should never be killed, we imply that the guilty deserve whatever death befalls them. And in a world marked by unequal power, the disproportionately powerful will decide not only who counts as guilty but also which types of guilt merit death. In leaning so heavily on “innocence,” we also confuse juridical notions of guilt and innocence with moral and ontological ones. Though juridically innocent people exist, no human being possesses complete moral innocence. We all operate under the shadow of original sin. In reality, nobody’s innocent. Not even fetuses.
And these analogies also de-politicize the story of Herod’s slaughter in theologically dangerous ways. Though we cannot reduce scripture to mere politics, when we de-politicize the gospel, we distort its theological message.
The gospel of Matthew depicts King Herod as an agent of Roman imperial rule. He uses his Jewish identity to justify his rulership over Judea and to camouflage his allegiance to Rome. The author of the gospel of Matthew intends to expose Herod as a type of modern-day Pharaoh while also identifying a newborn baby as the true king. Hearing word of the birth of this king, Herod sends three magi out on a secret mission to find this baby so that Herod can kill him. When the magi find the baby Jesus swaddled and sleeping under fantastically bright starlight, they bow down in awe before him and abandon their mission. Without the magi, Herod has no way to find the baby revolutionary in his midst. Unable to conduct a targeted strike as originally planned, Herod turns to wholesale slaughter:
“[Herod] ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under.”
Jesus survives this slaughter only because Joseph takes him out of Judea and into Egypt. Egypt, originally a place of bondage, now provides safe haven. Herod, though claiming fidelity to the God of Israel, acts as Pharaoh, turning Judea into Egypt.
The story of the massacre of the innocents is not about the killing of children. In fact, it is not really about children at all. Jesus provides its protagonist. This story supplies the following christological insights: first, it identifies Jesus with the victims of this type of imperial violence. The slaughter of innocents foreshadows the crucifixion– Jesus suffers in solidarity with the crucified people of every history. Second, it contrasts the kingship of Jesus with that of rulers like Herod who wield worldly power oppressively. Unlike Herod, Jesus does not kill in order to save himself. Remarkably, Jesus refrains from killing to save himself even though he alone possesses unblemished innocence. In this way, the slaughter of innocents provides the ultimate contrast to the crucifixion.