Responding to Herodian Violence

On the Sunday after Christmas, the Orthodox Church lectionary offers a reading from Saint Matthew's Gospel that resounds with horrifying familiarity. King Herod of Judea discovers that the Magi have failed to disclose the location of the child Jesus, and “in a furious rage... 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.”

The number of children Herod killed is not really known to history. Later counts tended to inflate the number: the Byzantines said 14,000, Syrian Christians said 64,000, Coptic Christians 144,000. Modern biblical scholars estimate the population of 1st century Bethlehem at around 1000 people, and propose a much smaller number, but one that is particularly chilling for us: that day in Bethlehem, Herod's soldiers slaughtered about 20 children.

We are all aware by now of the events from two weeks ago—one man's massacre of 20 grade school children and eight adults (including his own suicide) in Newtown, Connecticut. Can the all-too-similar massacre recorded in the pages of the Scriptures help us to understand the nature of this senseless and savage act of violence? I believe it can.

To begin, we must first understand something fundamental about who King Herod was, or rather, how he saw himself. In the ancient world, it was relatively common for members of the aristocracy to understand their role as quasi-divine. While ancient kings and queens established and maintained their authority by military force, they frequently sought the sanction of religion to bolster their hold on power and preserve their dynasties for generations to come. And state religions tended to cooperate by proclaiming that the one who had won his kingship was a 'son' of this or that god. This situation, indeed, was precisely the case in the Roman Empire in the first century, when the religious cult of the Emperor Augustus was spreading. Later the refusal to worship Roman Emperors as gods was the basis upon which many Christians were martyred.

(A note at this point: the phrase 'son of God' here does not necessarily apply to males, though it almost always has done so. In most of the ancient world, the first-born son inherited his father's estate and his place in the community. To be called 'son of God' then, indicated that God's power and, to some extent His presence, belonged to whoever held the title. Theoretically, that person might be a female and still be referred to as a 'son of God.')

Given this general background, it is not unreasonable to suppose that Herod might regard himself as the main (if not sole) instrument of God's power, at least within his own kingdom. For Herod, the title 'son of God' belonged to him and him alone. History tells us that he had no interest in sharing his power, even with his own sons, three of whom he executed. You can imagine, therefore, how he might react to the news that another king had just been born in Bethlehem, and that the religious authorities were willing to sanction this person as the Messiah, the inheritor of the throne of David. Herod's massacre, extreme even for his violent day and age, reflects the mad desperation of someone who felt his very identity slipping through his fingers.

The situation was actually much worse than Herod imagined. Until the birth of Jesus, people like Herod could count on the general population regarding them as the chosen few who could claim the privilege of a divine lineage. With the birth of this particular king, however, something happened that would change this popular understanding of kingship forever, though the revolution did not really begin until Jesus' Apostles began to proclaim that their crucified Master was the one and only Son of God, that He had risen from the dead in power, and that to all who received him, who believed in his name, He gave power to become children of God. (John 1:12) The Apostle Paul put it simply thus: In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith. (Gal. 3:26)

We cannot underestimate the world-changing importance of this teaching. The whole ancient world was built on the understanding that the aristocratic classes ruled society by divine sanction, as 'sons of God.' Now, by simply confessing Jesus Christ to be the Son of God and being baptized, anyone could claim to be a son of God. Any child, woman, slave, peasant could conceive of becoming an heir of God's Kingdom. The power of kings, once concentrated in the hands of a few, now belonged to all. The Gospel had democratized the exercise of divine power by proclaiming that it was the proper inheritance of each and every human person.

Seeing the Gospel as a democratizing force sheds much light on the history of Christendom since the Apostles began to preach the risen Lord. In the Byzantine Empire, the rise and predominance of monasticism over the life of the Church, can be seen as the triumph of ordinary lay persons—many of whom were not even educated—over the sanctioned authorities, both religious and secular. In the West, the divine right of kings and lords slowly yielded to the notion of universal human rights until it gave birth to the modern democratic state, which regards the individual as an autonomous being who directs his or her own destiny. Whatever the case, these popular movements were the product of societies profoundly influenced by the Gospel which inspired everyone to believe that they could call themselves sons and heirs of God.

This general dissemination of the divine right of kings to the whole human race has potential for great danger. While each of us could potentially use our kingship as Christ did—emptying Himself for the life of others—each of us also might imagine that this God-given privilege gives us license to preserve our own lives and destroy those we perceive to be our rivals. The more aware we become that we are called to be 'sons of God,' the more we will see the advent of 'little Christs,' but also ‘little Herods’ who pervert their calling in self-serving ways. Combine this with an easy access to destructive technology and you have a widespread recipe for the kind of mass killing that only a handful of kings could visit upon their subjects in previous ages…

This double-edged sword, though, cuts both ways. If the Herodian acts of violence testifies to the enormous abuse of the honour that God has bestowed on us in Christ, they are also an urgent reminder to us of the even greater responsibility to use this privilege ‘for the life of the world.’ Suppose someone with whom you were angry brought you a peacemaking gift—a piece of jewellery purchased from the Dollar Store—but because you were so angry, you refused their offering and even threw it in the garbage. Now suppose the gift they brought you was a genuine gold ring encrusted with diamonds, and you responded in the same way. Your anger took the same form in both cases, but how much greater was the destruction when real treasure is involved? And that is just to speak of the material gifts of this world. How much higher are the stakes when we are responsible for the gift of our calling to be divine-human heirs of the Most High God?

Jesus says, “To whom much has been given, much is expected.” Terrifying as this expectation may be, especially in the aftermath of events in Newtown, we need not meet it alone: we can look to the firstborn Son of God who makes Himself known to us in no other place than the Divine Liturgy, where He not only shows us how to live truly as sons of God—in the opening of the Scriptures, in the breaking of the bread—He also gives and sustains His own life within us. Our resolve in the coming year, then, is to respond to the deacon’s frequent liturgical reminder: “Let us attend,” which is more accurately translated as “let us pay attention.” If we want to respond meaningfully to the massacre of December 14th—or any event like it in the past or future—let us pay attention. Let us pay attention to Lord’s work in the here and now of the Liturgy so that we can go out and offer the true antidote for Herodian perversion and violence: the truth and joy of His love, which He pours out upon all the sons of men, making us heirs of the divine life of the Trinity.


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