There is a forgotten Christmas story. A story rarely dwelled on in Christian churches. A story often drowned out by a “multitude of the heavenly hosts” singing Christmas carols. It is not the story of Jesus’ birth. It is the related story of a “troubled” King Herod ordering the slaughter of all the male Jewish children “two years old or under” in the region of Bethlehem, to kill off any threat to his power prophesied by the birth of a messiah. It is the story of “wailing and loud lamentation,” of “Rachel weeping [inconsolably] for her children, because they were no more.” (Matthew 2:1-18) I believe it is the real story of Christmas. Thus honoring Jesus’ birth includes responding to today’s Rachels and their children because that is what Jesus was about.
Who are today’s Rachels and their children? Inconsolable weeping continues to be heard throughout Iraq, where, between 1990-98 alone, US-controlled UN economic sanctions contributed to the deaths of some 500,000 Iraqi children under five years of age. And Rachel’s “bitter weeping” has intensified with the March 19, 2003 Bush administration-led invasion and ensuing occupation of Iraq_”wailing and loud lamentation” that have helped to fuel a powerful insurgency. And it is here that we see today’s King Herod.
President Bush has followed in King Herod’s footsteps, using secrecy and deception to pursue US global domination. The story of Jesus’ birth states, “King Herod called the visitors from the East to a secret meeting, and found out from them the exact
time the star had appeared. Then,” the story continues, ” he sent them to Bethlehem with these instructions: ‘Go and make a careful search for the child; and when you find him, let me know so that I too may go and worship him.'” But the wise men later knowingly avoided Herod, whose anger led him to order the massacre of “all the children in [and around] Bethlehem . . . ” (Ibid)
How many secret meetings did President Bush have early on with his “wise neoconservative men” in an attempt to use the tragedy of 9/11 to justify the travesty of pre-emptive war against Iraq? How many concealed meetings did it take to “fix” intelligence and mislead Congress and the American people into falsely believing Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and ties to Al-Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks against America? (“The secret Downing Street memo,” by David Manning, From: Matthew Rycroft, The Sunday Times – Britain, May 1, 2005)
How many secluded meetings did Vice President Cheney have with Lewis Libby, his chief of staff, to plan the leaking of Valerie Plame’s secret CIA identity, to punish her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, for exposing “fixed” intelligence? How many private “telephone calls” did this now indicted “former Hill staffer” [italics added] then have with reporters to “out” Plame and punish her husband_and thus warn other potential whistle blowers of a similar fate? How many similarly focused secretive meetings might President Bush have had with Karl Rove, his chief of staff, who remains under investigation by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s office?
The similarity between President Bush and King Herod may also be seen in their use of deception to mask imperialistic designs. Both used worship of life to hide opposite intentions. The one wanted to destroy a threat to his power under the pretense of, “When you find him, let me know, so that I too may go and worship him.” The other saw 9/11 as an opportunity to advance American global domination, which he also wrapped in worship: “Freedom is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to every man and woman in the world.” (“Acceptance Speech to Republican Convention Delegates,” The New York Times, Sept. 9, 2004) Rachel’s continued “wailing and loud lamentation” reveal that the Bush administration’s war of choice is not about “freedom” and “democracy” but about occupation and oil and empire.
Rachels’s ungoing inconsolable weeping for her dead and dying Iraqi children is extensively documented. Over a year ago, the well respected British medical journal, The Lancet published “the first reliable study” of Iraq’s civilian deaths since the invasion: “about 100,000 . . . most were women and children . . . violent deaths were widespread . . . and air strikes from coalition forces accounted for most violent deaths.” (“100,000 Iraqi civilians dead says study,” Sarah Boseley, health editor, The Guardian, Oct. 29, 2004; “Mortality before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: cluster sample survey,” by Les Roberts, Riyadh Lafta, Richard Garfield, Jamal Khudhairi, Gilbert Burnham, The Lancet, Oct. 30, 2004) The Lancet-published study assumes the Iraqi civilian death toll would be “far more” if it included those killed in the US forces November 2004 assault on Fallujah. (Ibid)
In fact, Rachel’s cries for her Fallujah children are apparently finally beginning to be heard. The Independent recently reported, “Powerful new evidence emerged yesterday that the United States dropped massive quantities of white phosphorus on the Iraqi city of Fallujah during the attack on the city in November 2004, killing insurgents and civilians with the appalling burns that are the signature of this weapon.” The evidence includes “hideous photographs and videos and interviews with American soldiers who took part in the Fallujah attack.” (“US forces ‘used chemical weapons’ during assault on city of Fallujah,” by Peter Popham, Nov. 8, 2005)
The use of chemical weapons is a violation of the Geneva Conventions_as is the failure of an occupying power to count the deaths of Rachel’s children. Sadly, the Pentagon turns a deaf ear to Rachel’s cries: it does not count civilian deaths and, for seemingly obvious reasons, discounts those of human rights and public health groups.
Rachel’s intense and growing inconsolable weeping in Iraq is being picked up in various reports. Her sobbing is heard in an Associated Press story on UN hunger expert Jean Ziegler’s March 2005 presentation to the UN Human Rights Commission. Ziegler summarized previously reported studies of Iraqi children by other specialists: “Malnutrition among the youngest Iraqis has almost doubled since the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein.” Thus, “By last fall , 7.7 percent of Iraqi children under 5 suffered acute malnutrition, compared to 4 percent after Saddam’s ouster in April 2003,” Ziegler said. “Overall more than a quarter of Iraqi children don’t get enough to eat.” And, “malnutrition, . . . exacerbated by a lack of clean water and adequate sanitation, is a major killer of children in poor countries.” Ziegler also stated that “the situation facing Iraqi youngsters is ‘a result of the war led by coalition forces.'” (“Expert: Malnutrition Affects Iraq Kids,” Jonathan Fowler, UN Security Council-Global Policy Forum, Mar. 30, 2005)
Ironically, the major nutrition issue facing Iraqi children before the “Washington-championed” UN sanctions and the Bush administration’s pre-emptive war was “obesity.” (“Children Pay Cost of Iraq’s Chaos,” by Karl Vick, washington.post.com, Nov. 21, 2004)
Rachel’s continuing cries are recorded by Medact, a global conflict-studying health charity, which produced three reports on the health of Iraqi people, one before and two after the Bush administration’s invasion and occupation. Medact’s 2004 report summarized “the enduring effects of war: . . . Iraq already had high child and adult mortality and there is an alarming reoccurrence of previously well-controlled communicable diseases including diarrhoeal diseases, acute respiratory infections and typhoid, particularly among children. Medact concludes that “the 2003 war exacerbated the threats to health already created by previous wars, tyranny and sanctions.” (“Enduring effects of health in Iraq 2004, Executive Summary,” Medact) Deputy Director Gill Reeve, who released the report, also was quoted: “The health of the Iraqi people has deteriorated since the 2003 invasion . . . The 2003 war not only created the conditions for further health decline, but also damaged the ability of Iraqi society to reverse it.” (“Iraq’s Health Care Under the Occupation,” by Ghali Hassan, counterpunch.com, Dec. 1, 2004)
Journalist John Pilger testified early on about Rachel and her children being “squeezed to death” by US-controlled UN sanctions. He reported a conversation with “Anupama Rao Singh, UNICEF’s senior representative in Iraq, who told him:
In 1989, the literacy rate was 95%; and 93% of the population had free access to modern health facilities. Parents were fined for failing to send their children to school. . . . Iraq had reached a stage where the basic indicators we use to measure the overall well-being of human beings, including children, were some of the best in the world. Now it is among the bottom 20%. In 10 years, child mortality has gone from one of the lowest in the world, to the highest. (“Squeezed to death,” The Guardian, March 4, 2000)
Rachel is also despairing for the education of her children. While the Bush administration’s “Operation Iraqi Freedom” rhetoric claimed to have the Iraqi people’s best interests at heart, the reality on the ground has proven otherwise. The first, UNICEF-supported and Iraqi-government directed, comprehensive study of Iraqi schools, following the US-led invasion and occupation, “shows that one-third of all primary schools in Iraq lack any water supply and almost half are without any sanitation facilities.” In addition, “Since March 2003, over 700 primary schools had been damaged by bombing_a third of those in Baghdad_with more than 200 burned and over 3,000 looted. (“Iraq’s school suffering from neglect and war,” UN Children’s Fund, Oct. 15, 2004)
Said Roger Wright, UNICEF Iraq Representative, “Today millions of children in Iraq are attending schools that lack even basic water and sanitation facilities, have crumbling walls, broken windows, and leaking roofs. The system is overwhelmed.” Wright said that “the decay is the result of over a decade of neglect and underfunding during the sanctions era, as well as the impact of three wars. . . .” (Ibid) Ironically, President Bush ended his 2002 war drums-beating UN speech with, “Honest government, and respect for women, and the great Islamic tradition of learning can triumph in the Middle East and beyond.” (“Remarks by the President in Address to United Nations General Assembly,” The White House Office of the Press Secretary, Sept. 12, 2002)
The Bush administration’s “Operation Iraqi freedom”– bearing “gifts” of violent death and injury, malnutrition, contaminated water, unsanitary conditions, deteriorating education, constant threats to public and personal safety, civil war-like strife, and diminishing medical supplies, equipment and personnel– has turned much of Rachel’s country into a disease- and death-ridden nightmare.
There is even more irony here. Before the first Gulf war, most of Rachel’s children had free access to health care and education paid for by Iraqi oil. Jesse, editor of TVNewsLies.org, suggests the irony in stating, “A college education [for women] was free,” and then asking, “Where do American oil profits go?” (“Bill Maher and Tony Snow Continue the Saddam Lies,” www.uruknet.info. Nov. 4, 2005)
Where do the huge American oil profits go? Evidently into the pockets of the oil barons and the campaign coffers of their political guardians. Politicians who cut taxes for the rich and social programs for Rachel and her children. Politicians who ignore those weeping inconsolably from hurricanes with, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”–the expedient, self-serving words of President Bush to Michael Brown, then director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), as dikes were giving way and water from Hurricane Katrina drowning their deception. Politicians like Republican presidential hopeful Governor Mitt Romney, who sent Rachel’s Massachusetts National Guard sons and daughters off to kill and die in an immoral war against Iraq with words like, “We love you and pray for your safe return.” Politicians who waste the country’s human and material resources of “gold, frankincense and myrrh” on a criminal war, with Rachel “weeping [inconsolably] for her children”_in Iraq and in America.
I believe Christmas would lead us to Rachel and her children. Jesus was much more than a sweet, little, innocent, non-threatening baby in a manger calling for a seasonal adoration. His birth is not a once-a-year sentimental flight into fantasy (however precious fantasy is) but the thrusting into our society’s midst every human being’s right to his and her space, identity, belief, fulfillment. He came to set his oppressed Jewish people free from Roman occupation, which is why he was crucified.
He does not lead us to worship an infant in a manger, but to work for Rachel and her children’s right to be and to belong and to become. He came “to set at liberty those who
are oppressed (Luke 4:18b), not use their oppression as a pretext for coveting their oil and their land for military bases to control the Middle East.
Jesus was about empowering people not gaining power over them in pursuit of dominating “all the kingdoms of the world.” (Luke 4:5-8, 18-21) “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9) “Love your enemies . . . [and] your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 5: 44; 22:39) “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2: 27) “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God . . . .
And he took them up in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands upon them.” (Mark 10: 13-16)
Christmas does not mean worshipping what Jesus did but doing what he worshipped. Christmas comes whenever and wherever anyone joins in saying no! to the King Herods of our day and yes! to Rachel and her children.
Rev. WILLIAM E. ALBERTS, Ph.D. is a hospital chaplain. Both a Unitarian Universalist and a United Methodist minister, he has written research reports, essays and articles on racism, war, politics and religion. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.