Herod, USA

The real meaning of Christmas is not to be found in a manger, but in a massacre.  A massacre rarely addressed in Christian Churches, rather serving merely as a prop in the glorification of the manger.

As the biblical story goes: wise men heard of the virgin birth of Jesus, and went looking for him, following a guiding star.   The child was special indeed, prophesized to be a “Messiah . . .  ‘a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”   Jesus’ heralded birth was enough to threaten the Roman powers who occupied Israel. Thus a reportedly “frightened”—and devious—King Herod arranged a secret meeting with the wise men, in which he encouraged them to “search diligently for the child,” and when they found him, let him know so that he, too, could “pay him homage.”  The wise men “were overwhelmed with joy” in finding Jesus with his mother Mary.  After honoring him, the wise men were “warned in a dream” not to return and tell Herod.  “An angel of the Lord” also warned “Joseph in a dream” to “‘take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt . . . for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’”  Being tricked, an “infuriated” Herod ordered the massacre of all the male Jewish children, “two years old or under” in the region of Bethlehem, to kill off any threat to his power prophesized by the birth of a Messiah.   Here is a very relevant meaning of Christmas: “Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2: 1-18)

Much is made at Christmas of the birth of the “Prince of Peace,” as foretold by the prophet Isaiah (9: 6, 7). Thus follows another biblical story of Jesus’ birth: “An angel of the Lord” appeared to terrified shepherds, and told them not to be “afraid,” because, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day . . . . a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”  And accompanying this divine announcement: “A multitude of the heavenly host . . . suddenly” appeared “with the angel . . . praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.’ “(Luke 2: 8-14) Other translations referenced herein end with: “Peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased,” and “on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

The King James Version’s familiar traditional translation ends with, “ Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” ( Luke 2: 8-14) In this version, apparently “God ‘s “favor rests” on only half of the human race.  Here is merely one more revelation of the patriarchal-favoring nature of the biblical “God, the Father.”

Who decides those whom God “favors” or those with whom God is “pleased”?  And who decides those God does not favor?  Those with whom God is displeased?

History is filled with Christians who used the authority of Jesus’s virgin birth and their own assumed divine biblical leading to determine what and who “please” and are “favored” by God.  For many Christians, it is about having the right biblical belief—and thus control over people authorized by that belief.  Imperialism cloaked in Christianity.

God apparently does not favor Muslims. Hence the Crusades, the Christian holy wars were fought in the Middle Ages, at the cost of millions of lives, to regain control of the Holy Land from the Muslims.  Christians “took up the cross” to gain power over people, not to empower them.  (See “The Crusades: Motivations, Administration, and Cultural Influence,” By Rachel Rooney with Andrew Miller, dee.newberry.org)

Similarly, European Christian explorers determined that God did not favorindigenous Americans.  As reported, “Christians claimed the ‘right of conquest’—the natural God-given right of Christians to conquer and then assume sovereignty over non-Christian peoples throughout the world.”  And, “in response to Columbus’ ‘discovery’ of the Americas, Pope Alexander IV (1492-1503)” turned “the right of conquest” into the “doctrine of discovery,” which “claimed that any Christian European discovery of territory held by non-believers gave Christians title to the land.” (“Whose Manifest Destiny?  The Federal Government and the American Indians,” By Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer, users.humboldt,edu)

Thus when Columbus came upon the indigenous Arawaks, who “did not bear arms,” he wrote in his log: “They have no iron.  Their spears are made of cane.  . . . They would make fine servants.  . . . With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present, by Howard Zinn, HarperCollins Publishers, 1999)

On the flip, Protestant, side of the imperialist Christian coin, was Puritan minister Cotton Mather.   His reported belief: “‘Probably the Devil’ had delivered these ‘miserable savages’ to America, ‘in hopes that the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ would never come here to destroy or disturb his absolute empire over them,’” (“Whose Manifest Destiny?  The Federal Government and the American Indians,” Ibid)

The white imperialistic European Christians believed that—similar to the Israelites’ divinely-led conquering of Canaan—they also were God’s chosen people:  led by God to “discover” America, and create a biblically-inspired nation, like a “city built on a hill,” as The Bible says, which, in their minds, meant that they, themselves, were “the light of the world.”(Matthew 5: 14-16)  Their “light” proceeded to cast the indigenous Americans and Africans, forced into slavery, into outer darkness.

Belief in Jesus’ virgin birth in a manger—proof that he is the one true Son of God and savior of the world—led our white Christian forefathers and mothers to claim a “manifest destiny.” That divine destiny led them to sweep across and conquer the American continent—on the bones of indigenous peoples and the backs of enslaved black persons.  The result was countless more Rachels “weeping” for their children, and “refus[ing] to be consoled, because they are no more.”

Nor is white Christian imperialism’s racist and predatory accommodation of warmongering limited to the past.  Evidently Muslims are still out of favor with God.  President George W. Bush proceeded to blame the horrific 9/11 attacks against America on Muslims, falsely targeting Afghanistan and Iraq.  He charged that Muslims “hate our freedoms,” when, in fact, Muslims were reported to hate America’s “one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the long-standing, ever increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan and the Gulf states.”   The report adds, “When American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy.”  (“‘They hate our policies, not our freedom,’: Quietly released Pentagon report,” By Tom Regan, Christian Science Monitor, www.globalpolicy.org, 11/3/2004)

President Bush wanted no part of any such national soul searching.  He charged that the 9/11 attackers “have no justifications for their actions. . . . They have no religious justification; there’s no political justification.  The only motivation is evil.” (“International Campaign Against Terror Grows,”  Remarks by President Bush and Prime Minister Koisumi of Japan in Photo Opportunity, The WhiteHouse, Sept. 25, 2001)

So when President Bush launched the unnecessary, falsely-based invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, he used God to justify his imperialistic wars, declaring, “The road of providence is uneven and unpredictable.  Yet we know where it leads.  It leads to freedom . . . freedom’s power to change the world.” Thus, “We are part of a great adventure . . . to spread the peace that freedom brings.”  (“President Bush’s State of the Union Address,” The New York Times, Feb. 3, 2005; tape of the address)  And the vast majority of virgin-birth believing white evangelical Christians said “Amen!” and supported the wars, with the aim of converting Muslims to their “Prince of Peace.”

Countless Rachels are “weeping” in Afghanistan and Iraq.  President Bush’s wars have not produced “freedom,” but widows and orphans.  A New York Times story, “A Generation of Widows, Raising Children Who Will Be Forged by Loss,” states that countless children will never see their fathers again, while countless others will never see them for the first time, as the war has created “tens of thousands of widows . . . since 2001.” (By Mujib Mashal and Fatima Faizi, Dec. 1, 2018)  Similarly, “the road of providence” Bush followed in Iraq is filled with “weeping,” not with “the peace that freedom brings.”  The Nationreported the human cost of Bush’s criminal war against Iraq: “1 million dead.  4.5 million displaced.  1 million to 2 million widows.  5 million orphans.” (“Bush’s War Totals,” by John Tirman, Jan. 28, 2009)  And tens of thousands of Americans are also weeping because of the loss of, and injuries to, their loved ones suffered in these unnecessary, criminal wars.

Not that President Bush is insensitive to “weeping.”  His own humanness was seen recently in the eulogy he gave for his father, George H. W. Bush.  At the end, “he choked up and began weeping as he called the former president, ‘the best father a son or daughter could have.’” (“In Funeral of Pomp and  Pageantry, Nation Bids Farewell to George Bush,“ By Peter Baker, The New York Times, Dec. 5, 2018) Tragically, Bush’s professed belief, “Jesus changed my heart,” favored him and America, and prevented him—and his father—from seeing the humanness of all those dead and desolate Muslim Iraqis that his—and his father’s—warmongering proceeded to create—Muslims who also were the best fathers and mothers “a son or daughter could have.”  The self-deluding pageantry of a divinely-favored “kinder and gentler” imperial power.  (For a reality check, see “The Ignored Legacy of George H.W. Bush: War Crimes, Racism, and Obstruction of Justice,” by Mehdi Hasan, The Intercept, Dec. 1, 2018)

That imperial power continues.  America’s longest war, against Afghanistan, which President Bush launched, rages on: 17 years and counting.  As does his ongoing global “war on terrorism,” which has spread to various countries—perpetual war providing endless profits for the military/industrial/energy/intelligence complex.  It is not really about defending America’s freedom, but our bipartisan government’s pursuit of world domination.  With countless more Rachels “weeping for her children.”

And with Donald Trump’s presidency, the sorrow continues.  In Yemen, “85,000 children under 5 years old” are reported to have died from malnutrition as a result of “Saudi Arabia’s “bombing and blockades”—which, if continued, will create “the worst famine humanity has seen in 100 years, according to the UN.”  A war crime the U.S. is aiding and abetting by supplying “weapons, logistical support, and midair refueling services for Saudi fighter planes.”  President Trump’s response to critics: he insists “that the pursuit of cheap oil and lucrative arms deals are more important than, say, preventing 85,000 Yemeni children dying in protracted agony.”  As he tweeted: “Oil prices are lower. Great!  Like a big tax cut for America and the World.  Enjoy!  $54, was just $82.  Thank you Saudi Arabia, but let’s go lower!” (“This Thanksgiving, Donald Trump Is Thankful for the House of Saud,” by Eric Levitz, nymag.com, Nov. 21, 2018)

Then there is President Trump’s demonizing as dangerous “invaders” a caravan of poverty-and violence-fleeing Central American men, women and children, seeking asylum in the U.S.  At the Mexican border, they are threatened by the U.S. military, ready to shoot them.  They are also met by border officers, who fired tear gas at hundreds racing toward a border crossing that separated them from their dream of safety in the United States.  Destitute, unarmed women and men, some grabbing the hand or holding their barefoot children, scattering and screaming and coughing from the tear gas.  And before these shocking scenes, close to 3000 migrant children had been forcibly separated from their parents—many put in cages—as these families sought to apply for asylum in the United States.  With the Trump administration denying the migrants’ right to apply for asylum by blocking their access to official ports of entry for asylum application.

An inevitable result of the Trump administration’s inhuman “zero tolerance” policy is the recently reported death of a 7 year-old Guatemalan girl, Jakelin Caal Maquin, who died from dehydration and shock while in the custody of U. S. agents. She and her father and other migrants had turned themselves in to the agents in the hope of applying for asylum.  The White House was quick to blame the victim and her father for her death.  As reported, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan said, “We cannot stress enough the dangers posed by traveling long distances, in crowded transportation or in the natural elements through remote desert areas without food, water and other supplies. No one,” he continued, “should risk injury or even death, by crossing our border unlawfully.  This is why,” he concluded, “ I asked Congress on Tuesday to change our laws so that the United States is not incentivizing families to take this dangerous path.” (“Migrant Girl’s ‘Horrific, Tragic’ Death Is not Its Responsibility, White House says,” by Ron Nixon, The New York Times,Dec. 15, 2018)

If we are to follow Customs and Border Protection Commissioner McAleenan’s reasoning, the Statue of Liberty should be removed from New York Harbor as it incentivizesmigrants and refugees with, ”Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Furthermore, Commissioner McAleenan avoids addressing the poverty and violence from which migrants are fleeing, which, to the migrants, is more terrifying than “traveling long distances . . . through remote desert areas.”  McAleenan and other White House apologists conveniently avoid addressing the migrants’ oppressive reality because the U.S. exploitation of Central America has helped to create that reality.  (See “Jakelin Amei Rosmery Call Maquin’s death at the Mexican border is our fault, not her father’s,” By Julio Ricardo Vatrela, Think, www.nbcnews.com,  Dec. 15, 2018)  Central American migrants embody the motivatingpower of hopeto live in a Land of the Free.

Never mind the brutal, unlawful, abusive “zero tolerance” treatment of Central American children and their families.  President Trump promises that this year Americans will again be able to say, “Merry Christmas!”

Ironically, belief in the Prince of Peace provides comfort to Christians who build walls and wage—and accommodate—war.  In fact, the biblical story of the virgin birth of Jesus weaponizes Christians to wage war.  Belief that the Christ child in the manger is the unique Son of God and savior of the world is most divisive, breeding predatory behavior that helps to legitimize banning the designated Other and leading to wars of conquest—bans and wars naturally propagandized as defending our nation’s security or spreading “freedom” in God’s name.  The belief that God “favors” Christians feeds into, as we have witnessed, war-justifying presidents who declare that America is the “greatest country in the world,” the “exceptional” nation.  It is difficult to empathize with the rights and grievances of other people if one’s religion is believed to be superior and their religion is perceived to be displeasing to one’s white Christian God.

Nor is Christian exceptionalism merely a divisive trait of evangelical Christians. The mission statements of mainline Christian denominations reveal the same God-favoring biblical blind spot.  The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops emphasizes that “the missionary mandate . . . in obedience to the command of her founder . . . strives to preach the Gospel to all men.” (Mission Statement,” www.usccb.org)  Similarly the mission statement of The United Methodist Church “is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the World.” (“Book of Discipline Section 1: The Churches,” www.umc.org)  The Episcopal Church believes that “although Jesus is a human being, he is believed to be truly distinct from all other human beings.” (“Virgin Birth,” www.episcopalchurch.org)

Not that mainline and evangelical Christians are completely separate groups.  Numerous mainline Christians hold evangelical beliefs, and less biblically-dogmatic people of faith are found among evangelicals.  Nevertheless, the need to believe in the unique, virgin birth of Jesus fosters an exceptionalism that undermines The Golden Rule of placing oneself, non-paternalistically, in other kinds of believers’ realities and treating them as one would want to be understood and treated.

Countless Christians provide good works for marginalized and oppressed people.  But their good works are circumscribed in that they do not speak the whole truthto Herod USA.  They respond morally to human need.  But they avoid the risk of confronting the overarching immoral behavior of political powers that create widows and orphans and destitute asylum seekers and impoverished Americans.

Christmas is about all children’s commonly shared need to be loved and to love.  As child development specialist and author Dr. Amy Eva Alberts Warren states,

Birth is one of the most common examples of our shared humanity.  It is a time when we are most similar.  It is the common thread of our humanity.

The birth of Jesus is not about the uniqueness of one baby, but the universality all children and their parents share. The belief that Jesus’ birth is qualitatively different provides a divinely legitimized frame of reference for the moral exclusion of others who do not share that belief.  If Jesus is qualitatively different, then Christians are too—and others can become perceived as lesser and fair game for paternalistic and predatory behavior.  Belief in the virgin birth is divisive in that you are denying the one thing, birth, that helps us to see our common humanity. (Personal conversation)

Jesus provides the bottom line of birth and faith for Christians in the Sermon on the Mount:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5: 9)

The manger reveals the common humanity everyone shares, and the right of Rachel’s children everywhere to be, and to belong, and to become.

Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center is both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister. His newly published book, The Minister who Could Not Be “preyed” Away is available Amazon.com. Alberts is also author of The Counterpunching Minister and of A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, which “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review of the book in the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. His e-mail address is wm.alberts@gmail.com.