Thus says the LORD: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.” [Jeremiah 31:15, NRSV]
The World Mourns
In this season of Advent and Christmas, we ached more consciously during our usual turn-of-the-year retrospection. This year, the aching was exceptionally amplified in the aftermath of the senseless shooting spree at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Connecticut, USA Friday 14 December.
We literally trembled each time we pictured the faces of the twenty innocent children – twelve little girls and eight little boys –
- who went to school at 9 in the morning and were never coming home again,
- whose beds would forever be empty,
- whose laughter around the house would be heard no more,
- because, as Rachel lamented, “they are no more”.
We might not be able to experience the same painful loss by the parents, yet our mourning was real all the same. So were our fear and our dismay.
These children have been sacrificed at the altar of a colossally misconceived “liberty” – the liberty of private gun-ownership as a legitimate interpretation of an essence of the American Federal Constitution! While this liberty-claim is context-specific to the American history and culture, it is in reality shored up by a quartet of thinly veiled realities that are regrettably common in all histories and cultures everywhere in the world, be they political, social, economic or religious:
- the reality of political convenience instead of insistence upon the truth;
- the reality of fear instead of love;
- the reality of greed instead of generosity; and
- the reality of power and control instead of authentic service.
We live in a very violent world indeed. That, it seems, is nothing new. Stories of violence populate the Bible and the massacre at Newton reminds us of the massacre at Bethlehem upon the birth of Jesus.
Feeling threatened by the birth of a new infant-King, slaughter was unleashed by Herod upon Bethlehem and the surrounding region. His self-preservation instinct having kicked in, he ordered the massacre of all the male infants under two years of age, to make sure he got rid of all the competition, potential and real. Herod wasn’t just seeking to kill “the one”, his operative principle was a presumption of guilt against all: “Just in case one of the boys is the one we are looking for, kill them all.” You find an echo of this principle in an old Chinese saying that plays on words and is descriptive of a ruthless warlord’s mentality: better that ten thousand [一 萬] be slaughtered than that the possible one [萬 一] be let loose.
- Clearly, the “Holy Innocents” of Bethlehem and everywhere in the world were sacrificed at the altar of convenience, of self-interest, self-preservation, greed for power, and a trouble-free rein.
This was a wholly godless mentality.
It ran counter to the principle of the “Blackstone ratio” – “better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer” – expressed by the English jurist William Blackstone in the 1760s. This expression is tied to a much older criminal law principle called the presumption of innocence an early example of which was already contained in the Book of Genesis: For the sake of ten righteous persons living in it, Yahweh agreed to deflect His wrath and would not annihilate the sinful city [Genesis 18:23-32]. There have been, to be sure, many famous echoes of this principle, one of which was by Benjamin Franklin who stated in 1785: “It is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer“. It has everything to do with the sacred duty of protecting the innocent. So John Adam helpfully expanded upon the rationale behind the principle when he wrote:
- It is more important that innocence be protected than it is that guilt be punished, for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world that they cannot all be punished. But if innocence itself is brought to the bar and condemned, perhaps to die, then the citizen will say, “whether I do good or whether I do evil is immaterial, for innocence itself is no protection,” and if such an idea as that were to take hold in the mind of the citizen that would be the end of security whatsoever.
And so a basic tenet in criminal justice law today is that an accused person is presumed innocent until his guilt is proven beyond reasonable doubt. It is aimed wholly at protecting the innocent, even though regrettably some guilty ones might escape punishment in the process. One day, hopefully, the long arm of the law will catch up with them.
In contrast, it is a mark of authoritarian personalities to argue and propose the opposite to all this. Otto von Bismark (1815-1898), the first chancellor of a united Germany, for example, insisted that “it is better that ten innocent men suffer than one guilty man escape” except that, typical of all authoritarian figures, he never insisted that he was willing to be one of the ten! It is not surprising that Pol Pot, the infamous dictator and Cambodian Khmer Rouge leader who murdered millions of his own people for political reasons, would make similar remarks.
As it is to the people of Newtown, so it was to the local residents of Bethlehem, a killing spree wreaked immeasurable pain. So immeasurable was the pain 2,000 years ago, that in his description, Matthew quotes Jeremiah’s mournful words regarding Israel’s pain during the Babylonian Exile:
- When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” [Matthew 2:16-18 NRSV]
The Inevitable Questions
In the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, as with all massacres, the same old questions are inevitably asked.
- “Why did God do all this?”
The short answer is, God did not go on a rampage; the crazy shooter, armed to the teeth, did. God did not order the massacre; the power-crazy, scared-stiff Herod did.
Then, the question that follows at once is:
- “Why did God allow it?” or “Why did God not stop it?” and so on.
All these why-questions seem like a critical examination of God by a suffering humanity. Accepting an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-merciful God, we demand to know why he does not intervene and “do the right thing”. We even wonder whether God really exists at all, for if there is a God, “Why all this?” There is an implicit presumption in our logic, of course, and that is, we expect God to work the way we want him to.
We do not have an answer that satisfies many people, if any at all. But the Book of Job does offer the beginning of an answer and promises deeper insights to those who would meditate further on what it has to say.
Job, too, asks the question why, for no apparent good reason, he has had to suffer the loss of his family, children, and health. God does answer, but Job cannot bear the answer. He is too small and God is too big: God is God and only he is God! This almighty God speaks to him out of the whirlwind:
- And the Lord said to Job:
“Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?
Anyone who argues with God must respond.”
Then Job answered the Lord:
“See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?
I lay my hand on my mouth.
I have spoken once, and I will not answer;
twice, but will proceed no further.” [Job 40:1-5, NRSV]
Talking to God, Job realizes that God can do all things, that nothing can thwart God’s purpose, and that Job himself has uttered what he did not understand, things too wonderful for him to comprehend [Job 42:2-3]. In a word, Job accepts that, compared to the wisdom of God, the pea brains that we humans have would not help us understand even if God told us the answer.
So the point is, in reality, when suffering people ask “why” of God, it is not really to increase our divine knowledge. Rather, it is a cry to God to take away the pain of our grief. As Christians, our vision broadens considerably as we turn from Job to Christ who said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” [(Matthew 5:4].
- He who preaches the Sermon on the Mount says this to all who stand at the intersection of comfort and despair: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” [Matthew 11:28-30].
In the matter of human pain and suffering, the fundamental message from God’s word calls us to come to God and he will answer the true question in our cry, and show us how he will let the pain go away. To be sure, if we do turn to him, the loss that we mourn, and the pain that we bear will not be any less real; but then, nor will the comfort. For God will send the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.
From Bethlehem to Calvary, Sacrifice of the Innocent Continues
As non-Americans, we will never understand their gun-culture. As a nation, they do not appear to see that the choice before them is life or death. The whole American psyche of being the No.1 in the world in wealth, power and might seems over the years to percolate down layers of civil culture that has been lured away to worship the gods of violence and warfare, military might, the right to police the rest of the world on their terms, and the right to resist violence with violence. It has all but become an addiction. Once a people succumbs to that addiction, life eludes them. Regrettably, this malaise is descriptive of all power structures in society as in the church everywhere. Recall an appeal first voiced by Moses: “Choose life so that you and your descendents might live” [Deuteronomy 30:17-19]. How might we learn to forsake the ways that lead to death – physical death as well as death in human relationship, solidarity and co-humanity?
Now, a glimmer of light is peering out of the dark cloud. James Martin, SJ, resonating many Christian voices, calls for a conscious linkage between gun-violence and the Christian pro-life mandate: “Those who consider themselves religious or pro-life must be invited to see that the desire to prevent gun-related deaths is part of the religious defense of the dignity of all life.” That linkage is now gradually taking shape, as reported recently by the National Catholic Reporter:
- A shooting rampage that killed 12 and injured more than 50 others inside a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colo., couldn’t do it. Neither could a gunman who killed six people at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis. But a hail of bullets inside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. — which took the lives of 20 first-graders and six adults — was able to mobilize religious activists on gun control after years of failing to gain traction.
However, as the debate on gun-control laws once again rages across North America, we fear that once again, it will culminate in some political compromise where innocent lives are sacrificed at various “altars”. And as we tune in to the raging debate, our minds are incessantly drawn to the reality of the sacrifice of the innocent that links Bethlehem to Calvary. The sacrifice of innocent lives helps us see clearly the readiness with which society, in which the church forms a part and is often complicit, sacrifices the rights and the dignity and not just the physical lives of the innocent on various altars of convenience.
- From Bethlehem to Calvary, from Cairo to Newtown, the “holy innocents” of today are sacrificed as much by secular leaders as by religious leaders at the altars of personal/group/tribal/sectarian interest, political convenience and compromises, away from the truth, from the Gospel, and from fundamental Christian values.
For Christians, the beginning of Christ’s earthly sojourn was already riddled with signs of his ruthless sacrifice. To a Bethlehem that was not expecting him and held out a “no vacancy” sign for him, Jesus pitched tent amongst pilgrim humanity in great humility. The Son of God, the Prince of Peace, the King of kings, was born in a manger and moved into a humble neighbourhood. He would one day lay down his life in their place and in our place, for them and for us. Christ, who came to save the world that he loved so much [John 3:16], would be crucified on the cross for religious and political convenience. And the signs were all there at his nativity.
Artists are particularly sensitive to this insight of the ultimate sacrifice of the Innocent One being implicit right at his birth. So, for his representation of the nativity scene, Tintoretto’s Adoration of the Shepherds portrays the Infant Jesus lying on straws facing the two beams of the cross as the cruel reality that awaits him. As it turned out, three years into his public ministry, Caiaphas the official high priest made the infamous pronouncement to sacrifice the innocent Jesus for the sins of the nation:
- But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” [John 11:49-50]
The Innocent One – this layman from Nazareth – was sacrificed at the altar of clerical convenience. It was convenient that “he should die”. In the religious leaders’ scheme of things, solidarity and co-humanity, the apex of Christ’s scale of values and the very external expression of his inner grace and love, was out of the question. So long as the religious leaders could keep their positions, Jesus’ mission, dignity and aspirations, even if all the evidence points to all this having come from God, would just be written off as collateral damage. What they did was truly and in every conceivable way anti-Christ. Do we see any parallels across the globe in the very church that we each know and inhabit?
And of course, perfectly resonating with this religious, clerical convenience was the political and career convenience of Pontius Pilate, the leader representing the civil government. Similarly ignoring divine signs communicated through his wife, Pilate gave in to the murderous sentiments of the mob, to save his own career:
- So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” [Matthew 27:24]
Today, the violent world still has little room for Christ, just as the American gun control debate yields no space for Jesus’ pacifism. In the end, we still have to fall back on ourselves, and our relationship to God. For all Christians, then, there’s a personal journey that still continues, and each community has its journey as well, as we struggle for love, care and friendship, and for the discipleship asked of us by the Christ child. This journey must not only conquer fear; it must also avoid violence of any sort against anybody. This violence is not confined to physical violence; it must be seen as having been replicated in all violence against legitimate human expectations for respect and dignity, for growth and fellowship. For, in truth, violence, deep down, isn’t just about the guns. Until we prioritize people over power, we are bound to continue down our violent path.
So why do innocent children die? In an interview on television, Bill Cosby talked about the death of his son killed in a random robbery. Asked how others have tried to console him, he said, “Some have come to me and said it was God’s will. My answer to them is that I choose not to consider God carrying out his will with a bullet to my son’s head.”
Lifting the Veil that Shrouds a Good Friday
We would not choose to understand God’s will in that way either. Yet, we imagine the uncomforted Rachel lamenting once more for her children, Mary accompanied by other women weeping beneath the cross of Calvary rudely raised on a Friday, the parents in Newtown mourning the senseless snuffing out of the lives of their precious little ones, and we wonder how the sacrifice of the innocents could ever reveal the goodness of a Good God. Is there, in other words, a sacramental revelation in the sacrifice of the innocent? In view of the gaping wounds and the throbbing pain, we need, of course, to be extremely careful and sensitive to the grieving families of the victims if we want to speak of a “sacramental revelation” in senseless killing. Yet, as pilgrim people, we cannot accept an endlessly long dark night without the light of dawn. After all, as unnecessary and senseless as it is, the suffering and death of Jesus Christ became the occasion of our salvation. His resurrection on the Easter Sunday and his appearance to his disciples with his cricifixion wounds is reason enough for Christians to rename the dark Friday – that darkest day of human history when humanity killed its God – Good Friday. Richard Rohr OFM says it well: “Thus the Risen Christ starts us off by revealing the human wounds of God, God’s total solidarity with human suffering.” Henceforth, we have understood that all salvation comes through the Sacrifice of the Innocent One, the Son of God, and by extension, by all the sacrifices of all the innocent, who suffer at the hand of evil and whose suffering as unnecessary as it is, must somehow also become the occasion of our salvation. That salvation will not be had, unless we learn to turn weapons into ploughshares and to enter into solidarity with the suffering and grieving. So then, we remember that the first Martyr was actually not St Stephen at the feet of Saul, but the first of the Holy Innocents slaughtered by command of Herod, in his pursuit of the innocent Son of God. In naming the children massacred by Herod the Holy Innocents, the Church declares that even as the power of darkness attempts to destroy the innocent, it will only contribute towards an increase in the holiness of their sacrifices.
On our part, we shall choose to see all the created world as being in some way an icon, a window, into the interior world – a sacrament, as it were, being an outer physicality of an inner spiritual grace. In so choosing, we see ourselves being invited to treat destruction of all shades and descriptions as a window into something deeper and infinitely more wholesome and worthy of our longing, while we are on this side of heaven.
And may all our lives continue to be a witness to the hope and purpose that Jesus came to bring.
Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, January 2013. All rights reserved.
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