The boy had to die.
He wasn’t a boy at all; he was a threat, at least in the eyes of the man who was determined not to be his victim. “I must kill him,” the man thought, “before he destroys me.”
Am I speaking of Officer Timothy Loehmann and Tamir Rice, or King Herod and the infant Jesus?
Their stories will be forever intertwined in my mind, as the exoneration of Officer Loehmann for his shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice fell on the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Two thousand years ago, a disturbed and distraught king, perceiving a danger to himself, ordered the slaughter of all male children under two born in or near Bethlehem. This past week, a disturbed and distraught officer was absolved of the murder of a 12-year-old boy who was given no chance to prove the truth: that he was a harmless child. A day of mourning for the infants of the ancient past became a day of weeping for black mothers and fathers throughout the nation as they were once again reminded that their children can be killed with impunity. Their cries rise up and mingle with the cries all over the world of people losing loved ones to violence and apathy – children of God, of all ages, killed by guns or missiles, killed by the disease of enmity that grips the world in a pandemic chokehold. From within the shelter of white middle-class privilege deep within the belly of empire, I also grieve, yearning to understand how to be part of the healing so desperately needed.
The commemoration of the brutal killing of innocents falls in the midst of the Christmas season as an annual reminder of the depth of sorrow and sin into which God enters, and this year the pain is renewed. The wounded world into which Christ enters this year is raw and bleeding. Tamir Rice is another black victim killed without consequence in a line that extends from Trayvon Martin to Michael Brown to Eric Garner to Freddie Gray to Rekia Boyd and on and on and on far too long. More names than these are known, but in countries like Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq and more, most of the names of victims are unknown, even when they are targeted from afar for “patterns of behavior.” Foreign and domestic policies are piling up corpses all over the world, in the name of “defense” and “protection.” Human sacrifice – child sacrifice – is exposed for all to see, and yet the system churns ever on.
A world at war, a world of terrified, hardened souls convinced that everyone else is out to get them, a world where white fear is protected at the expense of black and brown lives, a world where carpet bombing the Middle East and the willingness to kill children by the hundreds and thousands is considered legitimate foreign policy – this tragic world of violence and hate where even those in power live in fear and sacrifice lives by the scores – this is where we welcome you, sweet newborn Prince of Peace.
You came to us poor, born in a barn of filth, born into a patriarchy with questionable paternity, born at the margins, casting yourself out to bring the outcasts in. You are no stranger to injustice, exclusion, violence… you came into the midst of it all and became victim to it to show us that you, God, have always been with the victims. All the violence done in your name was always and ever done to you, not for you. And this world that runs on violence and victimization ran right over you so that we might wake up and see what we are doing to each other. As the world founded on violence crumbles the powers that be cling to this eroding foundation and double-down on their death-dealing. The security of force is making us all insecure. Your voice calls out to us to not be afraid, but fear keeps nervous fingers pulling triggers and pushing buttons to deploy missiles.
Oh dear Jesus, I think of the world into which you were born and I see the world today as you come anew into our hearts and I ache, because this world of tremendous pain and suffering is your home that we have ruined with our violence, most of it mistakenly in your name. You told us repeatedly “Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” and yet we continue to sacrifice on the altars of self-righteousness. Politicians and police officers assume the role of God, of judge, jury and executioner, when they condemn people to death in situation rooms and on sidewalks, ensuring the rest of us that their power to kill those “others,” makes us safe. And I, a beneficiary of this “protection,” feel dirty, enraged, profoundly sad, and yet, relatively “safe,” and, because I am safe, I admit that the anger, pain, and sorrow are relatively fleeting emotions. I do not live with the constant worry that my own children, loved ones, or self could be shot in the street or struck from above, but I know that so many live with that constant fear, and it is unacceptable. And I protest but words are never enough and I don’t know what else to do.
I seek your face and find it reflected in the tear-stained eyes of those crying out to you, mourning the death of their loved ones. I see it in the eyes of the prisoners who were thrown away from society without compassion or mercy, most of whom are trapped more by their poverty than their petty or non-existent crimes. I look from a vantage point of relative security at the immense suffering and know that you are there.
You are with me too, you embrace me, but as long as the world is suffering you do not hold me tight to you. You send me out, into the suffering, because there is so much work to be done. I look to you for guidance and strength as I attempt to be a part of your body, doing the healing work you did when you first walked this bruised and bleeding world.
You tell me first that I am forgiven. I need your forgiveness, dear Lord. I am a child of privilege, a child of empire. Laws designed to help my great grandparents, from which generations on through me have benefited, were made at the expense and exploitation of others. I live on land stolen from natives. My ancestors did not own slaves themselves but benefitted from an economy built on slavery. I feel the weight of collective sin and still benefit from it. I try to awaken myself to the subtle biases that have seeped into my consciousness through culture and media, so that I may dispel my own nervousness, my own sinful fear and ignorance, with healing love. I originated in this world of original sin, my sin is native to this privilege, and all my deliberate wrongs were made in this context of collective, unconscious wrong. You show me that whatever acts of malice or neglect I have done to others I have done to you, but you embrace me with forgiveness.
I am convinced that so many of us live in trigger-eager fear because we have either been victims of violence or because, deep down, we know how violent we are ourselves, and assume the worst in each other because we know the worst in ourselves. I must believe that, for it gives me a degree of hope that we at least know the unsustainable path of violence that we are on. But we are powerless to change course without forgiveness… our own sin is too much to bear without the healing touch of your love. So I look to you for the courage to face all my sin in its ugliness and let your beauty shine through it. Your forgiveness does not absolve me of reparations; it makes reparations possible.
In forgiveness I shed my guilt and fear and turn to the world in love. Let your love permeate through me, let it be my sight, let it fill my thoughts, let it guide my actions. You walked the world in love, healed the sick in love, calmed the raging storms on turbulent seas and in human hearts in love, raised the dead in love, absorbed the strikes and blows and weight of the world’s violence in love. Where clouds of fear distort our vision, making us see enemies in our fellow human beings, you looked upon your own killers in love, with love, for you always saw through the eyes of Love. In perfect Love with the Father, you, Lord Jesus, show us that the world is built by and upon the relationship of Love. O Holy Trinity – Lover, Beloved and the Love that flows between and outward – you show us that the world is not founded upon the violence that our fragile and unraveling order is built upon. The foundation of Love is deeper, it will outlast the shattered remnants of our violence, and we build upon solid ground whenever we relate to each other in Love.
Help us to build upon this sure foundation in this new year and evermore, Lord Jesus. The Christmas season straddles transition into the new year; we end and begin in darkness, we end and begin in hope. We are longing for hope in the midst of so much tragedy, so much sorrow, so much violence, so much war. As it was when you were first born, dear Lord, there are too many dead children, sacrificed to a violent world that is coming apart at the seams. Give us confidence in your forgiveness, assurance of your peace, strength to love through the hate, courage to love through the fear, so our broken world can be repaired, resurrected from death in your everlasting life. Come, Prince of Peace, and reign.