The day after Christmas I felt the impact of the Incarnation echo in my brother’s pickup truck.
Driving back from a bowling outing with my siblings, we plugged my youngest sister’s new MP3 player into the truck sound system and turned up the music. Here is Christmas I thought, laughing and joking with my wife and my siblings – relaxing in the joy that is family.
No one listened too closely to the music, as it was quite a smattering of random things. DJ Jazzy Jeff meets Veggie Tales meets Broadway meets Country meets Opera – each of the older siblings loaded the MP3 player with their favorite music. Not surprisingly, each one strains their tolerance listening to each other’s music. But it was fun.
In the midst of this gaiety the opening notes of another song started playing, and immediately a reverent silence fell on my siblings. Startled, Emily and I looked around as the four of them started singing in unison:
My siblings have beautiful voices. And they sang with soul and passion about America being attacked on 9/11, about Lady Liberty shaking her fist, and Uncle Sam putting his boot up the ass of his enemies. Why? Because America is angry and this is the American way.
My heart raced and sweat covered my palms as my sisters and brother crooned out the closing notes celebrating what America will gives its enemies, “Courtesy of the Red White and Blue.”
Thankfully, the next song came up on the MP3 player and they went back to laughing and chatting.
Tears filled my eyes, as a hymn celebrating the quiet birth of the Prince of Peace was lost in the background of laughter.
That instant transported my thoughts to the night of Christ’s Nativity. The Emperor raised money for wars to suppress terrorists and expand the empire. The greatest empire in the world flexed its muscle and people stood in awe of the power of the Roman Eagle. And a baby, the creator and ruler of all, was born, ignored in a stable. Balladeers sang of the Empire, and the destruction of the Empire’s enemies. Angels heard only by lonely shepherds heralded the Holy Infant and sang of peace and good will to all people.
And in that moment it seemed so little had changed. On one hand my siblings could glibly sing about sodomizing and murdering those who anger America, but completely ignored the birth of the Savior.
I do not mean to vilify my siblings; they are simply products of their culture.
And so am I.
And here is that culture. A church where a shrine to those young people serving in the armed forces is erected in a prominent entryway, but no placard even mentions missions. A church where the American flag flies higher than the communion table. A church where the prayers offered include regular requests for victory for our military, a better president, and a restoration of prayer in public schools. They live in a culture where it is more noble to be a soldier or sailor than a doctor, where young men find a life of meaning in being willing to kill and die for their country, and young women are expected to be proud of their young men going off to kill the terrorists.
A culture where a young woman who feels the Holy Spirit tugging at her heart with love and compassion for those America hates has no language to express this other than, “God wants me to be a missionary to terrorists.” A culture where the religion of America is so entwined with belief in Christ that to even question this connection is to be viewed as a heretic, as dangerous, as an enemy. A culture where a pastor can say, “Sometimes we are called to bring down the loving wrath of God through devastation and destruction. Sometimes the love of God might mean we need to bomb people into repentance.”
This is the culture of my siblings, and this is the culture of my adolescence.
As I write, the Church is remembering the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, and I can’t help but notice that this cultural perspective is the same one held by King Herod. A cultural perspective the Incarnation of King Jesus undermines and transcends.
Our holy Savior, taking on our humanity enters the world, and his birth is unnoticed by those who bow before the idols of America – the Eagle (also a symbol of Rome), Lady Liberty, and Uncle Sam.
As the Church, what image do we present to the world? What gods do we bow to? Is it the banner of a vengeful eagle raining bombs of destruction? Or the banner of violent bully who uses sexual intimidation to control and belittle others?
Innocent children died at the hands of a King committed to ridding the land of potential terrorists. And innocent children continue to die in our same quest. Some estimates suggest nearly 1 million people have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11.
Christ says that as often as we serve the least, the marginalized, the children, we are serving him. Does the corollary hold true as well? When we kill the least, the marginalized, the children, are we killing Christ? And are we also killing the image of Christ that indwells us by rejecting his way of love?
In the Christmas readings from the lectionary and the daily office from the Book of Common Prayer during Advent and Christmas, we read again and again of this love. We read of a Messiah arriving in our flesh to break the power of principalities and powers, to break the power of sin, death, and destruction. He accepted in himself the violence of whole world to offer us freedom from the violence that lives in each of our hearts. He offers himself as a sacrifice for those who hate him enough to kill him.
As the Church, how can we stand by and watch the on-going slaughter of innocents? How can we defend their deaths in the name of love? How can I defend my own participation in the action of war?
I have no easy answers, but I have pain and guilt that my work (as a pediatrician in the Navy of which I still have 4 years to serve) is supporting the death of the innocent.
Lord, have mercy
Christ, have mercy
Lord, have mercy
What I do know is laying down our arms and beating our swords into ploughshares does not guarantee our safety. But Christ tells us again and again that we are not called to preemptive attempts to buy safety with the lives of children, but to love.
And in our Savior we have the ultimate example of that love.
Love that is willing to die so the least of these may live and have life to the full, now and forever.
We remember, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, 1979)