Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”Matthew 2:13–18 (NRSV)
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.”
The arrival of Christmas marks the culmination of Advent, a period of anticipation, with the birth of a child, Jesus the Christ. With the lighting of the fifth advent candle, the Christ candle, the church marks the incarnation of the Christ as an innocent infant. In the saccharine words of the famous carol:
Away in a manger,
No crib for His bed
The little Lord Jesus
Laid down His sweet head
But the beauty of the advent of the innocent infant Christ is short lived. Only three days later, on December 28th, the church marks the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Emerging in the fourth or fifth century, this feast remembers the innocent victims of King Herod’s vicious massacre. For, following the failure of the magi to return and report on the location of the newly born king, Herod orders the execution of all boys aged two and younger in Bethlehem. Yet, by the miraculous intervention of God, Jesus and his family are rescued from this violence, escaping the murder of infants by fleeing—with no little irony (cf. Exodus 1:22)—to Egypt.
But this miraculous rescue of the messiah only intensifies the inescapable question of theodicy; if the massacre was anticipated, why did God not rescue the other children? One can almost imagine the families of these infants calling out, as will Jesus, the words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Viewed through the lens of this tragedy, the closing words of Away in a Manger become darkly ironic:
Bless all the dear children
In Thy tender care
And take us to heaven…
Instead of tackling this question of theodicy, in this post I want to emphasize Matthew’s own framing of the slaughter of the innocents, which opens up a deeply imperative question of political violence and political memory.
For Matthew, as for the majority of early Christian authors, the Christian gospel is an account of a deep conflict and struggle between the messiah and the powers of this age. This week’s lectionary passage from Hebrews is particularly clear on the conflictual nature of the incarnation, and it is perhaps for good reason that it has been paired with Matthew 2.
Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.Hebrews 2:14
The seventh-century theologian, Maximus the Confessor, renders the incarnate flesh itself as a weapon by which the devil is vanquished: “He destroys the tyranny of the evil one who dominated us by deceit. By casting at him as a weapon the flesh that was vanquished in Adam, he overcame him” (The Lord’s Prayer, 348).
Read through this conflictual, even martial language, the story of the slaughter of the innocents takes on a different tone. Within this framework, the Bethlehemite children are seen as civilian victims of a cosmic war. Such victims are, sadly, part of every war. Still, my focus here is not on the bare reality of innocent victims, but on the rhetorical figure of the innocent victim. In short, how do we “use” innocence?
In the medieval world, there were a number of festivities associated with the Feast of the Innocents. For example, there was a medieval tradition in England of waking children on the morning of the festival by whipping them in their beds, in order to remind them of the somber nature of the occasion. On the other hand, the day was also often marked in a more festive, almost revolutionary manner. On this day children might be granted temporary authority over their households. In monasteries, the youngest nuns or monks might be granted the powers of the abbess or abbot for the day. There was even a practice of installing a “boy bishop.” On Saint Nicholas Day (December 6) a young boy, usually from the choir or cathedral school, would be elected as “bishop” and would hold the power of the bishopric through the Festival of the Innocents. One might here recall the elevation of Quasimodo to the “Pope of Fools” in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a carnival not unrelated to the Festival of Innocents.
These two alternatives reflect two political possibilities that emerge from the recollection of the innocent victim. In the first instance, the innocent child serves as a pretext for the violent imposition of traditional, hierarchical, and familial authority. The whip institutes the maintenance of the unquestioned authority of the parent. In the second instance, on the other hand, the innocent serves as an impetus for radical social reconfiguration. In a carnivalesque inversion, those at the bottom of the social hierarchy take the reins of power, deconstructing (even if only momentarily) the facade of familial and ecclesiastical authority. Or, in the words of Christ, “The last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matt. 20:16).
Of course, it must be remembered that the carnival is no panacea. Critical theorist Slavoj Žižek, for example, is always quick to remind his readers that there is nothing implicitly liberative about the carnival; Kristallnacht was no less a suspension of norms than the Festival of the Innocents. As he wrote in an opinion article for The Guardian, “carnivals come cheap—the true test of their worth is what remains the day after, how our normal daily life will be changed.” Indeed, it is certainly easy to see how the temporary nature of these celebrations could sap their political implications. However, ecclesiastical hierarchies evidently viewed the Festival of the Innocents as a revolutionary threat, for they condemned its carnival-like practices at the 1431 Council of Basel. Such practices, according to these authorities, were said to profane “ecclesiastical dignity and hierarchical order” (see: Max Harris, Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools [Cornell University Press, 2011], 2).
Here, I would like to propose that these two alternatives provide a useful heuristic for thinking about the role of the innocent victim in our own context. One need only reflect for a moment upon the periods which followed the 9/11 attacks in Manhattan and Washington DC, the 7/7 bombings in Britain, or any number of other calamities in which civilian lives were taken, to see the way in which such lives come to figure as rhetorical tools to further entrench the status quo and the unregulated power of hierarchical authorities.
Among the clearest instances of such rhetorical employment, in the American context, was the mobilization of the support for the “War on Terror” in the wake of 9/11. It should not be forgotten, for example, that the PATRIOT Act, despite its transparent overreach and flagrant disregard for constitutional protections, passed through the Senate with only a single opposing vote (Sen. Russ Feingold). Even today, as the house recently passed a $738 billion defense budget, the figure of the innocent victim continues to serve the role of upholding the most violently militaristic impulses of the American electorate. Like the medieval child, whipped in their bed, the continued violence of US imperialism is upheld through the image of the innocent victim.
But one need not turn to literal war to find this same logic operative—it underlies all oppression. Perhaps no one has captured this significance of the rhetorical figure of the innocent child more clearly than Lee Edelman. In his 2004 book, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), Edelman brings to light the confluence of a certain “image of the Child” and anti-queer polemics. This “Child”—a rhetorical figure symbolizing the Golden Age and the promising future, but “not to be confused with the lived experience of any historical children” (Edelman, No Future, 11)—functions quite like the murdered child who haunts the medieval imaginary of the Feast of the Innocents, but with a key difference. Whereas the child of the Feast of Innocents represents the lost child, the figure of “the Child” in anti-queer polemics represents the child that never was—the child who can never be born. “If, however, there is no baby,” Edelman writes, “then the blame must fall on the fatal lure of sterile, narcissistic enjoyments understood as inherently destructive of meaning and therefore as responsible for the undoing of social organization, collective reality, and, inevitably, life itself” (Edelman, No Future, 11). That is to say, to engage in non-procreative eroticism is, according to the rhetoric that invokes “The Child,” to fail and abandon the child. Because queer sexuality resists the call for reproduction as the necessary end or telos of eroticism, the queer is figured as anti-child and anti-future: “queerness names the side of those not ‘fighting for the children’” (Edelman, No Future, 3).
If these two examples—the innocent victim of terrorism and the innocent child—represent the first use of the recollection of the innocent, is it possible to imagine the alternative? What might it look like to rethink the innocent victim, not as the authorization of violence, hierarchy, and the status quo? Is there a political “boy bishop” for us today?
Here, recent social movements offer potential models. For what was #Blacklivesmatter if not the recollection of the innocent victim, not with the aim of the maintenance of hierarchy, but rather its dissolution. Could one not also say of the prominent mothers of these slain black men and women, “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”? Were the Ferguson Unrest and Baltimore Uprisings not a sort of carnivalesque suspension of social norms—albeit a somber, even tragic carnival? Indeed, the Baltimore Sun described an early night of the uprising as “almost carnivalesque.”
The political task left for us by the slaughter of the innocents and its yearly festival is therefore twofold: We must develop strategies to resist the political deployment of the image of the innocent victim as a tool of further oppression and we must seek to mobilize the image of the innocent victim towards the end of emancipation and liberation. It is only in this way that we can reclaim the power of the innocent victim.
So, when we hear these tragic words in Matthew, recounting the incalculable loss of innocent life, and when we hear “the wailing and loud lamentation” of their mothers, may we also think of the innocent lives taken in our own communities and remember the cries of their mothers. And may we pause, even if only for a moment, to consider how we speak about such lives, how we mobilize this loss. Is it for liberation or subjugation? Does it uphold the status quo? Or, like the advent that this narrative follows, does it usher in something radically new and unprecedented?