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Thursday, December 20, 2012

On Christmas and Slaughter (part 1)

Having spent 17 of the last 20 Christmases in Africa, the wind which blows in a drier hotter season now feels familiar, and the flashing spastic lights we bought in our capital a couple years back (our first electrified season) feel appropriately chaotic.  Last year was our first in Kijabe, and I remember the church Christmas pageant which included a band of skinny little camouflage-clad Kenyan boys as Herod's soldiers marching in like a rebel resistance army, and Jesus' parents fleeing before them like any other refugees. I don't recall much focus on this part of the story in America as I grew up.  Our plays ended half-way through Matthew 2, with the gifs of the magi, while the scene was still serenely beautiful and triumphant.  The slaughter of innocent children gives the story a jarring, uncomfortable ending, dangling, unresolved, and terrible.  Rachel weeping for her children, because they are no more.

Five years ago on this day I had just flown from Bundibugyo to Kampala to see my own children for whom I had wept, thinking that Scott and I might be no more, after surviving a 3-week ebola-exposure incubation.  Many innocents had died all around us.  That Christmas was awash in grief, much like Christmas in Connecticut this year.  The 20 first-graders who died, and their six heroic teachers and administrators, are a modern-day slaughter of the innocents.  Angry evil lashing out at those who are defenseless.

We should not have dropped this part of the Christmas story all these years.  Because slaughter is the context of Christmas.  The whole story hinges on the presence of rampant evil.  When masses of children are violently killed, it becomes hard to deny the reality of injustice and suffering, the horrible brokeness of our world.  And in Revelation 12, we see the evil pictured as a great serpent, seeking to devour God's holy child.

Christianity is not about a moral standard, who is right and who is wrong, winning arguments or elections.  It's not about the right songs or the right politics, or power or influence.  It's not about an intangible inward assurance of a distantly future eternal location.

Christmas and Christianity are about redemption of a real evil in our real world.  This is a serious business.  People get hurt.  The evil that made Adam Lanza mentally ill, that tortured his life, that deprived him of treatment or cure, that deceived him into believing this last act of horror was something he needed to do.  The evil that split up his family, that lured his mother into buying assault weapons capable of firing hundreds of rounds of deadly ammunition in a matter of minutes, the evil that insinuates that limiting this sort of weapon to the military is an infringement of human rights.  The evil that kills twenty African children every three minutes of every hour of every day of every year, over and over.  The evil manifest in viruses that turn love and motherhood into death, in greedy dictators who steal from their own people and ruthless terrorists who throw grenades into neighborhoods, in failed crops, hunger, ill-equipped hospitals, careless drivers, floods and droughts.

On this continent it would be absurd to deny the horror and heartache of evil, just as absurd as it would be to do so in Newtown.  Or in Bethlehem, when the bloodied bodies of baby boys were being buried.

The birth of the child who is God ushers in a turning point in the story.  A foe capable of meeting evil, and defeating it.  Disguised and humbled in human flesh.  The incarnation sets in motion a complete reversal of all that is wrong, all that is sorrowful, all that is painful, and in the course of this battle, a lot of people die.  The baby survives and becomes the man who will refuse to ride against Roman powers as a King, that is a victory too small, a territory too temporary.  This King will choose a path of suffering, voluntarily taking on all that evil could throw at him, in his own body, nailed to a tree.  Like the teachers at Sandy Hook who put their bodies in the path of bullets, trying to protect the children.  This King will defeat evil.  He will walk out of a tomb, so that every 6 and 7 year old gunned down, every starving baby, and even the Adam Lanzas of the world, can be redeemed.

We saw the Hobbit movie a few days ago.  The filmakers inserted a scene at Rivendell in which Gandalf muses that it is not so much the power of armies that keeps evil at bay, but the ordinary acts of courage and kindness that preserve our world.  The community outpouring of love which will heal hearts in Newtown.  The tenacious pushing of a teenage girl who gave birth to a baby, and the steady painful walk he took towards death.  The daily self-sacrifice of his followers who sweep streets and teach children and suture wounds and defend the fatherless.

Evil is real.  Innocents suffer.  But the story does not end there.

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