As we move into the Sundays following Christmas and begin to anticipate Epiphany, we face the terror of the coming week’s Gospel reading, the Massacre (or Slaughter) of the Innocents. While there are a number of stories in the Bible that are difficult to read/hear, Herod’s murdering the innocent children of Bethlehem in his attempt to kill a potential threat to his throne must be among the top.
Herod’s brutality is legendary. Most of what we know comes from the Jewish historian, Josephus. Matthew records that Herod became distraught when he learned from the Magi that an astrological sign had indicated the birth of a Judean King (2:1-8). When the Magi did not return to report the location of this newborn King, Herod realized that he been tricked and “he was infuriated, and he sent and killed the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under” (2:16). While scholars debate whether this event is historical or not, it is certainly consistent with what we learn about Herod from Josephus.
When Christians talk about the slaughter of the innocents, the tendency is to focus on the killing of children over the ages. But this approach overlooks an important, silenced factor in this story. Herod’s paranoia and brutality led him to make the decision to kill those children in and around Bethlehem, but he did not carry the act out himself. Matthew notes that Herod “sent and killed” those children. Those who were sent by Herod to carry out this horrific plan are not only silenced in the text, but they are not even present. These nameless, voiceless individuals, who are often depicted in works of art, are absent from the story.
Who were these people sent by Herod to kill the innocent children of Bethlehem? Most likely, they were Judean soldiers. Herod did have Roman soldiers under his command earlier in his career. By the time of Jesus’ birth, he may have only had Judean soldiers, with perhaps a small number of foreign mercenaries, at his disposal. These soldiers made their way to Bethlehem with clear orders: kill every male child two years of age and younger. Can we imagine walking that journey? Would we be able to walk alongside those soldiers, knowing what we had to do, and what might happen to us, and perhaps our family, if we failed to carry out the order?
Throughout human history, warriors have faced a wide variety of difficult circumstances, often having to weigh life and death decisions at a moment’s notice. While Herod’s gruesome command should in no way be compared to our own leaders’ sending soldiers into battle, what remains is the morally difficult decisions that all soldiers must face. Most of the time, we civilians are unaware of these harrowing situations.
This Friday, we are offered a glimpse into one such situation. On December 27, the film Lone Survivor debuts with a limited release (full release is January 10, 2014). The movie is based upon the book by the same name by Marcus Luttrell, a retired Navy SEAL who received the Navy Cross for his actions the 2005 Operation Red Wings. A four-man SEAL team was sent into the Pech District of Afghanistan’s Kunar Province to conduct surveillance and reconnaissance on a group of structures in the area. Soon after being dropped at the insertion point, the SEALS were discovered by local goat herders. They were faced with a difficult choice: Tie them up and leave them to die in the cold mountains, kill them immediately, or let them go and abort the mission. I’ll not spoil the book or film; I only want to point out that these SEALS were faced with a very tough, life or death, decision. And, as director Peter Berg noted in a recent interview, "These decisions happen every day — and are still happening. We just don't hear about them. We don't think about them."
Berg is right; we don’t hear about the difficult situations members of our military face daily. Situations like Iraq War veteran Camilo Mejia faced one day in ar Ramadi:
“When I was stationed in the city of ar Ramadi, in central Iraq, one day my platoon was ordered to respond to a political protest outside the city’s main government building. After a while, the protesters, who were demanding the end of the U.S. occupation, decided to start throwing grenades at the building.
I was ordered to occupy a defensive position on the rooftop. A young man emerged from the crowd. He was holding a grenade. As he drew his arm back to throw it we all opened fire on him. Before I squeezed the trigger, I remember thinking that he was too far to hurt any of us. I still fired on him. I saw that young man, first alive, walking, breathing, and then on the ground, covered with blood, dead.
After the incident, I went into a dark room by myself; I removed the magazine from my rifle, and I counted the bullets that were missing from it. I had fired eleven bullets at the young man. The reason I needed to count the rounds fired was that immediately after the incident, my mind erased all images of the moment of the killing. All I remembered, then and now, were the moments immediately before and after the young man was shot dead.
That day I knew something had forever changed inside me. I felt a hole within me that had no bottom, an infinite void that could never be replenished. For weeks after the incident my mind could not shake off the images of the young man walking, and breathing, and then down on the ground, bloody, and dead.”
We don’t hear the stories of women and men who face life or death; kill or be killed; follow orders or else decisions in the heat of war. And because we don’t hear their stories, we often don’t fully understand the struggles they face when returning to civilian life after serving in war. We don’t understand the ways that many military veterans struggle with the morally complex issues they have faced in war. While we recognize the physical wounds many soldiers come home with, we need to see with new eyes many bear invisible wounds, or moral injuries, that result from either violating their moral conscience or experiencing the profound moral ambiguities of war.
Dr. Coleman Baker is the Program Manager of Brite Divinity School’s Soul Repair Center and teaches biblical studies at Texas Christian University.