(and yes I’m aware that the Western church commemorates this on Dec 28, but we excused doing it a day early as more people would make it on the date the Marionite, Chaldean and other Eastern churches do :)).
“Every hour, on the hour the Shrine projects a light beam,” the loudspeaker said, “to symbolise the peace which comes after war. The next show will begin in three minutes.”
On our way to commemorate the Holy Innocents, we had passed through the grounds of the Melbourne War Memorial. Here, what is fast becoming our national religious icon – peace, democracy and freedom through war, as ritualised every Anzac Day – is on full display. But the perversion of the metaphors of light in the darkness could not have been more stark than on this day, when we remember the Holy Innocents as part of the Christmas story.
In the Northern Hemisphere December 25 was chosen to celebrate Jesus’ birth because it is close to the Winter Solstice. It is in the time of deepest darkness that the light appears. Christ is the light.
But the light of Christ is not one which comes through war, but through crucified agape; a love which takes suffering oneself rather than meting it out to others; which chooses vulnerability over violence. This is demonstrated most starkly in the absurd mismatch of the Christ child in a manger pitted against the might of an empire. Yet – so our story asserts – the Christ prevails.
And so we arrived at Victoria Barracks. Immediately, security asked us to leave; we politely declined. They kept an eye on us, but didn’t bother us again.
So twenty of us gathered in a circle, almost half of our number children under the age of 8. Our kids were a bit older this year, so we had prepared them with the story beforehand.
Seated on the grass, we began by acknowledging all of the liturgies and narratives into which the world would birth us at this time of year; from the stampede for a ‘bargain’ at the post-Christmas sales to the trials and tribulations of the Boxing Day Test. Yet we would choose another narrative, one which is infinitely more uncomfortable for those of us who live in the privileged centres of empire. We would choose to be confronted by the Holy Innocents, forever victims of our quest for power and security. And we would mourn, and repent.
Reading the story (Matthew 2:1-18) is always an uncomfortable experience; in the midst of a story we have so domesticated and sentimentalised comes such wanton violence, such brazen brutality, that we dare not look. We want to hurry past, on to happier times, on to Jesus’ escape, to his ministry, his resurrection. But here we linger. For just one day of the year, we linger here.
Time and space was left open for recontextualising the story, naming the modern-day Innocents, ‘collateral damage’ in the quest for power and security for the already powerful. Bradley Manning was named; imprisoned without trial in inhumane conditions for seven months now, accused of leaking the truth. Sudan, soon to face a referendum which could erupt into another civil war. Afghanistan and the thousands of civilians killed, and hundreds of thousands displaced and fleeing. Asylum seekers, fleeing persecution and violence in search of a better life, only to be callously used like a political football to score point by our own politicians. Australia’s indigenous people, who continue to be innocent victims of dispossession and the racist policies of our past and present. Each one spoken, a bell rung, and “Lord, have mercy.”
We named them not in a spirit of anger, nor of self-righteous indignation, but of mourning. Walter Brueggemann names the prophetic tradition as having two movements; the first is deep, genuine prophetic mourning. Only then can we move to the second phase, acts of hopeful imagination.
And so we read the following story; it has been detailed extensively online at the Twin Tragedy website, which seeks to document Afghan victims of this ongoing war waged by a military which has explicitly stated, “We don’t do body counts.” (Ret. Gen. Tommy Franks, US Army)
“On October 21, 2001 between 7 -10 PM in the village of Thorai (Torai) on the outskirts of Tarin Kot, capital of Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan, U.S war planes attacked the Gar Mao Taliban facility and a local police station, but in the process obliterated two homes and a tractor-trailer filled with terrified people fleeing the bombing, including 17 children and 3 women. Abdul Maroof, a farmer, had just sat down to a dinner of naan bread and dhal with his wife and daughters, when the family heard a huge explosion. They rushed outside to see a massive fireball rising from a cluster of homes 1.5 kms away where Maroof’s sister and relatives lived. Maroof’s wife pleaded for him to stay at home. The next morning, a neighbor told him that “some 20” villagers had been killed, including many of his relatives. Another group of villagers had decided to flee by tractor and hitched a metal trailer to it. Qudrat Ullah, 22, and Fazal Rabi loaded up the tractor-trailer with women and children. Abdul Ghani, 22, took the wheel. The tractor had barely moved when another U.S warplane dropped a projectile on the front part of the vehicle. It was the children sitting in the front end who bore the brunt of the U.S “precision” attack. Jamila, 21, sister-in-law of Qudrat Ullah, survived because she was sitting in the back, but her 3 children were killed (Ghazi, Muzlifa and Waheed). Terrified, two men carried the wounded to Jan’s guest room. The Ullah family was taken to a neighbor’s home. Barely 30 minutes after the first attack, U.S bombs hit the Jan house, killing everyone in the guest house, flinging bodies yards away or burying them in rubble. The U.S attacks killed 22 civilians – 4 adults and 18 children. Lt. Col. Jim Yonts said when asked about the bombing incident: “we verified the target and on the night of the 21st, we dropped some precision-guided munitions on the target and destroyed that target. All the munitions were accounted for – on the target.”
Those killed included the following:
Ramin Ullah, 3
Amin Ullah, 8
Mohib Ullah, 6
Harif Ullah, 3
Nasi Ullah, 8
Nabi Ullah, 3
Ahmed Wali, 6
Bibi Aysha, 1
Shakir, a young boy,
Sherina’s sister, 14
Fazi Ullah, 14
Ghazi Ullah, 7
Sitting as we were surrounded by children – our children – of just these ages, it was impossible to remain unmoved. After all, 60% of Afghans are under the age of 25.
We made the confession: “We recognise that it is our power and privilege that is maintained by the standing armies we have – in other words – by force, and that we do not resist the use of force in our names as much as we could because we are afraid to lose our power and privilege, within our own society and in the rest of the world.”
And the challenging absolution – if we would accept it: “As we reflect on the absurd mismatch of the Christ child in a manger pitted against the might of an empire, we remember that it does not take great strength of arms to prevail over the culture of death, merely great vulnerability. And that is something that is available to all of us.“
Thus we began our long procession to Defence Plaza, carrying white crosses to symbolise the Innocents, bookended by our “Hit the Emergency Stop Button on the Afghanistan War” and “Peace is the Way” banners. Responses ranged from outright hostility to vocal support, with much silent acknowledgment in between. Turning into Bourke Street Mall during the sales we were once again assailed by frenzied crowds. For a moment, each had their shopping reverie interrupted.
It’s a long walk down Bourke Street to Defence Plaza for young kids, but I suppose making it to Egypt from Israel on foot probably also had its challenges for Mary and Joseph with a young baby. Once there we had the opportunity for debrief – an expression of the feelings engendered, reactions experienced. There were acknowledgments of the awkwardness of this kind of public demonstration – the vulnerability, to put yourself ‘out there’ in a society which frowns upon anything more than having an opinion. And the liberation of shaking that fear, and recognising that despite people’s approval or disapproval, these actions are worth doing in a society which would rather stay home.
Most of all, for me it’s not about how or even whether others react to our actions – it’s about what it does for us, how it steels us for confrontation with the powers and forms us in alternative ways of relating in love. No longer will love be permissive, passive or polite. As we go deep into reality, we mourn the reality of pain in our world – and out of that, we are energised to acts of hopeful imagination.
In that spirit we finished by reading Micah 4:1-5, recalling a day when swords will be beaten into ploughshares and no one will be afraid.
Thanks to all who participated today – may we continue to journey together in the way of the nonviolent Jesus, and spur one another on to light sparks of active love in a dark world of apathy.