It’s tempting at Christmas to focus on love, peace, joy and hope as abstract sentimentalities – particularly for those of us who live relatively privileged lives. Yet we dare not forget the context of Jesus’ birth – the violence of an oppressive regime which imposed its own order at all costs, even the lives of innocents. The Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28th reminds us that in the midst of Christmas joy the lives of innocents are still at risk from the Powers – through our war-making, our treatment of asylum seekers, and the sweatshops in which our gifts are often made.
This was the fifth year of commemorating Holy Innocents, and it has become a fixture on the calendar. Though many are away on holidays at this time, there is always enough to hold it together.
We began on the grass at Victoria Barracks, where we read the story from the book of Matthew, followed by a minute’s silence. Then Erika read this prayer from Walter Brueggemann’s Prayers for Privileged People:
Christmas…the Very Next Day
Had we the chance, we would have rushed to Bethlehem
to see this thing that had come to pass.
Had we been a day later,
we would have found the manger empty
and the family departed.
We would have learned that they fled to Egypt,
warned that the baby was endangered,
sought by the establishment of the day
that understood how his very life
threatened the way things are.
We would have paused at the empty stall
and pondered how this baby
from the very beginning was under threat.
The powers understood that his grace threatened all our coercions;
they understood that his truth challenged all our lies;
they understood that his power to heal nullified our many pathologies;
they understood that his power to forgive vetoed the power of guilt
and the drama of debt among us.
From day one they pursued him,
and schemed and conspired
until finally…on a grey Friday…
they got him!
No wonder the family fled, in order to give him time
for his life.
We could still pause at the empty barn –
and ponder that all our babies are born under threat, all the
vulnerable who stand at risk before predators,
our babies who face the slow erosion of consumerism,
our babies who face the reach of sexual exploitation,
our babies who face the call to war,
placed as we say, “in harm’s way,”
our babies, elsewhere in the world,
who know of cold steel against soft arms
and distended bellies from lack of food;
our babies everywhere who are caught in the fearful display of ruthless adult power.
We ponder how peculiar this baby at Bethlehem is,
summoned to save the world,
we know, how like every child, this one also was at risk.
The manger is empty a day later…
the father warned in a dream.
Our world is so at risk, and yet we seek after and wait for
this child named “Emmanuel.”
Come be with us, you who are called “God with us.”
Then we had the opportunity to share stories of contemporary innocents who have been killed as part of our society’s quest for domination and security. Greg shared a story of child victims of drone warfare. I shared a story of Zukoom (9) and Hashim (8), killed in a suicide bombing in Kabul in opposition to the Bilateral Security Agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan. Others shared about Gaza, asylum seekers, and West Papuan Independence activists. Each name or group was written on a white cross, a bell rung, and a reverent silence observed.
I then shared this reflection:
We know that hundreds of children have been killed in drone strikes. The Australian government continues to lock up children and adults alike in inhumane conditions simply for fleeing persecution by boat.
We must recognise, confess, and begin to undo our complicity. It is our power and privilege that is maintained by the standing armies we have – in other words, by force – and we do not resist the use of force in our names as much as we could because we are afraid; afraid, amongst other things, to lose our power and privilege, within our own society and in the rest of the world.
To our fears, the angels have one thing to say: Do not be afraid. To Zechariah, as he learns that he will soon father a child who will become John the Baptist, forerunner of the Messiah, the angels say: do not be afraid. To Mary, as she learns that she will carry God in human form: do not be afraid. To the shepherds, as they learn that the Saviour of the world has been born: do not be afraid. To those Herods, ancient and modern, who wage war out of fear, the angels say: do not be afraid. And to those of us who resist, the same message: do not be afraid.
This is the original ‘war on terror’ – not a violent military bent on destroying their enemies but a nonviolent heavenly army announcing peace on earth and goodwill to all. The bright light in the sky over Palestine shining with the glory of God, not the white phosphorus of today’s wars raining down on the terrified people below.
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 you and I possess.
Then we made our way up St Kilda Road to Fed Square, singing spirituals. There police informed me that the Shrine guards would not allow us to proceed onto its grounds – that under the Shrine Act we would be risking arrest if we proceeded, and that they would confiscate our banners. The Shrine Act apparently dictates that a) only ceremonies commemorating servicepeople are authorised to take place on Shrine grounds, and such events must be granted advanced permission and b) banners were banned from the Shrine grounds except for such authorised events. We had a decision to make.
After a brief pow-wow in the shade, we decided together to proceed to the Shrine, with the intention of holding our closing circle, and if turned away we would lay the wreath there. This meant we would not avoid the confrontation, and would force them to turn us away, but we would not risk arrest. With a range of experience levels in the group, this seemed like an excellent compromise.
We were met at the entrance to the Shrine by three police cars, two Shrine guards in full dress uniform, and six or seven police. They explained the rules, and told us we could go no further.
It seemed somehow fitting to be turned away – remembering the story of the Christ-child, exiled from his own society, forced to flee from the army of his own people. And here the powers of our society dictate that only those who perpetrate war are to be remembered and honoured, and all innocent victims will be shunned, forgotten, ignored, acceptable collateral damage. This despite the fact that 90% of war’s casualties these days are civilians, caught up largely in a struggle for power that has nothing to do with them, and the benefits of which they will not experience. Where is the shrine to civilian victims? Why is no sacred ground is dedicated to their remembrance? I think we all know the answer.
So the wreath was laid, and the police and guards bore witness to our prayers and lamentations. As long as this event remains in the church year, it will ensure the victims of warfare, and of oppressive political rule, are remembered. In the runup to Anzac commemorations in 2015, when the sacrifice of society’s sons in war will be glorified, it is all the more important that we remember the forgotten victims.
Thanks to Sam, Jade and Erika for sharing the facilitation of this year’s gathering, and a HUGE thanks to Graeme for his amazing gift of visually spectacular banners. And thanks to all who participated.