Remembering the Holy Innocents through creative nonviolence

By Simon Barrow
January 3, 2015

Three days after Christmas Day, Western Christians commemorate the Feast of Holy Innocents. It seems even more apposite to remember the victims of tyranny and violence at a time of child soldiers and the capture and sexual slavery of female children in several parts of the world.

The biblical story of the Massacre of the Innocents is a narrative of infanticide committed by Herod the Great, the Roman-appointed ruler of the Jews. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Herod ordered the execution of all young male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem, so as to protect his power from talk of an insurgency related to the birth of Jesus.

the historicity of the event is widely questioned by scholars such as Geza Vermes and E. P. Sanders. The historian Josephus, who does record several examples of Herod’s use of violence to protect his power, including the murder of his own sons, is silent on the matter. But whatever lies behind the narrative its symbolic power and truthful message is beyond doubt.

For some years, peacemakers in the way of Jesus have used the Feast of Holy Innocents as an appropriate occasion to engage in acts of creative nonviolence, resistance and remembrance. One such is a Procession in Melbourne, Australia, which in 2014 was organised for a sixth year in succession at a local barracks and shrine.

Simon Moyle, a Baptist minister and nonviolence trainer, takes up the story:

As usual we gathered out the front of Victoria Barracks, where we read the story from Matthew 2, and shared in prayer together. Strangely, no less than three wedding parties turned up during our brief time there, to have photographs taken in front of the bluestone walls and cannons of the base. Perhaps a hopeful sign that love will eventually overwhelm these places until there is no need for them anymore? I must say it felt incongruous with the serious nature of the place and its activities, particularly given our reason for being there. Is our warmaking now just a background prop in the privileged drama of our Western lives? Consumerism and miltarism seem to have combined to make war a lifestyle accoutrement, decoration for an otherwise drab existence.

We had an opportunity to share a prayer for contemporary Holy Innocents, and to write their names on white crosses to carry with us. In particular, I was remembering the many babies of asylum seeker families who are being held indefinitely in immigration detention, with little hope of ever obtaining permanent residency here. These children, born in Australia, are being held hostage for the government’s purposes. Their families suffer enormous mental and physical anguish and distress.

Others remembered the victims of drone strikes in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (amongst others). Also the victims of terrorist attacks in Peshawar, Pakistan.

Then we walked together, first to Federation Square, through the crowds of people milling for Boxing Day sales and cricket matches. As we walked, the reaction of passersby was as telling as ever. Mostly eyes averted, little acknowledgement. A brief interruption to their disconnected reverie.

This year we had a flyer to distribute to those interested, explaining what we were doing and why. Not an attempt to pursuade so much as explain.

For me, this is the importance of this event – not for others so much as ourselves. In the midst of a society content to live with superficial pleasures, we try to open a space for connection to the deep pain of the world. It’s an opportunity to puncture the illusion of our peaceful, secure land – a peace and security built on the subjugation of others, from the First Peoples to whatever country we’re invading and bombing next. In remembering and connecting to this reality, we lament, and commit ourselves to continued resistance.

That last comment – the emphasis above is mine – is particularly poignant, and picks up both the theme and intent of Ekklesia's annual appeal in 2014 (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21032), our new paper 'How to remember war so as to invest in peace' (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21205) and our commitment to making creative re-remembering a significant theme within our work for the coming year.

* Read the full account of the Holy Innocents Procession 2014 in Melbourne here: http://smoyle.wordpress.com/2015/01/02/holy-innocents-procession-2014/

* More on Christmas from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/christmas

* 'Massacring the innocents', by the late Gene Stoltzfus, founder of Christian Peacemaker Teams (Ekklesia, 2009): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/10931

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.