Herod, the King, in his raging,For the original readers of St Matthew’s gospel, however, the story was very much less shocking than it is to us, with our post-Christendom sensibilities and Christ derived values:
Charged he hath this day
His soldiers in their strength and might,
All children young to slay.
- This incident was very much business as usual in the ancient world. In any political, social or environmental crisis, guess who bears the heaviest burden? The poor and vulnerable... it’s not the way things should be, by Christian standards, but it’s the way they usually have been. It is still, disturbingly, more the case than we would want to think...
- Pre Christian people shared the almost universal fatalism about the activity of tyrants. What they got up to was largely their own affair, and without a sense that history was heading anywehere in particular, let alone the coming of Christ as universal judge, there was no ultimate bar to which they could be held to account. So you simply accepted that they got up to some funny old things. The vulnerable didn’t matter by comparison.
- Most ancients saw the child as, at best, a half-formed adult. Dumping of excess children was commonplace in most ancient societies, sweetened only, on occasion, by a vague hope of kindly fate. The then radical notion that the child was a complete person, entitled to full respect, was very much a Christian thing in the ancient mediterranean world. It stemmed directly from the shockingly new way Jesus had treated children and talked about them, and taught his disciples to think of them.
- The pre-Christian mediterranean world was no place for the squeamish: from public crucifixion to the use of condemned prisoners as playthings in the arena, life was cheap and expendable in a way you would have to go to the great atheist states of the twentieth century (Stalin’s and Mao’s) to parallel.
- How readily do we tolerate the environmental and financial injustices of our age which magnify the miseries of the poor and vulnerable? From lack of clean water to environmental disaster, from Child poverty to twaddle about trickledown, we live with this stuff far too easily, if not quite as easily as ancients did with Herod and his ilk.
- How do we, Christians or not, treat the vulnerable and marginalised? Do we take them seriously? Are people ever blamed and persecuted for simply being how they are? It was rage that slew the innocents — the role of anger in our discourse is well worth reflecting upon in the light of this disturbing fact.
- The value Christ sets on children makes the work of protecting Children especially central. This is why betrayal of children by their pastors, or any attempt by any institutional church to cover up what is going on, is so shameful. It’s possible, as child protection bishop for this diocese, to see this high volume job (for example we hold the process for about 6,000 CRB registrations) as a mainly administrative matter. It’s not. It means nothing without a culture of openness and mutual knowledge within which anomalies show up as anomalies, and are followed up. And when you go beyond preventative child protection, we may ask ask what gifts and attitudes are we giving to our children as resources for living, how much of our time, or are they mainly seen as problems merely to be tolerated, personal trophies for their parents, or teeny consumers?
- It’s fascinating how often outsiders, including atheists, radically critique Christians on radically Christian grounds. We are berated not for excesses of compassion, understanding and the values of the Sermon on the Mount, but for deficiencies in them. Philosophically that’s an interesting backhand complement, you may say. But it poses a read challenge. It simply will not do to underestimate such critique because of the source — To the extent it’s true, it’s true and requires our urgent attention.