This has been a brutal year for children. Exhibit A: Columnist Rick Gladstone’s September article in The New York Times, “Why So Many Children Are Being Killed In Aleppo. He asserted the following:

Though the world is jolted periodically by the suffering of children in the Syria conflict — the photographs of Alan Kurdi’s drowned body and Omran Daqneesh’s bloodied face are prime examples — dead and traumatized children are increasingly common.

When the article was written in September of this year only 250,000 people were left in Aleppo — 100,000 of whom were children. God only knows how many are left now, especially after the bombing of a children’s hospital in November forced medical care for such children underground. These events wax and wane, but as an African proverb states, “When the elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.”

Roughly two millennia ago, the birth of one child led to the death of many others, and that which would bruise the heel of God broke the hearts of many mothers, including God’s own. Surely she knew some who died (how could she not?), and thereby experienced a type and foretaste of her own loss. The Church remembers this day as the Feast of the Holy Innocents, another day the grass suffered.

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All hail, ye little martyr flowers,
sweet rosebuds cut in dawning hours!
When Herod sought the Christ to find
ye fell as bloom before the wind.

The Herodian thirst for power led to countless children being baptized by blood, a baptism our Lord himself would escape only for a season (it was necessary first for him to be baptized in water to fulfill all righteousness). And while their exitus would take them to the breast of the Father, Christ’s exodus would take him from the breast of his mother to the Jordan, the wilderness, the road to Jerusalem, the cross, the tomb, and beyond. The death of this child would lead to the birth of many others, and so Herod plays his part in the providential purposes of God.

John Donne wrote,

The ancient Romans had a certain tenderness and detestation of the name of death; they could not name death, no, not in their wills; there they could not say, Si more contigerit, but si quid humanitas contingat, not if or when I die, but when the course of nature is accomplished upon me.

But Herod presumed to be the accomplisher of nature, possessing power over nature in order to possess power over power. How Baconian of him. In the words of Michael Waldstein, Francis Bacon believed that “Human knowledge becomes mature and manly, able to beget children, only when it is directed to its true end, namely, power over nature in order to minister to the needs of life.”[1]

What is the fruit of our knowledge this side of Bacon? What children have been begotten? Who ministers to the needs of life?

A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.

The cries of children around the world fall silent to the ears of those who are incessantly assaulted with the noise of information. And we continue to do the only thing we can do — to deny or ignore or justify the death of the most vulnerable while our supposed knowledge makes us ever more isolated from the cries of those around us (even as we become even more isolated to the voice of our own heart). But Christianity has been a religion that is unafraid to name death.

As Donne wrote:

[W]e celebrate our own funerals with cries even at our births; as though our threescore and ten years’ life were spent in our mother’s labour … we beg our baptism with another sacrament, with tears; and we come into the world that lasts many ages, but we last not … for this whole world is but a universal churchyard, but our common grave, and the life and motion that the greatest persons have in it is but as the shaking of buried bodies in their grave, by an earthquake.

In the twilight of life, nature exercises power over us, even over the tyrant; one just wishes the gate of death could be opened gently after a long life, and as Donne says, “with a well-oiled key.” Instead, in the case of the Holy Innocents, the gate was and is kicked down just after its installation.

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When I was a child, knowledge is power is a cry I heard repeatedly in elementary school, but in a post-factual world, power is power. Power determines meaning; power determines truth; power determines right and wrong; and power determines hope. But hope cannot be had without faith and love, as St. Paul and the great theologians of the Church remind us. A hope whose hope is in power is no hope at all; it is a Herodian falsity built on the assumption that power can have its own way; it can slaughter all opponents to achieve a desired end. Such “power” no longer views people as persons.

In the West the prized individual has changed from subject and person to object, the only value of which is measured by utilitarian metrics. Like Herod before us our empire uses us or discards us if we challenge the social and religious vision it proffers, and this is no less true for liberal democracies than it was for Communist systems, a point the Polish philosopher and politician Ryszard Legutko demonstrated in The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations In Free Societies (Encounter, 2016).

If the old communists lived long enough to see the world of today, they would be devastated by the contrast between how little they themselves had managed to achieve in their antireligious war and how successful the liberal democrats have been.[2] All the objectives the communists set for themselves, and which they pursued with savage brutality, were achieved by the liberal democrats who, [3] almost without any effort and simply by allowing people to drift along with the flow of modernity, succeeded in converting churches into museums, restaurants, and public buildings, secularizing entire societies, making secularism the militant ideology, pushing religion to the sidelines, pressing the clergy into docility, and inspiring powerful mass culture with a strong antireligious bias in which a priest must be either a liberal challenging the Church or a disgusting villain. (p. 167)

Power, true power, comes by way of God’s way, which is the way of self-denial and self-donation. Self-denial and self-donation cry out, “May it be to me” and submit to the truth of power growing through one’s surrender to the divine giftedness of life and creation. “Power” untethered from a divine grounding is expedient, manipulative, oppressive, and has a way of justifying the destruction of the gifts of life, even if it means the slaughter of the innocent and the vulnerable.

But there are signs of hope in some of our halls of power. One such glimmer in my locale is the TN Fosters program launched recently by Governor Bill Haslam and First Lady Crissy Haslam in the state of Tennessee. The program embodies power, but used to protect the vulnerable, rather than using or exploiting the vulnerable to protect power. When a similar program was initiated in Oklahoma, the state saw a 44 percent rise in the number of foster children who were successfully placed with families during the first year in operation. Through similar efforts, the number of children available for foster care/adoption in Colorado has dropped from 800 available children to 280, and this number remains steady (about these stats, read here).

If the Church is able to name a culture of death for what it is, it likewise is obliged to embody a culture of life that is more robust than merely lobbying for what we’re against. In the words of John Donne, “I thank him that prays for me when the bell tolls, but I thank him much more that catechizes me, or preaches to me, or instructs me how to live.” Children suffer for many reasons, but when children suffer from the improper use of power, they are mirrors to us of what we truly value, and the fault in our epistemologies. Power over nature will not lead to the healing of the nations. Only super-nature can do that.

Any supposed power that fears or draws back from children suffers only from Herod’s disease: Christophobia.

Footnotes

[1] John Paul II, Theology of the Body, p. 37.

[2] By “liberal democrats” Legutko does not mean the Democratic Party in America, but rather the more general system of liberal democracy prevalent mostly in the West.

[3] Of course, the Church is not without blame here as well.

About The Author

Fr. Clint Wilson is associate rector for Christian Faith and formation at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nashville, and serves as the ecumenical officer for the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee.

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