“Jeremy McLellan is a writer living in Charleston, SC.”
The past has been a mintOf blood and sorrow.That must not beTrue of tomorrow.—Langston Hughes
On December 28th we remember the Massacre of the Innocents. Much like Holy Saturday (the awkward middle-child of Lenten Season) its significance is often skipped over by American Christians. And for good reason: there is no Easter morning on December 29th. There is no cause and effect in view here and we see none of Yoder’s cross-and-resurrection that transforms the emplotment of the world, for the Massacre of the Innocents comes after the Incarnation. Stanley Hauerwas is fond of joking that there is no felt ram in the corner of the storyboard to let us know that Isaac will be spared, that these deaths will have a larger meaning that can outstrip their tragedy. God is with us, Jesus is born, and the long night of suffering and exile is thought to have passed. Do our hearts not swell this season as we sing “Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain, and gold we bring to crown Him again, king forever, ceasing never, over us all to reign”? Is our faith not quickened by the prophet as we ask “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming, from tender stem hath sprung”?
And then suddenly , a late frost. A madman tears children from this world, while a young child barely makes it out. A sword pierces the souls of the mothers from whom these children are snatched. I have no doubt that Jesus grew up with this knowledge, aware that the wrath of Herod and the towers of Siloam fall like rain on the just and on the unjust alike. He and his family knew of those missing Jewish boys when he vanished in the Temple during Passover. Years later, he came back to his hometown synagogue to worship with those he had known as a little boy, but this time it was not honor that his elders were owed. Instead, he reads from Isaiah and begins taunting them for being Jewish exceptionalists. In turn, he barely escapes a lynching.
The secret of Newtown is there is no Secret. In the wake of such tragedies, metaphors fail us. We must resist making children like Jessica Rekos ciphers for lost innocence or the American experience. Neither the Jewish boys in Bethlehem nor the Gentiles in Connecticut were collateral damage or “the price we pay for our freedom.” There is no narrative that can hold the deaths of Jack Pinto or James Mattioli within a larger story.
We must, like Rachel, refuse to be comforted. We must hold our anguish in our arms as a mother holds a child. We cannot paraphrase Tertullian and say that in becoming a child, God became all children, nor join with WEB Dubois in evaporating the particularity of a child’s death through abstraction into the black experience. For God did not become all children. He became this child, as this child. These children were not spared in death from Dubois’ vision of “being choked and deformed within the Veil.” They were choked, they were deformed. One child’s body had eleven bullets.
I too pray for deliverance from the scourge of mass shootings, that we would beat our AR-15s into ploughshares and our Glocks into pruning hooks. I know that it’s complicated, that the history of guns runs not just through Littleton and Newtown but also Oakland and Charleston, where armed black veterans stemmed the tide of lynchings. As Akhil Reed Amar writes in the Washington Post, “If guns are outlawed, only Klansmen will have guns.”
Yet I also know that “praise God and pass the ammunition” was the slogan of Judas, and though Jesus could have called down legions of angels like most of his childhood friends had hoped, he instead gave himself freely to the same powers that continue to claim our little ones, surrendering himself at last to a death that had been waiting for 33 years. I tremble for this nation when I reflect that God abhors violence, that if the white church in America keeps beating its ploughshares back into swords, the axe that is laid at the root of the tree may come anon.
As in Nazareth, our leaders and elders who have promised the peace of Judas through the proliferation of firearms deserve not our respect and deference but our contempt. They are the ideological sons of those who murdered the prophets on the lynching tree. Bonhoeffer reminds us that “No peace is peace without the forgiveness of sins,” and a nation at peace through fear of retaliation is a nation at war. Though I pray the Lord’s Prayer each Sunday with the rest of the American gun-loving faithful, there is this nagging thought that when the Day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night, it will be our victims who will be delivered from us.
They will say it is not for Caesar to beat our weapons into ploughshares. Fine. Let us do it ourselves.