Editor’s Note: Tom Beutel, a regular contributor to PeaceSigns, is Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Balancing Acts is a monthly feature of PeaceSigns and appears the second week of each month. This month’s column offers us insight from the Christmas Story as we step into the new year.
by Tom Beutel
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “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.”
Matthew 2:16-18 (NRSV)
There is a part of the Christmas story that we often overlook as we rightly celebrate the joy of the birth of Jesus and all of the traditions and good times that are a part of the Christmas season. The “slaughter of the innocents”, occupying just three verses in Matthew’s narrative of the events related to Jesus’ birth, is all but joyous and good. Matthew says that “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 historicity of the slaughter of children – or possibly male children – by King Herod is uncertain. Daniel J. Harrington says the historicity of the incident is “an open question that probably can never be definitively decided.” (Wikipedia, quoting from “The Gospel of Matthew,” Daniel J. Harrington, Liturgical Press, 1991) Arguments against the story include the fact that no other contemporary references are made to the event, including by the first century historian Josephus.
Nevertheless, scholars agree that the slaughter is wholly consistent with the character of Herod as recorded in historical writings, including the fact that he is reported to have murdered his own sons and that he “never stopped avenging and punishing every day those who had chosen to be of the party of his enemies.” (Wikipedia, quoting Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XV)
A final note of perspective on the “slaughter” is that many scholars agree that if it did occur it most likely involved a relatively small number of children. Based on the likely population of the area, a number of sources estimate that possibly around twenty infants would have been involved. This does not lessen the tragedy, but does lend a bit of perspective.
By contrast today’s “slaughter of the innocents” is far worse than that attributed to Herod. Consider these facts:
- On any given day, 18000 children worldwide die from preventable causes such as malaria, diarrhea, and malnutrition. (http://beyond5.org/2013/02/15/the-urgency/ )
- In a given year, 6.6 million children die from preventable causes (http://www.unicef.org/publications/index_70354.html )
- “An estimated 246 million children are engaged in child labour. Nearly 70 per cent (171
million) of these children work in hazardous conditions – including working in mines,
working with chemicals and pesticides in agriculture or with dangerous machinery.”
- 1.2 million children are victims of trafficking, 1.8 million are subjected to forced prostitution and/or pornography (http://www.unicef.org/protection/files/child_labour.pdf )
- 300,000 children are recruited as soldiers in armed conflicts (http://www.unicef.org/emerg/files/childsoldiers.pdf )
- Over 40 million babies are aborted worldwide each year with approximately 1.2 million abortions in the US. (http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/fb_IAW.html and http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/fb_induced_abortion.html )
While not all of the statistics above represent deaths of children, trafficking, armed service, and child labor all represent the “slaughter” of children emotionally, socially, psychologically.
It is important to realize that we contribute to the “slaughter of the innocents” and that there are things we can do to reduce it. In particular, deaths from preventable causes often comes down to lack of access to clean drinking water. According to The Water Project, “Simply put, water scarcity is either the lack of enough water (quantity) or lack of access to safe water (quality).” http://thewaterproject.org/water_scarcity.php
We contribute to the lack of clean drinking water, and therefore to the sickness and death of millions of children by wasting water and by not contributing to efforts to provide water. We can give to organizations such as The Water Project (http://thewaterproject.org/ ), Mennonite Central Committee (http://www.mcc.org/ ), and World Vision through its Beyond 5 campaign (http://beyond5.org/ ) to fund the drilling of wells.
In addition Beyond5 works to provide mosquito netting to afford protection from malaria, engages in advocacy for policy changes by governments, and works at improving nutrition, healthcare, and education all of which can help save lives. The focus of Beyond 5 is to help children live to be older than 5 years old.
Beyond 5 is a community of everyday advocates—mothers, students, church members, and ordinary people passionately seeking justice—who refuse to accept that 18,000 children should die daily before reaching their fifth birthday.(http://beyond5.org/about/ )
I would recommend that you check out the Beyond 5 website to learn about the causes of child deaths and how you can join with others in helping children live healthy lives.
Specific actions that we can each take include:
- Giving to help build wells, provides nets, and provide education for mothers (see MCC https://donate.mcc.org/filter/results/taxonomy:3 or Beyond 5 (http://www.worldvision.org/m/beyond-5/?lo_age=0&hi_age=5 )
- Stop using bottled water which is expensive and wasteful (see http://thewaterproject.org/bottled_water.asp)
- Raise awareness on social media, at your church, or with family or friends (see http://beyond5.org/resources/ )
- Pray for health, food, water, and for mothers and babies in need, and for churches and individuals to be moved to help.
We may not be seeking to harm children as Herod is alleged to have done, but through ignorance, lack of concern, and affluent life-styles, we do contribute to the deaths of literally millions of children. Let’s all seek ways, beginning this year, to contribute to the saving of these precious lives.