“No protected person [ie., civilian] may be punished for any offense he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.”
—Article 33: Fourth Geneva Convention, 1949
We read in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew that when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch of Galilee (erroneously referred to in the gospels as “King Herod”), fearing for his throne, ordered the deaths all the male children in the Bethlehem area under the age of two. The Church has long regarded these children are as “martyrs in fact though not in will” for the Gospel. Of course, this event was tragic and horrifying, and worthy of all the “Lullay, lullays” bestowed upon it over the centuries.
What I want to know is, why, once again, do the faithful deplore an event that took place centuries ago, when there are plenty of more urgent cases to be deplored here and now? The Fourth Geneva Convention decreed it illegal to punish civilians for crimes they had not, themselves, committed. For whom are the children in detention at the border witnessing? (The Greek word martyros literally means “witness.”) For whose crimes are they being punished? Even assuming that the Constitution does not stipulate that asylum seekers apply for asylum after entering the United States—which it does, giving the lie to those who insist refugees must cross the border “the right way”—what choice did the children have? And how long must they witness to our cruelty before we bestow the title of “martyr” on them?
Were the children of Sandy Hook and Uvalde martyred for the sake of the 26.6 million dollars the NRA spent on the 2020 election? For whose crimes were they punished?
When the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma—which Booker Washington dubbed “the Negro Wall Street”—was destroyed by an envious white mob, many of them armed and deputized by local white authorities, were its citizens not martyred for the cause of white supremacy?
What was the crime of the women, children, and old men who were slaughtered at Wounded Knee? Of those who perished on the Trail of Tears? Of the 4,467 who were lynched in America between 1883 and 1941? How much terrorism and intimidation must we inflict before we, in the words of Hamlet, “out-Herod Herod”?
It is a fine and pious thing to remember the slaughtered infants and toddlers of Bethlehem, and their families, but I fear that such mourning can serve, not to galvanize us into action on behalf of those unjustly victimized today, but as a safety valve for our indignation on behalf of our own Holy Innocents.
We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
—Book of Common Prayer
[Image Credit: Victoria Pickering via Flickr. Collect used with permission from the General Convention office of the Episcopal Church]