The Children

Christmas is over but a singular Biblical incident is haunting me this year. The Christian story, from the beginning, is set in the context of political power, insecurity and cruelty. “In the time of King Herod” is the way Matthew begins. The Magi, mysterious seers from the east- modern Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, following a star that announced the birth of a new king, stop at the royal palace in Jerusalem, the locus of imperial political power. They assume, reasonably, that if a new king has been born it must be in the palace of the current king, Herod. The story recounts how Herod, obviously distressed and frightened by what the Magi said, learns from his own experts that Hebrew scripture predicts “From Bethlehem shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people, Israel.” When Herod later discovers that the Magi have deceived him, not returning with the news and exact location of the new-born child he becomes enraged and orders his soldiers to kill all the male children two years old and under in and around Bethlehem, to assure that the threat to his position and authority is eliminated.

It is a terrible story. It almost never makes it into the way the Christmas story is told. Nobody likes the account of the Slaughter of the Innocents. I certainly don’t. I have all my life treasured Christmas. I treasure memories of Christmas when our own children were growing up. The story of the slaughter of little children is such a total, violent, blunt clash with Christmas that I never wanted to think or talk about it much and did my best as a preacher to keep it at arm’s length.

But I cannot: not this year. On Christmas Eve a seven-year-old Guatemalan girl, Jakelin Caal, died while in the custody of the United States of America, my nation. She and her father were arrested after crossing the border with Mexico illegally. They were part of a group of Guatemalan migrants walking hundreds of miles, seeking safety, security and a better life in the U.S., just as literally millions of immigrants have come in the past, including the ancestors of all of us, other than Native Americans. Later a second child, eight-year-old Filipe Gómez Alonzo also died while in our custody.

The remarkable and beautiful American tradition of hospitality and welcome has been reversed, sometimes violently. Only this president has ordered the separation of thousands of children from their parents. Only now has my nation been complicit in what appears to be the permanent destruction of families by deporting parents and incarcerating their children.

Recently it has become painfully apparent that far more children have been separated from their parents, and families broken apart, than has been reported. And now the President has compounded the entire cruel mess that he and his administration have created by using it as a bargaining chip to persuade congress to allocate money for a wall. He persists in distorting and exaggerating facts by calling the immigration conundrum a “security crisis”, only last week adding “humanitarian crisis” which it certainly is as a direct result of his own bizarre, cruel, inhuman policies. When he failed to achieve legislative approval for funding for his wall he put hundreds of thousands of people out of work with no income by shutting down the government.

All of this a result of his single-handed destruction of the wonderful American tradition of welcome inscribed on the Statue of Liberty; “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free…”

It is not a Slaughter of the Innocents but it is a harsh, cruel exercise of political power. And it is a reminder that Jesus, Immanuel, God with us, began life with his mother and father on the margins of society and that his very birth was regarded as a dangerous threat to the political establishment. Jesus was an immigrant refugee in Egypt. Further, he lived his life in a way that attracted the poor, sick, homeless, mentally ill: all those who lived far away from social acceptability and political power. He did the unthinkable. He welcomed the weakest, most vulnerable – the children, blessed them, said that the Kingdom of God belongs, not to the Kings and Emperors but to them, the children. The children who died when he was born remind us that he will always challenge brute authoritarianism and that he, himself, would die at the hands of the most powerful political entity on the face of the earth.

May we remember the first victims of Jesus’ challenge to political power and may we never forget seven-year-old Jakelin and eight-year-old Filipe, who came to us seeking safety and security and freedom and a better life and became modern day victims of the same political insecurity and fear and cruelty that Jesus himself suffered 2,000 years ago.

John M. Buchanan


  1. timjweaver says:

    Well said, Dr. Buchanan. I pray that the Lord will soon deliver the poor children, the heartbroken parents, the unpaid workers, and the rest of us from this modern day Herod.

  2. Well said, as ever. Thank you for a powerful, necessary parallel.

  3. Victoria Brander says:

    What a magnificent lesson

  4. Thank you, John, for always eloquently speaking truth to power.

  5. Betty Lou Stull says:

    Thank you, John. So apropos, and so heartbreaking.

  6. “And they returned to their own country by different way.” So must we.

  7. Reblogged this on Views from the Edge and commented:
    Hold to the Good is always worth a read. John provides in this piece what he did as Senior Minister at Fourth Church-Chicago and as publisher of The Christian Century: reflection on current events under the scrutiny of ancient biblical texts.

  8. mark wendorf says:

    Well done, John.

  9. Linda Everhart says:

    This is well-stated, but it’s not a daring, wild-eyed assessment. It’s not relying on controversial translations or sophisticated Biblical criticism. The author is pretty much just quoting the conventional Gospel. But why is it even necessary to make this case? How do other people who claim to bow to the name of Jesus reach any different conclusion? How did we get to the place where it’s necessary to write this essay to other Christians to try to reclaim the idea that Jesus stood with the marginalized of his socierty?

  10. Milton Winter says:

    Thank you, John, for finding the words to express the feelings so many of us share on this matter.

  11. stanley smith says:

    I don’t have a problem with the story of King Herod.
    The reason his story is not emphasized more as
    part of the Christmas story is because it’s not about Herod.

    In similar manner, in the secular world today,
    President Donald Trump has been made into the
    Devil incarnate and in the process he has been made into
    both the Devil and God.

    At the church I attend some homeless people are permanently
    banned from entering the church building by the clergy due to
    various infractions, such as using foul language.

    We could make that about the foul language and blame
    that on President Trump too. I prefer to direct the homeless who have
    been banned from our building to other social services elsewhere in the
    city where they will be welcomed as a way to better glorify God.

    Stanley Smith
    Chicago IL USA

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