“Glory to God in the highest”, the angels reportedly sang, “and peace to all people of goodwill.” The particulars of the Christmas story have been debated for centuries: was Mary really a virgin? Was there a cohort of angels flying around in the night sky? Did a star actually lead a group of wealthy traders to a barn in Bethlehem? Some of the narrative’s content may be in dispute, but the message underlying the narrative has long been embraced: peace on earth. For some peace is a promise; for others peace is an aspiration; for still others peace is a hope that we hold onto, and fight for.
Peace on earth. Goodwill to all. The birth of the Prince of Peace.
And then, in the Christian calendar, we pivot from serenity and solemnity to vengeance and violence. St. Stephen, the first martyr in the Christian faith, is honored on December 26. A new convert to the message and mission of Jesus, Stephen stood up to the prevailing religious authorities, calling them stiff-necked, and uncircumcised in heart and ears – and forever opposed to the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51). In response, Stephen is stoned to death. And on December 28, many Christian churches honor the Holy Innocents, the day when Herod ordered all children two years and under in the Bethlehem area to be murdered. (Matthew 2:16) Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus had escaped to Egypt, but Herod’s rage at being made a fool, and blind jealousy over the birth of a rival – the Prince of Peace, justified his viciousness – in his mind at least.
The promise of peace was followed by acts of unspeakable violence. And in these biblical stories, the violence is carried out by those who wield power. And suffer no consequences. The religious authorities – in Stephen’s case; and King Herod – in Jesus’ case, operate under the umbrella of the Roman Empire. They each had absorbed – and adopted, the protocol of Empire. With Empire – and any group or individual who aspires to Empire, violence is always justified. And presented as necessary.
It has been ever thus. To preserve the empire, or one’s corner within the empire. Russia, in an effort to preserve and expand its empire, has justified its violence in Ukraine. “Mother Russia” is dog whistle for empire. “River to the Sea” is a call issued by a small sliver of Palestinians. It is interpreted by more and more people as a justification for endless violence, and the destruction of Israel. It is heard as an aspiration of empire. Conversely, there are a growing number of Israelis, many of whom are in the Israeli cabinet, whose hope it is to establish a pure Jewish state – and have also used the language “from the river to the sea”; an empire within Israel’s borders. And permitting the killing of everyone and anyone who is not of the same tribe. And in the aspiration to empire, acts of violence – in Gaza and in the West Bank, are not only justified, but seen as necessary. And the voices — from both sides, calling for peace, fall on dear ears and hardened hearts.
The result? The deaths of more holy innocents.
The challenge for people of goodwill – be they people of faith or no faith, is to name the violence, and work to stop it. To hold empire-seeking entities accountable. That is important. But just as necessary is for each of us to identify and name the impulse to violence that can erupt in our own lives.
When I lived in New Jersey, driving on the state’s roads and highways was invariably a perilous adventure. Getting stuck in traffic was mind numbing, but getting cut off by another driver often resulted in intense verbal violence. From me. I don’t think I ever flipped my middle finger at anyone (but I do remember neighboring drivers brandishing theirs at me), but I did scream out profanities on occasion. What was most disturbing about these encounters was not the words I used, but the passion, if not violence, with which I used them. I surprised myself. My violent verbal expletives came from a deep place. I didn’t know I had that level of violence in me.
I did. I do. We all do. Especially when a corner of my empire of one – is challenged or threatened. Most of us – at some level, aspire to be in charge of an empire,if only for a moment, and seek dominion over someone else. Many of us act that out whenever we have charge of an automobile. As I have discovered, verbal violence can easily result when the road we have claimed for ourselves is “hijacked” by someone else. And – as we have learned far too often, road rage can involve horrific acts of violence. Now it needs to be said that verbal rants in a car with windows rolled up do not equate with the bombing and strafing still going on in Gaza – and the raping and killing that set this war off.. And yet. It is important for each of us to acknowledge our own impulse to violence – be it verbal, physical, political, economic, or spiritual. To own it. And to manage it. Hold ourselves accountable for it. And do as much as we can to disengage from the endless invitations to participate in supporting the empire – which will always justify violence.
Gandhi famously said, “we must become the change we seek.” Our transformation can – and will, make a difference in the proliferation of violence that we see around us – and feel within us. When we can acknowledge our own tendency to support and engage in violence, we can better take on the menace of empire and become more authentic, and effective, apostles of peace.