The Slaughter of the Innocents - A Christmas Reflection
I was at Kwibuka Friends Church, up country, Burundi. My friend David was showing me his home church, the church of his childhood. We came in the back door - like family.
They have a bell. I have an affinity for church bells and gave it a tug. It sang easily. David whirled and said “Don’t ring the bell! Everyone in the neighborhood will think we want them and drop what they are doing and come!” oopps. He went outside to find the nearest group of children to send out the word of my false alarm.
While he was out, I explored. The room behind the pulpit is like that in any church, full of family heirlooms and trash. There were miniature shepherd’s crooks and a tiny rough manger. Burundians largely still live by truck patch and small flocks – close to the Gospel. I caught sight of something in the manger and reached for it. Up came a small wooden cut-out of an AK-47. I was more than a bit appalled.
“What is this? I demanded of my friend as he walked back in.”
He chuckled, “That is what soldiers carry in Burundi.”
“You are kidding me, they use this is the Christmas play?”
“Sure – how else are you going to do the part where Herod goes after the babies?”
Now I was stunned, staring at the tiny weapon in my hands. Holding back tears, I asked “You re-enact the Slaughter of the Innocents in your Christmas pageant?”
“Of course, how else would you explain why Mary and Joseph must become refugees? Don’t your Christmas plays have that?”
“No, we usually stop after the angels and the wise men.”
“Hmm, our children don’t see many angels or kings – but they do understand killing and running. They feel close to Jesus when they see these things in His story.”
Well, America, nobody ever said it was going to be all Angels and Kings. We have joined our Burundian brethren in their sorrow. Perhaps we need to join them more deeply in the Story.
It is important to remember that Herod the Great was not a Roman. He was a terror, but he was not some external terrorist. He was the same religion as Mary and Joseph and their babe. He was the same ethnicity as the infants he commanded to be slaughtered. He was a Roman collaborator; he was a narcissist and a blowhard. And he had too much power. But he was Us, not Them.
God could have sent an angelic host (army) to Herod. God could have shaken his house with an earthquake. God could have sent Pharaoh’s plagues. But that would not be Emmanuel – that would not be God with us. With us in our pain, our flight, our despair. How would we feel close to Jesus if God only dealt with Kings?
It is good to remember that the Nativity is the first wave of a Divine insurrection. Christmas is subversive, and what is a subversion without a wicked dominant paradigm? The incarnation is an infusion of infinite love into the very middle of finite human suffering and sin. It is important to remember which of those things are temporal and which is not.
It is right to remember the words and actions of the survivors. Did Mary’s Magnificat die in Egypt? It did not. She returns from exile, and calls for his first miracle, because she knows who He is. At Cana she calls for a miracle of celebration – water into wine. A wedding celebrated under occupation. Because survivors know that when we raise a glass to Life in the very face of death we remind death, and hell, and sin, and sorrow, that their days are numbered. There will come another wedding feast, the guests will be the poor and the oppressed, and the joy will be unmingled.
Until that day we will defiantly celebrate Love. We will treasure what breath we are given. We will light lights in the darkness. And when we are not celebrating we work – work for love and justice and peace. Because we breathe today and can, and for those who cannot.
In October of 1993, exactly ten years before I stood in Kwibuka church, my friend David Niyonzima survived a school shooting just down the road. He was teaching his pastoral students when the rebels came. They were also Christians, also Burundians, and they slaughtered the innocent. All the students died as they fled, only David escaped. He feels very close to Jesus in that. He also celebrates, and laughs, and enjoys his physical comforts, because he can. And when he is not playing, he works – hard. Because he knows that his work is never in vain. He knows this because he is close to Jesus.
The Man on the Bench
Setting: the main Bus station – Salem
The part of God is played by a 50 year old developmentally delayed man
The part of St. Anthony of Padua is played by a 19 year old named Tesla
It was not a good day. The news had been grim and grimmer. I was nervous about leaving my school. As I had left, I stopped to break up a fight between two teen mothers. Fights are rare at our school. They were rolling on the ground, elbows and chins bloodied on pavement, hair being pulled, nails leaving marks on faces. My parking lot monitor and I resorted to the laying on of hands to stop the scratching and hugging them apart. Social media trash talk – I hope he was worth it.
Rattled, I headed downtown to my threat assessment meeting. Folks from all the schools meet weekly to discuss mayhem potentials. This is what it means to be a school administrator in 2015. But first I needed to swing by the local bus station to pick up passes for my students without transport.
I walked through the waiting lounge to the elevators. The man on the bench said “Hi” I bid him a good day. I presented myself at the main office and laid down my stuff to carefully count the stacks of passes. I ended up with a small brick of free rides, my “Go Bag” which amounts to the keys to half the building on campus, my ID and access cards and phone, and my own car keys in the other hand. The $500 worth of passes always make me a little nervous. I walked back through the lounge. The man on the bench said “Just take care of business.” Lunchless, I stopped at the bus station convenience store for liquid. I juggled things to get my debit card out. “Two dollar minimum” I was told so I grabbed at the nearest rack and added some chips. Then I quick-marched across the floor towards the waiting buses and beyond to my parked car. The Man on the bench said “Don’t run – They’ll wait.”
Just past the buses I re-shuffled my stuff looking for my car keys. I did not have them. I slapped all my pockets but no. I pictured the counter of the office upstairs, my keys next to the bowl of Halloween candy that the women stock with chocolate too good for the public. I reversed. Back in to the elevators. The Man on the bench looked at me quizzically. “I left my car keys upstairs.” He palmed his forehead and shook his head. Upstairs – no keys; the ladies did not have them - They were not on the floor. Now I was worried, but not much to do except re-trace my steps – slower now, scanning the floor. I pictured someone walking the block with my fob, trying cars till one beeped. Back in the lobby I headed for the store. The man on the Bench asked “What is it with you and the keys?” The clerks did not have an answer.
I decided to check the car. Maybe I had locked them in, and just thought that I had them with me. The man on the bench just watched as a girl with pink hair called my name. “Peggy, Hi! do you remember me?” She was familiar, but… “I’m Tesla! From last year.” Yes indeed, psych student. Now with pink hair and a wee blond bairn in a stroller. I tried to stop and really see her, ask her how she was, greet the baby, but soon I told her I was late for a meeting and had lost my keys, and asked her to forgive my hurry. She cheerfully bid me goodbye headed for her bus.
At least the car was there. Nicely locked up. No keys visible. I stood there for a moment and looked up at the blue sky. I was fully aware that my trouble was a small trouble in this world of pain, but I still asked for help. I thought about if I should call work, or home, or AAA. I decide to check in with Bus station security before I called for help. I walked through the idling carriages one more time. Tesla and her babe were coming out the doors. “Peggy, I found your keys! They were in the potato chips! I gave them to the clerk and told them that I would come find you.” I hugged the teen mother and laid blessing hands upon the little blonde head. Back through the lounge.
The Man on the bench said “Potato Chips were her downfall – that’s a surprise!”
Release vs. Reject
In 2012 I went from working primarily in a marginalized church to working primarily in a marginalized school. Church on the Island of misfit toys to School on the Island of Misfit Toys. My real mission didn’t change at all. Before it was “Preach the good news to the poor, bind wounds and set captives free.” Now it is “Teach truth to the poor, make amends to the educationally abused and jumpstart the underclass.” It is good work.
I am fortunate, I work in a secular setting that does not make me pretend that I am not called to ministry. I use the words redemption and grace all the time and no one questions it. I am allowed and even encouraged to care.
The largest piece of my job is to be the vice principal for discipline to 350 really challenged 16-20 year olds. That’s right; I am in charge of making them behave and giving them consequences when they don’t. (Those that know me may now take a giggle break) Back? Ok. We work for the local community college. So our programs are voluntary in both directions, they don’t have to stay and we don’t have to keep them. We are under no legal obligation to serve any particular student. Yet our mission is to lose as few as possible, and we have a success rate triple the college as a whole.
By a process of consensus between admin and faculty we have a set of expectations, they are not set in stone, but they guide us. It is my job to apply them. And that means that sometimes we send students away. Never without process and never without them knowing why. In Africa they call this chasing the students away, I didn’t like it there and I don’t like it here, but it is my job. If we send them away, they are not prevented in any way from returning to their home districts or any other school, so we do not use the word expulsion. We call it “Releasing them.” Sometimes we say “It just wasn’t a good fit” or “It just wasn’t the right time.”
Our student body is incredibly diverse. You can be as weird as you need to be. Your race, religion, orientation, mental health status, and lots of other intersecting differences do not matter to your standing. What you gotta do is show up and be safe. When we release someone for not showing up, they usually understand. The disagreements comes over the safety expectations. My students’ lives have often been lived in seriously Hellish places. Their idea of safe may be divergent from ours. You can be gang affiliated, you just can’t bring your business to school – they will claim that the business followed them. They have to trust us to keep them safe and leave their weapons in their vehicles. Trust is not their best thing. They have learned to use strong words to keep safe zones around them. We require them to use words in very different ways. We require them to act as if they have fully developed pre-frontal cortexes when they simply do not.
When they act outside the expectations of the group they get attention. They get second chances, opportunities to change their behavior within a certain time. We will move them from one program to another. I sheepdog their steps. I call them by their names and call them to their better selves. I try and describe to them the truth of who they really are and what they can do and be. I keep the bad ones close and the worse ones closer. But sometimes, they just turn around and look at me and step over that line and wait and see what I am going to do about it. Then I am left with the expectations. And part of the truth is doing what you said you were going to do.
The faculty needs safe and sane classrooms. My job is also to support them, and they count on me to implement our group consensus. Sometimes I come back to them with a plea to change the consensus. But sometimes I just have to face the student and say “You are done here. We tried and it didn’t work. We still think you can make it, but it is not going to be here. This is what your options out there look like.” I tell them the truth, and I don’t sugarcoat it or molly-coddle them.
Sometimes they curse at me. Sometimes they cry. They almost always argue their side. Sometimes they quote our grandest, highest aspirational statements back at me. Sometimes they own their part – sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they just walk away. But they never thank me. They don’t feel released to better fitting opportunities. They feel rejected. Because we have rejected their membership in our community based on their behavior. I don’t expect them to like me, whatever our relationship was before. Because I have divorced them from the community. They do not go out into the world and say nice things about me or the program. Most of them have more experience with rejection than I do, but they hurt.
Both sides sustain a moral injury when this happens. I have failed in my mission. I try not to deny it or justify it. It just is. Between us, we did not find a way to complete our goals. The ninety and nine safe in their classroom and in their graduation gowns do not salve the wounds of the ones I lost. They take a chunk out of me. I keep a list and I say their names, especially on graduation day. I remember the fallen, and my part in their fall.
But there is one way in which school on the island of misfit toys is better to work in than the church on the island of misfit toys. The school, in all its aspiration talk, never says that it is trying to imitate Jesus.
When we say that we are the hands and voice of Jesus and then we put people out, the moral injury is going to be a lot bigger – both ways. They will fell rejected because they have been rejected. So if we do this, we had better say up front “This is not Jesus and we know it. – We just can’t figure out how to do Jesus here.” We will feel like failures because we have failed. Others who trusted us will feel betrayed, because the principles of “Whosoever will, may come” have been betrayed.
And it may be unavoidable. We are all misfits. But everyone will heal faster if there is honesty, without the attempt to nice it up.
But maybe, just maybe, in the 11th hour, we can find a way to do Jesus, who has been patient with us these 2000 years, and has not put us out even when our behaviors are outside the expectations of the Gospel.
Flashback 2002 - Berkeley and Ramallah
So There I was……
In Berkeley California, 2002. There was a war going on, so the Mecca of non-conformity seemed like a good place to be; but that was not why Alivia Biko and I were there that weekend. We had another quest. We were expecting. Pregnant with that of God. Gestating a miracle, and we were looking for a stable where we could bring it forth.
We were carrying within our hearts a new creature named Freedom Friends Church - the culmination of everything our God had been teaching us to this point in our lives. A place where Christ the present teacher is passionately worshiped and radically obeyed. A place where the precious truths of Quakerism are explained and lived out in a new millennium. A place of intentional inclusivity where God’s marginalized children of all stripes are welcomed and given a place of service.
However, the sad truth of Quakerism at the turn of the 21st century is that we are polarized and fragmented. Our larger groups and organizations tend to be Christ-centered and non-inclusive (a thing we find to be contradictory), or inclusive and theologically muddy, (a thing we find to be lacking in unction and power). We needed another option. It seemed unlikely that our home, Northwest Yearly Meeting, was going to be able to give us such an option or claim us as their own if we created it. So we were in Berkeley investigating an option.
It was a “tender and broken meeting,” as the Quakers of old would say. We listened to a Quaker leader describe Friends work around the world; hospitals in Kenya, oppressed but vibrant faith in Cuba, and heartbreaking tales of Palestine. She gave us the unforgettable picture of an old Palestinian man and his wife, separated for thirty five years by an Israeli fence, meeting daily to entwine their fingers in chain link, whispering of faithful love kept apart by institutional violence.
We listened to the leader of our hoped for option describe how she had once considered her own ministry unacceptable, because she was a divorced woman, and how God had surprised her by calling and empowering her to serve in spite of this. She described her joy at being found acceptable.
And again and again through the day we heard the call for workers - help was needed. The fields were white. There was no heart there that did not feel the tug
I sat on the back bench and watched two brilliant, gifted friends - our hosts for the weekend. Two women - committed to the Light and to each other. One whose gentle heart was broken by the reality of an evil that would put a fence up, careless of the separation of love. The other, deeply gifted with insight, knowledge and the ability to empower others - who has been begging God for a clear commission to the work. I watched my friends’ hearts respond to the call. I watched the spiritual struggle and the surrender. I saw my friend stand and ask if her service would be accepted. And then I saw the Christ-centered Quaker fence go up. “Policy” did not permit the service of Christ’s gay and lesbian servants we were told.
I slipped away and into a bit of a vision. I saw the work of Christ on one side of an endless fence, desperately in need of help, and on the other side, a Christ-called worker, fingers entwined through the fence straining to be of use. And I knew in that moment, that it was my people who had erected this fence. Well meaning, Jesus loving, but fear based people. And I saw that I was searching for a group of fence-builders to join. And then I saw Jesus, the lover of my soul, on both sides of the fence, and the Jesus nearest me handed me a pair of boltcutters.