Thoughts on a Queer Christmas: Holy Innocents & the Politics of Power
Queer Christmas Day Four – Holy Innocents
The Feast of the Holy Innocents is another odd day in Christmastide, another horrific story of death during the season of Incarnation.
There’s much to say about this brief episode in the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. Although there’s little historical evidence to support Matthew’s story of the mass slaughter of children, King Herod was known for going on killing sprees, even within his own family–all to preserve his power. Matthew’s tendency to highlight how Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophesy is well known in biblical scholarship, and here we see Matthew connecting Jesus’ story to the story of Moses, if not the whole of Israel. The flight into Egypt, the one chosen child surviving while his peers are slaughtered–these are parallels with stories in the Pentateuch. Holy history, Matthew leads us to believe, is continually repeating itself.
Today, however, I’m thinking about one phrase I use above: all to preserve his power. Herod has taken extreme measures–killing all baby boys under the age of two–to makes sure there isn’t one among them that will usurp his power.
First, I want to offer a word of caution about over-sentimentalizing words like “innocent.” Yes, the children slain by Herod’s men were not guilty of any crime punishable by death. Still, I’m writing from a tradition that also has things like Psalm 51’s confession that we are “sinners from our mother’s wombs.” The focus should not be, I contend, on the ones slain, but a caution for the ways we exert and maintain power.
I saw it here in Houston this past election cycle. The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) was placed on the ballot via questionable means (any time equal rights are up for a vote, it should be questioned), and was defeated in no small part due to rich, predominantly white, Christians who ran a fear campaign against transgender people—specifically trans women, really. The rallying cry was “no men in women’s restrooms!” This showed not only a fundamental lack of understanding of who trans women are, it showed a ferocious resistance to learning. More to my point today, however, it was a way for these rich, predominantly white Christians to maintain their status and power in society. Make no mistake, trans folk were the overt target, but the entire LGBT population was the victim as we are once again left without local protection under the law. It was an exercise of power to maintain power over LGBT people.
We saw it in the 1980s as AIDS began ravaging the gay community. The nightmarish wasting of human life was initially met with indifference, derision, even laughter by people in power. Do not pretend for a moment that this wasn’t a way of maintaining status and power in a society that would not recognize the humanity of the LGBT population. Infants to Herod or gay men to Reagan, what’s a few killed here and there if it maintains the status quo?
Not that we in the LGBT community are innocent ourselves of these power plays. How often has the predominantly white, male leadership in LGBT organizations ignored the specific plights of LGBT people of color, or how often has the T in LGBT been thrown under the bus in the name of advancement in status for, again, the predominantly white, male power structure?
I’m tempted to go on with the ways that other power structures allow police and vigilantes to kill young black men and boys without legal consequence, how women of color are targeted in specific ways by powerful political and societal forces. They way all women are still denigrated and subjugated by a patriarchal power structure that remains difficult to erode.
Power is no small problem, and more than boys under the age of two are victims of it.
But I leave it here, today. These are my thoughts as I read the second chapter of Matthew this day. Let us be mindful of where the power lies, where it is used murderously, where we hold it, where we silently participate, all to maintain what power we already have.
NEIL ELLIS ORTS is an author, playwright, and freelance writer, interested in the arts, religion, where those intersect, and where they don’t. He has a BFA in theater (Texas State University), an M.Div, (Lutheran Seminary Program in the Southwest), and an MA in interdisciplinary arts (Columbia College Chicago).
He’s written for OutSmart Magazine, Dance Studio Life, Dance Source Houston, The Christian Century, Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, and Living Lutheran. His novella, Cary and John, is available at parsonsporch.com or Amazon.com.