The Feast of the Holy Innocents reminds us that excluding LGBTQ children has fatal results

Views Daniel Walden / December 27, 2022 Print this:
A 9th century Byzantine depiction of the Massacre of the Innocents. The illustration, part of the Paris Gregory manuscript, is held by the National Library of France. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

On any given day, the church has probably marked out something for special remembrance. Most often it is the feast of a saint, which is traditionally celebrated on the date of that person’s death. (We sometimes call this their “heavenly birthday.”) For Catholics, the observance of a death is also the celebration of a life and a reaffirmation of our connection to those who have come before us in faith.

Martyrs complicate this picture somewhat: a martyr dies because their life was joined to that of Christ in such a way that they the world treats them the way it treated Him, and this gives us much to reflect on. And no martyrdom is more vexing and more troubling than the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents, observed each year on December 28th.

The story is well known, but seldom remarked on in Catholic parishes except during the feast day. Herod, hearing that the King of the Jews has been born in Bethlehem, asks the three magi, or “wise men,” to report which child it is. They refuse, and the Holy Family flees in secret to Egypt to await Herod’s death. Meanwhile, Herod, not knowing which child was the one prophesied in Scripture, orders every male child under two years old, living in the vicinity of Bethlehem, put to death.

The episode came to be known in European art as the Massacre of the Innocents, and the children themselves as the first Christian martyrs. The violence that the world intended for Christ was visited on them, making them witnesses of that violence and of the salvation that overcomes it.

Most modern readers recoil from this episode, myself among them. We might console ourselves with the lack of contemporary evidence for such an episode, such that many scholars believe it might not have happened at all. But it remains a commemoration for all the apostolic churches, and so we cannot escape reckoning with it.

This is no easy thing to do. One of the most admirable developments of the post-Vatican II Good Friday liturgy has been the practice of the assembled people reading the part of the crowd during the Passion narrative. It concretizes and reaffirms our own participation in the sin of the world and the killing of the Savior.

Since the character of martyrdom is precisely a sharing in Christ’s love and in the death that the world gave Him, reflection on any martyrdom should prompt us to ask about our part in it. And so, to properly reckon with the meaning of the Feast of the Holy Innocents, we need to ask what part we play in the murder of children.

The U.S. military has committed atrocities, including the killing of children, in our name. Police forces, also funded by our tax dollars, have arrested children, some as young as five years old. And there is abortion, about which I do not intend to write here because I have nothing to add to the conversation. We know these things already: they ought to trouble our consciences far more than they do, but they are also abstract and distant evils to those who don’t suffer them.

I don’t think that sin confines itself to distant evils: that would be its own kind of salve for our consciences, an assurance that although we might participate in such evil, we are not the sort of people who would commit it. But Scripture has little time for such moral legerdemain. Writes Saint Paul: “I do not practice what I want to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate … For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, within my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it” (Rom. 7:15, 18).

Children who may be LGBTQ, and in particular, children who may be trans, are a special focus for this murderous impulse in our culture.

It is not a Christian response to hold ourselves far from moral atrocity. If we do not acknowledge our wounds, we will not entrust ourselves to the physician of souls and bodies. So, we must ask again: How do we participate, directly and intimately, in the murder of children?

To answer this, we should think about our duty toward children, and the source of that duty. As it happens, the child’s purported moral innocence plays no role in a Christian articulation of this obligation. It is dependence, not innocence, that characterizes childhood in Scripture.

Approaching the Kingdom of Heaven by becoming like children means acknowledging our radical dependence on God. One way of participating in child murder, then, is the deliberate refusal to meet the needs of a child—needs that are far more direct and immediate than the needs of most adults. Some of these needs, like food and shelter, are obvious, although their being obvious does not prevent us from refusing to meet them.

Children in the United States are routinely refused adequate lunch in school because their parents cannot afford to pay for it. We continue to have a crisis of youth homelessness, a crisis that is particularly acute for queer youth, 28 percent of whom have experienced homelessness. We also continue to vote, on the community level, against building homeless shelters of all kinds, including for young people.

These are things that need to be given out on a community level, and they are things without which people die. Certainly, their refusal is acquiescence to murder.

Children also have other, less obvious needs, which are no less crucial despite their inconspicuousness. Very young children need immediate social interaction, but even those in late elementary school become aware not only of their immediate social circles, but of the larger communities that have helped to constitute them. They are keenly aware, in ways that adults often are not, that their identities and continuing existence depend on their ongoing inclusion in their families and their civic communities.

They also know that they will not be children forever, that living means having a future in which they continue to be part of a community that will help to constitute them as people. They know, in other words, that to be a human being is to live with others and that while somebody might like the quiet of being on their own now and then, nobody would wish to be entirely cut off from other people.

That these communities are linguistically constituted—that is, brought into being by people talking to and about one another—does not undermine but rather affirms their physical necessity. Language is nothing more than an extension and deepening of our bodily life together. And as with any biological necessity, to be deprived of community and futurity is inevitably, in the end, to die.

It is strange, then, that so much Christian activism in this country should be focused on depriving children of precisely these things and thus on trying to kill them. Children who may be LGBTQ, and in particular, children who may be trans, are a special focus for this murderous impulse in our culture.

Earlier this year, Texas began using its Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate parents who have responded compassionately to a child’s exploration of their own gender and have sought assistance from psychological and medical professionals in helping their child navigate these questions.

Such support is vital for young people. As research from the Trevor Project demonstrates, it very directly saves their lives. Conversely, the aim of this state harassment is clear: it tells these families that the sort of compassion they show their child is inadmissible, and it tells the children that they themselves are a nexus of social death for their friends and families.

Less overt but far more common are the school and community book bans that have proliferated across the country. We don’t often consider libraries to be sites of attempted murder, but I think this is because we fail to consider what they mean.

A library is a social repository, both because circulating libraries are communal resources and because the books they contain are a technology that allows us a form of social life that does not depend on the sustained attention of another person. What is kept there is social life in a minimal form, a collection of possible relationships that are not the full, living relationship of one person to another, but that nonetheless let us have a kind of social life with people far removed from us in time or space.

The systematic exclusion of certain persons from that collection, then, is an exclusion of those persons from social life. Its meaning is identical to the Texas government’s campaign: the community excludes a particular sort of person, and to the extent that you have a relationship with that sort of person, you are not part of the community. Far worse, if you happen to be that sort of person—if you happen to be a queer person—because then you are excluded in toto.

Children take this kind of exclusion seriously. Older children, as I have said, are quite aware of their dependent state and of the importance of community. We grown-ups, with our greater worldliness and sophistication, might protest that exclusion from life is not what we intend for children who need such books, but this is because so much of our sophistication consists in being able to lie to ourselves.

We do intend total exclusion by these bans, for we intend that a queer child not be known as such, not be related to as such. We intend for them to believe that honesty and a fully human life are antithetical to each other.

A purportedly Christian vision of family life and family behavior animates these policies. These policies are not derived from the family of Christ, who “belonged to a family of murderers, cheats, cowards, adulterers and liars,” as the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe notes. No, this vision is derived from television and from old newspaper advertisements and from hazy memories of childhoods in which we felt comfortable because everyone seemed to be just like us.

The aim of this state harassment is clear: it tells these families that the sort of compassion they show their child is inadmissible.

They are a fantasy, a form of idol, a word that denotes images we make to replace the image of God that has been given to us in other people. Idols and the Divine Image are inimical to one another: they cannot coexist, which is the reason for the first commandment. We know this instinctively, and so when we make an idol of idyllic childhood, childhood without discomfort or difference. We must clear the field of competitors.

What about the children—the real, living children—who threaten that image? Well, they aren’t part of the picture. They probably didn’t belong here anyway.

Here, we re-enact the story of this feast day. Herod massacred the Holy Innocents out of his fear that among them would be found a king far greater than himself. We will the deaths of children because we are afraid—profoundly, desperately afraid—that among the children whose needs we reject, whose needs place on us a moral demand that we are unwilling to bear, we may find the Savior whose justice will search us out.

We would do well to remember that this is a story of Herod’s failure: Christ lived, and he lives still. Our fear that we may find Christ among the children is well founded, and we cannot help but fail in trying to avoid this. We should rejoice in our failure. He will not forsake us even as we have done our best to kill him, even as our fear has driven us to such wickedness.

His justice will find us, and he will refine our fear away so that we might not avoid meeting him in need. He has already met us, and his love endures forever.

Daniel Walden

Daniel Walden is a writer and classicist. He spends his time thinking about Homeric philology, Catholic socialism, musical theatre and the Michigan Wolverines. His writing has appeared in Commonweal, Gawker and Jacobin.

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