Christmas in Newtown and Bethlehem

Newtown and Jesus' Bethlehem are bound together by a common horror: slaughter of the innocents. The world into which the Christian Messiah enters is shattered by terror.
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Embrace vulnerability or attempt to erase it -- this elemental choice largely determines the texture and trajectory of our personal and communal lives. The former choice leads to flourishing; the latter leads to a downward spiral of disengagement, isolationism, mutual suspicion and violence. Christmas is God's embrace of vulnerability. Christmas is God's act of hallowing vulnerability by entering human history as a fragile child and living a life of nonviolent love. This Christmas season, as we live in the wake of the violence in Newtown, Americans are once more confronted with a basic decision: heed the Christmas call to vulnerability or refuse it in a futile quest to arm ourselves against each other thereby severing the bonds that make a humane life possible.

Newtown and Jesus' Bethlehem are bound together by a common horror: slaughter of the innocents. In Matthew's telling of Jesus's birth, King Herod hears from the wise men disturbing word of a newborn king. Frightened by this threat to his power, he orders the execution of every child under two born in and around Bethlehem.

"A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more" (Matthew 2:18). As soon as news of the shooting began to break, biblically literate Facebook friends began to post on their walls this harrowing verse from the Gospel of Matthew, thereby calling to mind the connection between Newtown and Bethlehem. Reading this text each year compels Christians to confront a hard truth: the Prince of Peace enters a wounded world in which there is no peace. This biblical scene of violence reminds Christians that we have always been asked to perform a difficult task: We are called to proclaim the coming of Emmanuel, God with us, in just those places and times when God seems most absent.

The slaughter of innocents and the birth of a child in excruciating vulnerability -- this is a profoundly counterintuitive way to speak of God's coming. Unlike the light and unblemished merriness that we wish each other every Christmas, the Bible offers no happily-ever-after fairy tale. The world into which the Christian Messiah enters is shattered by terror and ruled by Roman imperial power and its client dictators.

The Gospel narratives suggest that the coming of God does not (then or now) undo our capacity to inflict violence upon each other nor does it radically reconfigure the conditions under which we live out our lives. On the contrary, these very conditions, in all their fragility, are sanctified by incarnation. When God assumes flesh and enters the world, this very world is accepted and embraced.

God does not first remake the world in order to enter it, and entering the world does not diminish the dignity of divinity. The incarnation affirms that our fragility and frailty are not contrary to divine intention. Rather, they too are taken up by divinity when God becomes flesh. This world, as it stands, offers the necessary conditions for love and community. The coming of God as a child affirms that this fragile world is as it ought to be.

God does not come to eradicate vulnerability but to teach us how to welcome it. Love comes to open our eyes to look for holiness not in might and power, not in any futile attempt to secure ourselves against each other by force of arms, but precisely in our delicate bonds with each other.

From womb to tomb, Jesus lives under the watchful eye of Rome's proxy rulers. The threat of violence, arrest and execution haunts his ministry, and it is precisely under these conditions that Jesus proclaims his good news of love of neighbor and love of enemy. Jesus did not issue his call to love in an era that was kinder and less brutal than our own. Instead he taught that love is the energy that is released when vulnerability is embraced. Love is the celebration of our mutual entanglement and our inseparability.

By contrast, every attempt to escape vulnerability brings about a loss of community. When we arm and barricade ourselves against each other, we sever the ties that bind. When we attempt to undo our vulnerability, we are caught in a logical and practical contradiction: We cannot simultaneously move away from and move toward those whom we are called to love.

The American love for the gun and the NRA's vision of an armed and militarized polity are an inversion of the Christmas celebration of the holiness of vulnerability. When we seek refuge in the gun, we refuse our unbearable proximity to each other. Devotion to the gun amounts to an inhuman quest to overcome our vulnerability, the very thing that binds us to each other in need and love.

Jesus' message to his age and ours is clear: Put down your weapons. You cannot defeat your enemies by means of power and violence. Only love can suffice. This is the message of Christmas, and in its light, Christians must testify that love for the gun is idolatrous -- the worship of a false God that cannot save. What Jesus said of money is true also for the gun. You cannot worship God and Bushmaster. Every weaponized attempt to escape our vulnerability is doomed to fail. Rather, we must labor to build the beloved community in which we can be vulnerable together in mutual care and love. This holy work is our only hope.

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