As the tinsel is packed away and the echoes of Christmas carols fade, Christians around the world observe the Feast of Holy Innocents or “Childermas.” On this day, the faithful will read the Biblical story of King Herod’s massacre of children in an attempt to murder the infant Jesus. These infant innocents are considered the first Christian martyrs.
In medieval England, Christians commemorated the day by whipping their children in bed in the morning. The custom survived into the 17th century, but thankfully has fallen away. Today, the December 28 is marked as an occasion of childhood merrymaking.
Very few American Christians actively observe this holiday in the 21st Century. But we have plenty of reasons to grieve this Innocent’s Day as people who believe in the sanctity of life from the womb to the tomb:
1) Let us mourn the innocents legally aborted each year. The estimate of abortions performed in the United States each year varies, but even the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute reports the number at more than one million. They estimate that 40 million infants are aborted worldwide each year. In addition to stealing a child’s chance at living, these procedures often have deleterious effects on the mothers who participate in them.
Abortion as it is performed today is a relatively modern phenomenon, but infanticide is as old as childbirth itself. When Christianity was beginning, disappointed parents would often kill their children by exposing them to the elements. As historian Robin Fox has noted, “Christians opposed much in the accepted practice of the pagan world. They vigorously attacked infanticide and the exposure of children.” In addition to the scriptural basis for protecting life, it is part of our Christian heritage to stand against such a travesty.
Today, we mourn those innocents who have been aborted as we work to reduce the number of abortions performed in this country and around the world.
2) Let us mourn the innocents who are executed by our broken justice system. More than 140 people have been freed from death row since 1973 after evidence that they were innocent emerged. How many more wrongfully convicted have been killed by the state? DNA evidence exists in only 5-10% of criminal cases, and often the courts block access to DNA testing even when it might lead to exoneration.
Few people will contest that our justice system has serious problems in need of solving. These systemic failures are even more serious when innocent lives are at stake. Additionally, every execution by the state represents lost opportunities to help those who we believe are guilty find true redemption, something our faith offers to even the worst offenders.
“Who amongst anyone is not above redemption? I think we have to be careful in executing final judgment. The one thing my faith teaches me—I don’t get to play God,” says Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice.Today, we mourn the executed innocents even as we work to eliminate the death penalty.
3) Let us mourn the innocents who die as a result of our wars. More than 100,000 civilian lives have been lost as a result of the American-waged war in Iraq, and more than 10,000 civilians died in the military conflict in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, many American Christians endorsed or even cheered these wars.
Today, we continue to steal the lives of innocents through our drone program. Human Rights Watch evaluated six airstrikes in Yemen since 2009, and found that at least 57 of the 82 people who perished were civilians. This included a pregnant woman and three children killed in September 2012. In Pakistan in the last decade, an estimated 2,200 people have been killed by drone strikes according to a U.N. investigation. Four hundred were civilians and 200 were “probable noncombatants.”
Where are our candlelight vigils for the innocents murdered? Where is the outcry from Christians? Sadly, too many American Christians have been blinded by their own sense of “patriotism” to educate themselves on these matters, much less advocate for the lives they claim are “sacred” and the people they believe are “made in the image of God.”
Today, we mourn the innocents who die at the hands of the American military even as we work to make peace with the enemies that Christ called us to love.
The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is an appropriate season for all sort of things. This includes “a time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to grieve and a time to dance.” Celebration and lamentation are both important parts of spiritual formation. So between our celebrations of Christ’s birth and the dawn of a new year, let us lament the lives lost unnecessarily and our shameful silence in the face of it all.
And bring mercy with you.