A liberal United Methodist congregation in Claremont, California provocatively altered its Nativity scene this year to replace Baby Jesus with a bleeding, hoodie wearing Trayvon Martin, stooped over a pool of his own blood.
“He was, in my view, an innocent child like the innocent children killed by King Herod,” the scene’s artistic creator explained to the Los Angeles Times. “I think the Nativity has to be relevant to our time. I think Jesus is a symbol of hope and I think he has to be seen in today’s context.” Responding to complaints, Claremont United Methodist Church explains on its website that the Nativity scene, which remains up until January 5, never intended a “substitution for the image of Christ Jesus born in a manger, contrary to some news reports.” Instead, the display’s purpose is “encourage people’s thinking about violence in our world today and how that has not changed much from the time when the baby Jesus was born.”
Despite the church’s claim, the Nativity has no Baby Jesus, so Trayvon Martin has in fact replaced Christ as the focus. The pseudo-Nativity embodies liberal Protestantism’s historic penchant for replacing core Christian beliefs with its own interpretation of more pressing social justice causes.
The Christmas season is about the Good News of the advent of a Savior. But it also recalls ancillary but important bad news, such as the baby boys King Herod slaughtered in his vain attempt to extinguish Christ, as told in the Gospel of Matthew. December 28 was the Feast of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs, which honors their memory. It also reminds that the same malevolent spiritual force that tried to kill Baby Jesus has always been and is still at work today in the world, trying to thwart the Gospel and any good work that exalts God’s love. Our fallen world is in constant rebellion against the Almighty’s designs, hence the need for a Savior to reconcile us to our Maker.
In a Religion News Service column about the Feast of the Holy Innocents, Jonathan Merritt, a sometimes liberal-leaning but pro-life Baptist, noted there is plenty of reason to “grieve this Innocent’s Day as people who believe in the sanctity of life from the womb to the tomb.” He cites over 1 million unborn killed by abortion annually in America, contrasting it with traditional Christian protection for the innocent, which has included opposition to pagan practices of infanticide and child exposure. And he writes: “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.”
From there, Merritt urges mourning for the “innocents who are executed by our broken justice system.” He mentions over 140 freed from death row over the last 40 years but does not mention any confirmed judicial executions of an innocent in the U.S. in moderns times, because no such clear case exists. Instead, he argues that few “will contest that our justice system has serious problems in need of solving,” and these “systemic failures are even more serious when innocent lives are at stake.” He essentially argues against capital punishment, saying “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.” In fact, Christianity has historically affirmed the state’s vocation to execute the guilty. And if a standard of perfection is applied to capital punishment, where else should it apply in criminal justice? Reportedly over 300 annually die in police car chases, one third of whom are innocent bystanders. Should police be deprived of their cars? More innocent bystanders are shot inadvertently by police in their pursuit of suspects. Should all police therefore be disarmed?
Merritt goes on to “mourn the innocents who die as a result of our wars,” citing 100,000 civilian deaths in Iraqandmore than 10,000 civilians dead in Afghanistan, even as “many American Christians endorsed or even cheered these wars.” He complains “we continue to steal the lives of innocents through our drone program.” And he asks: “Where are our candlelight vigils for the innocents murdered?” He faults Christians “blinded by their own sense of ‘patriotism.’”
The facts are more complicated than Merritt portrays. The Afghan War was already ensuing for years long before America’s post-9/11 intervention on behalf of the Northern Alliance against the Taliban regime. How many more would have died absent decisive U.S. intervention? And is America to blame for all civilian casualties? In Iraq, Saddam Hussein directly murdered hundreds of thousands of his population before the war, and critics claimed that international sanctions against his regime killed hundreds of thousands more. Most of the deaths after the U.S. overthrow of Saddam resulted from the sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shiites. That strife continues well after U.S. departure, having killed about 8,000 in Iraq in 2013, reportedly prompting Iraqi officials to warn Afghanistan not to repeat their mistake of complete U.S. withdrawal.
Merritt concludes: “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.” Sadly, Merritt’s dubious political commentary undermines his spiritual point about the Feast of the Innocents. Although not as egregious as Claremont United Methodist Church, his commentary detracts from the Nativity story’s more central purpose.
Although obviously unintended, the Wise Men looking for Baby Jesus sealed the doom of the slaughtered innocents by telling Herod of their purpose. Warned in a dream, they avoided Herod on the return trip, helping protect Baby Jesus, but not the others. Unsure where Jesus was, Herod killed all of Bethlehem’s male babies.
In our fallen world of tragedy and unintended consequence, innocents often die inadvertently due to actions by persons seeking to do good. Unlike abortionists, or Herod, the U.S. judicial system doesn’t seek to incarcerate much less execute the innocent. Nor do the U.S. armed forces, or drone pilots, try to kill any other than the intended targets as they seek to protect the innocent from terror. Their mistakes are often preferable to the complete absence of their effort.
The Nativity story transcends narrow political messages. Christianity asserts that God became man to rescue otherwise irretrievable humanity, which even at its best too often allows innocents to suffer and die. The season should focus on the Baby in the manger, and what He became, rather than substitute for Him other pressing causes.