slaughter of the innocents – human shields or collateral damage?

By Huynh Cong Ut (also known as Nick Ut), image from Wikipedia

From the ‘Napalm Girl‘ in Vietnam, to Alan Kurdi’s body on a Turkish beach in 2015 and endless images of White Hat’s pulling children from the rubble in Aleppo, it is easy to become inured to the death of innocent children around the world.

In the church calendar, December 28th1 is the Feast of the Innocents or Childermas, a day to remember the children killed by King Herod as he sought the baby Jesus.

In Matthew’s Gospel we read:

 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under (Matt. 2:16, NIV).

However, for many it is the words in the Christmas carol, “Unto us a boy is born“, which is most familiar:

All the little boys he killed at Bethlehem in his fury.

Mary and Joseph had already fled, refugees to Egypt, so the babies were not simply slaughtered, but slaughtered in vain, an action missing its true target, like the bombs that killed Gaddaffi’s children and grandchildren in 1986 and 2011.

I’ve been reading Simon Garfield’s “Timekeepers‘ (a Christmas gift).  Garfield describes a meeting with Nick Ut, the photographer of ‘Napalm Girl’2.  The common story is that the US attack on the village from which Phan Thi Kim Phuc was running was a mistake, but Ut describes how in the village there were many dead Viet Cong, so that the mistake was more likely inadequate intelligence that the villagers had fled (Timekeepers, p.168).

A few weeks ago a BBC reporter in Yemen was visiting a school, which Saudi air strikes had repeatedly hit.  This was one example of many such incidents targeting schools during this conflict3. The reporter talked of how the school kept on working and pupils kept attending, despite the damage and the danger.  However, the report also showed the Houthi rebel arms dump next to the school.  “Can’t you move the school away from this?”, asked the reporter. “They would simply move the dump to follow us”, replied the headmaster.

Again this is a story we have heard so many times before: missiles fired from hospital grounds in Gaza, Ukraine keeping its air corridors open whilst in the midst of its air campaign against separatists4, ISIS preventing civilian evacuation from Mosul, or the South Korean artillery firing into disputed areas from a populated island.

In some cases civilians are deliberately put in the way of danger (as with ISIS); in others fighting in built up areas makes civilian presence inevitable (Aleppo, Gaza).  In some cases terror is the main aim of an attack or the civilians are seen as legitimate targets (as with ISIS attacks in Europe); in others terror is a deliberate secondary war aim (as with Dresden or Nagasaki). In some cases attackers seem to show flagrant disregard for civilian life (as in Gaza), and in others all care is take, but (often substantial) civilian deaths are accepted as collateral damage (probably the case with US drone extrajudicial killings).

Whether you blame those on the ground for using human shields or those attacking for disregarding human like, often depends on which side you are on5.

In most conflicts the truth is complex, especially where there are mismatches of firepower: Hamas in Gaza, anti-Assad rebel groups in Syria, or ISIS in Iraq would all have been slaughtered if they fought in the open.  And for the attacking side, where does the responsibility lie between callous disregard for human life and justifiable retaliation?  How do we place the death of children by bombs against those of starvation and illness caused by displaced populations, siege or international sanctions?

If the events in Bethlehem were to happen today, how would we view Herod?

Was he despotic dictator killing his own people?

Was the baby Jesus a ‘clear and present danger’, to the stability the state and thus the children of Bethlehem merely collateral damage?

Or were Mary, Joseph and God to blame for using human shields, placing this infant of mass disruption in the midst of a small town?

It is worryingly easy to justify the slaughter of a child.

Some organisations that are making a difference:

  1. The date varies in different churches, it is 28th December in most Western churches, but 27th, 29th Dec, or 10th January elsewhere[back]
  2. The ‘Napalm Girl’ recent obtained fresh notoriety when Facebook temporarily censored it because it showed nudity.[back]
  3. Another BBC report,amongst many, “Yemen crisis: Saudi-led coalition ‘targeting’ schools” documents this.[back]
  4. Before MH17 was shot down a Ukrainian military transport and other military planes had been shot down, and the first messages following the destruction of MH17 suggest the rebels thought they had downed another military aircraft.  Instead of re-routing flights the flying ceiling was raised, but still within distance of ground-to-air missiles, and carriers made their own choices as to whether to overfly.  Some newspapers suggest that the motives were mainly financial both for Malaysian Airways, and for the Ukrainian government decisions, rather than Ukraine using civilian flights as a deliberate human shield.[back]
  5. Patrick Cockburn’s comparison of Aleppo and Mosul in The Independent argues this is the case for the current conflicts in Syrian and Iraq.[back]

the problem with a gift – the Christmas we get we don’t deserve

Malaysia in early December was full of Christmas preparations. No nativity scenes as this is a Muslim country, but gingerbread houses, Santa Claus, and Christmas trees everywhere.  And always, in hotel lobbies, in restaurants, in shopping malls the sound of carols playing; not “Fairytale of New York” or “When a Child is Born“, but traditional carols like those that played when I was a child.

Back in the UK and Ireland, actually less decorations, and certainly none of the giant gingerbread houses (except in the German Market in Birmingham), but certainly, in hotels and shops, tinsel and Christmas trees, and piped carols and Christmas music.   This time a broader selection of music, including “Fairytale’ (which I love) and ELP’s “I believe in Father Christmas” (which is also glorious).

Maybe the words of the latter are a little too dark for Malaysian taste.  According to Wikipedia’s page on the song,  some think the lyrics are anti-Christian, but Greg Lake evidently said it was written as reaction to the commercialisation of Christmas.   Certainly the song captures some of the disillusionment of a world that has lost its certainties, yet wistfulness at what it has lost, and still feeling a sense of the hope that Christmas conjures even when the reasons for it have been long forgotten:

I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave new year
All anguish pain and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear

On a recording of an interview with BBC Scotland on Lake’s own web site, he even says that he does believe in Father Christmas 🙂

However, as I heard it again and again on my travels, and especially as I sat musing in the Harbour Hotel in Galway, it was the last lines of the final verse that captured me:

They said there’ll be snow at Christmas
They said there’ll be peace on earth
Hallelujah, Noel, be it heaven or hell
The Christmas you get you deserve

When it was written not long after the napalm drenched years of the Vietnam war and today when radio-controlled drones and road-side bombs are never far from the news, the message of peace on earth can sound like a cruel joke.  Maybe the ravaged world at Christmas time is no more than we deserve.

Yet the strange and shocking message of the child in the stable is exactly the opposite, the Christmas we get is not what we deserve.  The Christmas story isn’t about God waiting until the Jewish nation were good enough, nor the Romans that occupied their land.  Like every baby born to every couple, it does not wait in the womb until we are good enough to beparents, God help us if it were so, the human race would have long perished!  The Christ child is not a reward for the deserving, but, to a broken world, a free gift for all.

I think this lavish free gift was particularly close to mind due to a talk I heard while in Malaysia.  The speaker was working with IT systems for disabled children, and started his talk referring to the Koran for motivation; he said how the Koran teaches that if you do good on earth you will receive a reward in heaven. For me coming from a Christian background, this message was both familiar and similar to teachings I’ve heard from childhood, and yet also in some ways precisely the opposite.  The two parts of the clause are the same, but the connective is different.  In Christian theology, it is not that there is a reward in heaven because we do good, but rather we are enjoined to do good because we already have a reward in heaven.  The full, unstinting, unreserved gift of God always comes first.

This said, my feeling is that things are not so different in the actual practice of life.  Certainly, Muslim friends I know are not counting up their good deeds in some celestial bank balance.  For Muslim, Christian and Atheist alike, those who give themselves to ‘charity’ (such a lovely world, sadly debased) find it becomes its own purpose.

But for Christians, it also seems hard to accept that the Christmas we get is not what we deserve.  There is something uncomfortable and difficult about that free gift.  It is like those spam emails that come offering free computers or free holidays, we feel there must be a catch, or maybe that we don’t want to be beholden to others.  We invent ways to invert the clauses, to try to earn things, to turn the gift into wages.  In traditional churches it is about rituals and observances, in reformed churches it tends to be about statements of belief and right doctrine.  Both are important, but so easily become ways of earning what has already been given, of distracting us from and detracting from the core message of Christmas, as told to the shepherds 2000 years ago: “good news of great joy that will be for all the people“.

A Gift.

Books and books about books

A combination of things (several rail journeys and flights including two long haul, waits at airports due to snow, an unexpected 2 day diversion to a hotel outside Istanbul again due to snow,  a few days illness after Christmas, and a power cut lasting a whole morning) have all meant that I have spent more time reading than usual.  Now it is not that I do not want to read, and it has always been one of my chief pleasures, but as an academic, paradoxically, for many years my reading has narrowed to the next report, thesis or paper to review shutting out not just reading for pleasure, but any academic book or article that was not immediately necessary for the next deadline.

However, I have been wonderfully forced by circumstances back to the page.

I have already written about one of these “The Shadow of the Wind” while I was travelling, itself a book about books, and while travelling I also read Kathryn Harrison’s “A Thousand Orange Trees” (an eye opening but unrelentingly depressing vision of women’s life during the Spanish inquisition), Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” (a sometimes depressing, but also glorious account of a hard Irish childhood), Jodi Picoult’s “Change of Heart” (on the death penalty and religion) and Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Ruth” (a wonderful book about the small mindedness and great generosity of the human spirit, especially remarkable when seen against its time).

… and then I had some new books for Christmas …

At first Keith Gray’s “Ostrich Boys” seems like a classic boy’s book with three friends ‘kidnapping’ the ashes of their friend Ross in order to give him a proper send off at Ross in Scotland.   Like all journey stories, a mixture of going on against the odds and self discovery, not in the league of Cynthia Voigt’s “Homecoming“, but more likely to be read by boys wanting a good adventure and being stretched in the process.

Mal Peet’s “Tamar” is clearly for ‘young adults’, a claustrophobic tale of war time resistance in 1945 cut through with a ‘modern day’ tale.  This parallel tale is a hard genre, and, like Joan Lingard “Natasha’s Will“, I felt Peet managed the 1945 tale better than the current day one1. Although Peet is writing for an older audience, I was reminded of the way Nina Bawden manages to get me to identify, however unwillingly at times, with the flawed characters in her children’s novels.

Susan Hill’s “Howards End is on the Landing” is, like “The Shadow of the Wind“, a book about books, but whereas Zafon’s Novel is set against a fictional library, Susan Hill tells us about her own bookshelves, which seem to coat and fill, like windblown snow, every wall and nook in her house.  She decides to spend a year reading only the books she already has on her shelves, a decision that coincides with a resolution to minimise use of the internet:

Too much internet usage fragments the brain and dissipates concentration so that after a while, one’s ability to spend long, focused hours immersed in a single subject becomes blunted.  Information comes pre-digested in small pieces, one grazes on endless ready-meals and snacks of the mind, and the result is mental malnutrition. (p.2)

This reminds me a little of Andrew Keen’s “The Cult of the Amateur” except Susan Hill says it more succinctly and elegantly.

Hill’s reading is both eclectic and catholic, encompassing Ian Flemming along with Trollope and Chaucer.  She takes Enid Blyton and J.K. Rowling seriously for their contribution to literacy (although unlike me does not re-read the former), and is happy to say that she never feels comfortable with Austin.  As she describes the titles she finds, sometimes lost between unlikely bedfellows, I am inspired to read them all and also to look to my own shelves:

A book which is left on a shelf for a decade is a dead thing, but it is also a chrysalis, packed with the potential to burst into new life. (p.2)

Susan Hill’s knowledge is amazing and the book is filled with anecdotes about authors she has met, known and corresponded with, giving hints of the inside story of many 20th century writers.  Sometimes I am surprised at her choices or rather not what she chooses, but more what she rejects.  In her list of books she has not read she includes:

Buddenbrooks. Thomas Mann

I want to read this . I mean to read this. I really do.

but also:

Romola. George Elliot

I do understand how I can have not read it.  (p.70)

Why?  Does she mean she can understand why it has not crossed her path, or that she does not want to read it? It is a book I have re-read several times, although always wishing the ending could be different.  I know she does not like “A Tale of Two Cities” feeling that Dickens is at his best when dealing with (for him) the contemporary; maybe she fears the same is true of Elliot?

However, Hill never assumes that her tastes are her readers’ tastes, she does not select the ‘good’ books, but the books she wants to read.

Sadly she does not supply a list of all the books she read during the year, but at the end she gives a ‘top 40’ list, with some I know well such as “The Mayor of Casterbridge“, some I know of but have never read, such as “A Passage to India“, and some I have never heard of such as “Flaubert’s Parrot“.  An instant Amazon Wish List!

Top of her top 40 are the Book of Common Prayer and the Bible (King James Version) — in the text (p173/174) deliberately in that order, but for some reason in the list at the end the Bible comes first, did she rethink after writing, or is it an editorial decision to make the list look neater?

This reminds me that I need to retrieve my battered school bible from underneath the pew where I left it after the Christmas morning service.  Also, the last of my Christmas reading (helped enormously by the enforced internet blackout due to the power cut), a book of Fiona’s “Whose Bible Is It?” by a biblical scholar and champion of inter-faith relations Joroslav Pelikan.  It is a book about a book, or rather a book about books, as Pelikan reminds us that the word “Bible” strictly means “little books”. I know some of the history of the forming of the modern Bible, but Pelikan’s encyclopaedic and detailed knowledge shines through.  I had not realised that it was the Greek Septuagint rather than the Hebrew Tanakh (Old Testament) that is quoted by the New Testament writers, making odd the decision of the early Protestants to excise the ‘Apocrypha’ (the writings in the Septuagint but not in the Hebrew).

It is a short and very readable book, but at times I found myself wanting to know a little more on some points.  When discussing the dates of the Gospels Pelikan notes that Mark is usually dated at 70CE, but doesn’t explain why.  Previously I’ve seen the same date quoted with the reason being that the Gospel appears to predict the fall of Jerusalem which happened in 70AD and therefore must have been written after.  This argument seems to presuppose that prediction is impossible and by analogy would inevitably lead to future historians excising or re-dating  several of Vince Cable’s statements prior to the 2008 financial crash. Maybe there is a better reason, or maybe, like other academic disciplines, biblical scholarship is a servant of its assumptions.

And now … no more power cuts and the internet is flawless, but trying not loose momentum with Sheila Stewart’s “Pilgrims of the Mist“, Mike Parker’s “Map Addict” and George Basalla’s “The Evolution of Technology” all on the go … maybe another post in a couple of weeks.

  1. Try also Susan Cooper’s “Victory” for a story that blends past and current narrative with equal conviction.[back]

understanding others and understanding ourselves: intention, emotion and incarnation

One of the wonders of the human mind is the way we can get inside one another’s skin; understand what each other is thinking, wanting, feeling. I’m thinking about this now because I’m reading The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition by Michael Tomasello, which is about the way understanding intentions enables cultural development. However, this also connects a hypotheses of my own from many years back, that our idea of self is a sort of ‘accident’ of being social beings. Also at the heart of Christmas is empathy, feeling for and with people, and the very notion of incarnation.

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Christmas services

Lots of travelling about to see family and lots of deadlines over Christmas period, but now back on Tiree and it’s New Year’s day, so time for a short breather.

All the travelling about meant we didn’t seem to get to as many carol services and the like before Christmas, so it didn’t really feel as if Christmas Day was near until it was upon us.

Miriam is in the choir at Birmingham Cathedral and was singing at both the midnight service on Christmas Eve and the Christmas Morning service, so we all spent Christmas with her.  To be honest I expected the Cathedral services to be beautiful, but lifeless affairs.  I was very wrong.

The midnight service was full-on bells-and-smells with smoking incense wafted over Bible, congregation and anything else in range.  Poor Fiona, who had a cough anyway, struggled to breath through the rich spicy fumes and one other girl had to step out for air.  As well as the people, but I’ll come to those later, the turning point to me was when the priest, dressed in a white surplus with beautiful and intricate embroidery,  came to the centre of the aisle to read the New Testament lesson, flanked on either side by candle bearers in cassocks …  of course all heavily wafted in incense … and she began to read.   Clearly she too found it hard to breath in the smoke (Miriam told us later that the incense was only occasionally used in the services, so she had little practice reading under adverse conditions), but, as her head moved from side to side reading the lesson, the light caught a sparkle of glitter in her hair and suddenly the solemnity of the occasion, her own humanity and the joy of the celebration all came together.  A sparkle in the hair a parable for the message of incarnation.

To be honest tired after so much driving, thesis reading, etc., I fell asleep through some of the sermon … and yes, sometimes if you notice me in a talk with my eyes closed it is rapt attention, but sometimes …

Christmas services are always times which bring in the once-a-year visitors as well as the weekly faithful, so always difficult for the preacher.  Some primarily address the latter, hoping that the former will absorb the message and the occasion, often appropriate in small communities.  The opposite alternative is to treat it as an ‘opportunity for evangelism’ addressing the newcomer, but risking treating them as gospel cannon fodder and maybe even neglecting to focus on the celebration that is Christmas. This seems particularly difficult in a cathedral, which is both a place of worship, but also part of civic life; there to serve the city, to welcome people in on their own terms and yet offer them more.

Again, being honest, I expected the preacher to ‘play safe; bland words and a Christmas greeting, but instead (between my naps) he seemed to get it just right, not ‘preachy’ but welcoming yet leaving no doubt that we were not gathered just to sing a few nice songs, but there to celebrate the birth of a real baby, who became a real man, offering a rich promise, and making real demands on our lives.

However, what struck me most was not so much the ‘front activity’ of  priests and candles, lectern and Bible, or even bread and wine, but the people in the congregation. So varied: the lady in ‘Sunday best’ everybody’s image of the librarian or old-style school teacher, three men with tightly cropped hair like the Mitchell brothers in Eastenders, a group of young women maybe going to a party later, a girl in a heavy-metal sweat shirt, and a young couple punctuating their devotions with the occasional hug.  I wondered at their stories, some regulars, some who, like us, had come especially for the service, some who maybe wandered in.

On the Sunday after Christmas we were all in Kendal and went to the morning service at Sandylands, our regular church while we’d lived at Kendal.  Being the post-Christmas service, one of the readings was the familiar story of when Mary and Joseph took the new baby Jesus to the temple to make their offering of two doves after the birth.  Simeon is an old man but had been told that he wouldn’t die until he has seen the Messiah … he sees the baby Jesus and recognises him.

As this was read, the mathematician in me woke up and I did some quick sums, probably a few 100,000 in Palestine at that time, birth rate for replacement maybe 3%, so thousands of babies a year brought to the temple, maybe a few dozen babies every day … and out of  all these Simeon spots one.  I was reminded of Ursula le Guin’s book “A Wizard of Earthsea“.  It is set in a world of oceans and islands … not so far different from the Hebrides … all interlaced with magic.  The young wizard Sparrowhawk is on a quest and in a tower in the far north is lead into a deep room where a great treasure is stored.  The room is empty, but amongst the flagstones on the floor, he spots one, a small insignificant stone, worn from depths of ages, but so so old and holding a deep ancient dark power.  Like Sparrowhawk, Simeon spots the one of great value amongst the many; does it take special eyes or a special gift to see, or just willingness to look?

Although the old dark powers in “A Wizard of Earthsea” are just a story, the Christmas celebrations are themselves set at midwinter at the time of many old pre-Christian festivals.  The early Christians saw no problem in embracing pagan places and even names  (even the English word Easter!) so long as they were consistent with the Christian purpose. Indeed,  it is commonly assumed, there being no indication in the Gospels as to the time of year when Jesus was born, that the early Christians chose the Roman feast of Sol Invictus, the official State sun god so as to declare Christ the Son’s place at the heart of formal society; like those in Birmingham today, treading a difficult line between personal devotion and civic religion.

The parties, eating and drinking of Christmas capture some of the spirit of pagan midwinter, celebrating the sun’s return, and not entirely absent from cathederal mass … see the sparkle in the hair amongst the robes and dress coats of formal civic celebration, but both raw humanity and ordered civilisation give way to something greater.   There is a logic that is not the tit-for-tat logic of base human nature, nor the clinical logic of pure reason (although both are part of us), but instead is a logic that takes all the problems and pain of the world and answers them in a tiny wriggling baby.