The Power of Fear

Epiphany Sunday

Isaiah 60: 1-6
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

On Monday of this week, a grand jury in Ohio declared that the police officers who shot and killed 12-year old Tamir Rice while he played with a pellet gun in a Cleveland park and then left him unattended on the ground for four minutes before administering comfort or assistance would not be indicted on any charges related to his death. The officers said the boy looked like he was 20. They said they told him to stand down. He was a large black boy in a park and they were afraid. People do stupid and sometimes horrible things when they are afraid.

As a country we’re being told that we should be afraid of a lot of things lately: immigrants, Muslims, crazy men with guns, black men (with or without guns), ISIS, the jobs report, tap water. We’re told that there are forces afoot in this world, embodied in these and many other things, which threaten our way of life. We’re told that if we do not eliminate these threats, bad things will happen. We’re told to hold nothing back, however immoral or inhumane, to keep ourselves and our way of life safe: border controls, internment camps, religious tests, militarized policing, racially skewed drug laws, carpet bombing, suppression of unions, bottled water.

Fear maintains order. Collateral damage is to be expected. When those in power fear that they are losing hold on that power, ramping up the fear of the general populace is a surefire way to secure and maintain power.

Exhibit A: Herod the Great.

Herod was the client-king of the Roman Emperor Augustus who ruled over Judea as the “King of the Jews” at the time of Jesus’ birth. Long before Jesus came to Judea, Herod was already known both for his paranoia and his willingness to use terroristic violence to maintain hold of his power. Herod took great pride in being known as “the King of the Jews,” and did not take kindly to news that there was a new kid in town. These magi from the Persian imperial court (Were there three? Who knows? Who cares?) came bearing gifts for the baby whose star had risen in the sky. They caught a paranoid king off guard with the news that a new king was coming to power.

Herod could have done a lot of things at the moment that he learned this news. He could have kicked the magi out of Jerusalem and Judea right then and there. He could have sent soldiers with them to Bethlehem to murder the young child on the spot. He could even, for that matter, have gone himself. Herod, however, was much more crafty. He would not let the magi see him sweat, so he extended an exceptionally hospitable hand to them in the form of his wisest counselors and a free pass to roam the kingdom.

He still planned to eliminate the threat, but with a decorum fitting his office. The magi are told to come back with a report of this new king. When Herod found out that he’d been duped by the magi, he went on a killing spree. All the boys under 2 years old were the collateral cost of this bout of self-preservationist anxiety. In a providential vision, Joseph was given enough warning to get Jesus and his mother out of town safely before the massacre begins.

The truth of the matter, though, is that Herod was right to be afraid. “The way things were” was great for folks like him who enjoyed the wealth and protection of the Empire, but not so hot for pretty much everybody else. The newborn “King of the Jews” in Bethlehem was not simply another lowly Judean vying for his own chair in Augustus’ court. He was a king born for the express purpose of turning “the way things are” upside down and inside out. Jesus is, as Origen wrote, autobasileia–the kingdom itself, the kingdom in person.

In the humility and fragility of the manger and through his gracious and indiscriminate love, Jesus came into this world to rewrite the rules and redefine power. By identifying with the poor, the oppressed, and the alien, Jesus promises to lift up the lowly and fill the poor with good things. Though distribution of wealth and power isn’t a zero-sum game, Jesus’ re-writing of the political, social, and economic agenda surely requires that power and resources be shared and transferred. Had Herod known all of this from the start, he’d likely have thrown decorum out the window and done the dirty deed himself rather than letting Pilate have the honor some 30 years later.

Yet, in January 2016, the powerful still cling to power while the oppressed still cry out for justice. Kingdom movements have been afoot in this world for more than two millennia, and where movements like Reconstruction, Civil Rights, and #blacklivesmatter make inroads which threaten the power and privilege of a wealthy minority, there is fear mongering.

There is collateral damage.

Forgive us, Tamir.

I suspect that the debates will continue this week and beyond about the proper recourse for the officers involved in the killing of Tamir Rice and countless others like him. Tragically, Tamir Rice will not be the end of this story. Rachel will continue to weep for her children who are no more.

In the meantime, our hope is not in good guys with guns, the strength of our military, or the height of the walls on our border. Our hope is the gospel we proclaim: that the Kingdom of God has drawn near in the birth of Jesus the Christ. A new world order is afoot, calling us to stand with it on the right side of history. May we find in ourselves this Epiphany the courage to “Arise! Shine! for our light has come” (Is. 60:1). May we have the wisdom and discernment of the magi to know when we are called to disobey the powers for the sake of the gospel. And may we, if necessary, know the courage of Paul, unafraid to be in chains for this gospel we proclaim (Eph 3:1-12).

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