There is something distinctly un-sentimental about the historical form that the Christian liturgical calendar has come to exhibit during the season of Christmas. The Feast of the Nativity is immediately followed the next day by the Feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Today (December 28) is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the date on the calendar set aside for commemorating the children massacred following the birth of Jesus as depicted in the Gospel of Matthew (2:16-18). In this way, the Christian liturgical calendar is simply following the brutal realism of Scripture. The coming of the Prince of Peace sets on edge the petty tyrants of our world like Herod.
In anticipation of an intensive intercession course I am teaching next week on the life and thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I have been re-reading Bonhoeffer’s Ethics. Bonhoeffer has an incisive critique of the “tyrannical despiser of humanity” (who, in Bonhoeffer’s context, is clearly Hitler) that is worth repeating on this day commemorating those slain by Herod.
“Among the overwhelming majority of people, anxiety, greed, lack of independence, and brutality show themselves to be the mainspring of behavior in the face of unsuspected chance and threats. At such a time the tyrannical despiser of humanity easily makes use of the human heart by nourishing it and giving it other names. Anxiety is called responsibility; greed is called industriousness; lack of independence becomes solidarity; brutality becomes masterfulness. By this ingratiating treatment of human weaknesses, what is base and mean is generated and increased ever anew. The basest contempt for humanity carries on its sinister business under the most holy assertions of love for humanity. The meaner the baseness becomes, the more willing and pliant a tool it is in the hand of the tyrant. The small number of upright people will be smeared with mud. Their courage will be called revolt, their discipline Pharisaism, their independence arbitrariness, and their masterfulness arrogance. For the tyrannical despiser of humanity, popularity is a sign of the greatest love for humanity. He hides his secret profound distrust of all people behind the stolen words of true community. While he declares himself before the masses to be one of them, he praises himself with repulsive vanity and despises the rights of every individual. He considers the people stupid and they become stupid; he considers them weak and they become weak; he considers them criminal, and they become criminal. His most holy seriousness is frivolous play; his conventional protestations of solicitude for people are bare-faced cynicism. In his deep contempt for humanity, the more he seeks the favor of those he despises, the more certainly he arouses the masses to declare him a god. Contempt for humanity and idolization of humanity lie close together.” 1
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Clifford J. Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 85-86. ↩