By Kristin Berkey-Abbott
On Dec. 28, we remember the slaughter of all the male children under the age of 2 in Bethlehem in the days after the birth of Jesus. Why were they killed? Because of Herod’s feelings of inadequacy, because of his fear. The magi tell him of a new king that has just been born, and he feels threatened. He will stop at nothing to wipe out any rival, even one who is still a tiny baby.
We like to think that we wouldn’t have reacted that way. We like to think that we’d have joined the band of wise men and gone to pay our respects. We like to think that we’d have put aside our worries of not being good enough and our doubts.
But far too many of us would have responded in exactly the same way, if we had the resources at our command. You need only look at interpersonal relationships in the family or in the office to see that most of us have an inner Herod whom it is hard to ignore.
If you’re old enough, you’ve had the startled feeling when you realize that the next rising star at your workplace or your congregation or your social group is a generation younger than you. It’s hard to respond graciously.
Many of us are likely to respond to our feelings of inadequacy in unproductive ways. If we hear a good idea from someone who makes us feel threatened at work or in our families, how many of us affirm that idea? Instead of saying, “How interesting,” we say, “How stupid!” And then we go to great lengths to prove that we’re right, and whatever is making us feel inadequate is wrong.
So often I feel like I will never escape middle school, that particular kind of hell, where the boundaries were always fluid. Kids who were acceptable one day were pariahs the next. Many adolescents report feeling that they can’t quite get their heads around all the rules and the best ways to achieve success.
Adult life can sometimes feel the same way. We fight to achieve equilibrium, only to find it all undone. Most of us don’t have the power that Herod had, so our fight against powerlessness doesn’t end in corpses. But it often results in a world of outcasts and lone victors, zero-sum games that leave us all diminished.
But feelings of inadequacy can have lethal consequences, especially when played out on a geopolitical scale, the powerful lashing out against the powerless. We live in a world where dictators can efficiently kill their country’s population by the thousands or more. Sadly, we see this Herod dynamic so often that we’re in danger of becoming jaded, hardened and unaffected by suffering.
Now as the year draws to a close, we can resolve to be on the lookout for ways that our inner Herod dominates and controls our emotional lives. We can resolve to let love rule our actions, not fear. We can also resolve to help those who are harmed by the Herods of our world.
Thinking of Herod might also bring to mind the flight into Egypt, the Holy Family turned into refugees. We remember the Holy Family fleeing in terror with only the clothes on their backs — and we remember that this story is so common throughout the world.
As we think about Herod, let us pray to vanquish the Herods in our heads and in our lives. Let us pray for victims of terror everywhere, the ones that get away and the ones that are slaughtered.
Resources you may be interested in from Augsburg Fortress:
- “Moral Issues and Christian Responses: Eighth Edition”
- “Herod: King of the Jews and Friend of the Romans”
- “The Emergence of Christianity: Classical Traditions in Contemporary Perspective”