I have been waiting for someone to make the connexion. All along I have been speaking of the Newtown murders of little children as ”the slaughter of the innocents,” because, coming just before Christmas, it should be almost impossible for a Christian not to notice the parallel between the Newtown massacre and the story of Herod’s killing of the male children of Bethlehem, in his efforts to kill the child Jesus, who, Matthew tells us, so clearly, was born to be king of the Jews. And, finally, someone has made the connexion. But he hasn’t carried it far enough, which shows how shallow people’s appropriation of their own myths really is. Of course, we’ve had the predictable but stupid idea that the murders were God’s judgement on America for turning its back on God, as well as the usual run of the mill stuff about punishment for abortions or entertaining the notion of gay marriage. Leave it to William Lane Craig to make the connexion! Here he is talking about the slaughter of the innocents, and its congruity with the meaning of Christmas.
Craig’s interpretation of this is so simple-minded, it’s hard to think of the man as a scholar of some repute. I’m not sure I’d go as far as Jerry Coyne, though, in his interpretation of what Craig has to say. Here’s what Jerry says over at Why Evolution is True:
Apparently the recent slaughter is God’s way of reminding us of “what Christmas is for, what it’s all about.” And it’s almost as if Craig thinks that God engineered the murders to that end.
I don’t think that’s Craig’s point. I think Craig is just saying that we should take it as a reminder that we live in a world in which unspeakable evils occur, but there’s no sign that he thinks that God precipitated the murders as a reminder.
As I’ve said before, it’s very hard for people to think about tragedy, grief and horror at Christmas time, because there is so much tinselly joy around that people are unwilling to look at things realistically. And, basically, that’s what Craig is saying too, and he thinks Christmas is the answer. But there are several problems here, and Jerry has lighted on one of the most important of them (the others have to do with the problem of evil, which I will not address here):
In the end, it all convinces Craig that “there is hope, and that God has provided it for us.”
How. . . theological of him to glean such a message from this tragedy! Does the Holocaust also bring him such reassurance?
That’s the really important question, when we remember what the mythical slaughter of the innocents was all about; for in the story King Herod is desperately trying to find and kill the boy who was born to be King of the Jews. This claim is, in its context, significantly anti-Semitic, for Jesus, as the real King of the Jews, is supposedly rejected by his own people. Recall, if you will, Pilate’s presentation of Jesus to the crowd who then cry out for his death:
“Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews. But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!” [John 19.15]
So, by speaking of the myth of the slaughter of the innocents, Craig does not even recognise that he has touched on one of the fault lines of history created by Christianity, when it was decided that Jesus was the true king of the Jews, and that the Jews had rejected him. He was the Jewish Messiah, and the Jews had cried out for his blood – a fault line nicely captured by a well-known hymn, “My song is love unknown,” which includes this verse:
Sometimes they strew His way,
And His sweet praises sing;
Resounding all the day
Hosannas to their King:
Then “Crucify!” is all their breath,
And for His death they thirst and cry.
Jews are two-faced – don’t you see? – first welcoming him with palm branches and then crying for him to be crucified. And since Craig misses the contextual meaning of the slaughter of the innocents myth, he shows his inability to feel into the sufferings of real people. It’s just text to him. That’s obvious, anyway, in his cold delivery, and the flashy use of the word ‘quantum’, but it’s even more obvious by his use of dead children to make his point. There are lots of other evils that he could have mentioned, but he simply had to choose this one, since it was so obviously “congruous” with Christmas. And I think making use of the tragedy in this way is thoughtless and itself cruel, though I fully expected someone to make the connexion. It should be hard for a Christian to miss it.
Where Craig goes so very wrong is that there are far worse horrors than the murder of the children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. That is bad enough in all conscience, but the systematic slaughter of millions of Jews by the Nazis should immediately have occurred to him the moment he began to read the story (which I left out in the above clip) of King Herod and the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem. The story itself is about something that almost certainly never happened; and its never happening should have reminded Craig of something, and it didn’t. It’s a failure that runs through Christianity from early times until today.
It should have reminded Craig of the use that Christians have made of the idea that the Jews had rejected their king, their messiah, that they had indeed been presented with him and had cried out for his blood. That blood guilt, which is still often held to the Jews’ account, is something that Craig should have been led to immediately he thought of the slaughter of the innocents, and he was not. And the fact that he didn’t even think of it shows that the hope that he thinks is offered by Christmas is an empty one. Craig’s failure is a Christian one, deeply embedded in the tradition, and it is a standing judgement, not only of Craig, but of Christianity itself. It order to rid itself of this anti-Semitism, Christianity must repent of its own scriptures, and of that someone as facile as Craig is obviously incapable. Whether Christianity can do this is unlikely, and that means that the history of Christian anti-Semitism will never end.