The Magi, Herod and a national security crisis

A pair of US Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles fly over northern Iraq after conducting airstrikes in Syria.Reuters/US Air Force

Far too many American Christians would take the side of King Herod the Great in killing the children of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1-16) if they were present at the time. The trouble is that we don't use the same language to cloak the violence of Herod.

Instead, our political candidates can hide behind words like national security and terrorists as justification for aggressive military intervention overseas that often kill many civilians who are judged acceptable collateral damage.

Herod was a brutal, violent, murderous king. Killing children was perhaps the worst of his many atrocities, but his rationale wouldn't strike us as that different from the ways hawkish politicians justify our wars today. Herod faced a national security crisis with the birth of a new king. There's only one way a king like Herod would deal with a rival to his throne.

Perhaps we simply don't know enough about the context to grasp what Herod feared.

His kingdom was a fragile empire that he built after fighting for approximately three years. He then sustained his rule with a series of fortresses, 2,000 highly trained bodyguards, and massive taxes. He even married a Jewish princess from the previous line of Jewish kings in the hope of legitimizing his rule.

Far from enjoying popular support, he fought his way to the throne in Israel, and he was determined to keep fighting for it. He even allegedly murdered one of his wives, three of his brothers, and one of his mothers-in-law.

Herod knew he was viewed as an imposter by most of his Jewish subjects. They despised his taxes, lavish buildings, expensive gifts for the Romans and decadent parties. The Jewish people he ruled refused to believe his claims that he was one of them. His authority hinged on his violence, not his popular support.

Understandably, Herod was frequently on the look out for rival kings, especially among the Jewish people who had a long history of rebelling against their previous Greek overlords. In fact, Herod built a temple in Jerusalem with the hope of placating his subjects.

More than anything else, Herod knew that the fragile peace of his kingdom could be immediately upended by the rise of a Messianic king. The arrival of the Magi proclaiming the birth of a Jewish king triggered a full-on national security crisis.

Herod surely had images of bandits hiding along the side of the road and ambushing his soldiers. He thought of riots in his cities where Rome expected him to keep the people under control. He imagined himself hiding in his various fortresses that were dotted along the wilderness as last resorts should the worst happen.

A Messiah, no matter how young, was the worst national security threat a king like Herod could imagine.

In Herod's mind, the killing of 10-20 children for the sake of national security was a small risk he was willing to take. Such math doesn't even come close to the collateral damage inflicted on Iraq through America's 2003 invasion (and that continues with the lingering instability left in its wake).

Killing 10-20 children? America probably did at least that every day of the 2003 Iraq invasion. Who knows how many more innocent children, mothers, fathers, and grandparents perished because of America's reliance on militarism in place of diplomacy in order to guard our own security at any cost?

I won't argue that all wars are unwarranted. I'm not calling our soldiers into question when they act to defend their nation. There is a time and place for defense.

Moreover, there will always be civilian casualties in modern wars, but that also means the threat to their lives must be a prominent factor in prompting us to avoid war at all costs and only as the absolute last resort.

However, as Americans embrace the fervor of national security and fears of terrorist attacks, we run the risk of becoming like a Herod – fearful, paranoid and willing to stop at nothing to defend ourselves. While we are called to serve the Prince of Peace and to announce his Kingdom, we run the risk of choosing political leaders who are willing to rain down hell on any perceived enemy, regardless of the wider cost, who could disrupt our fragile peace.

As we look back to Herod's killing of children as an extreme act of violence, he would have used language that we would find very familiar today as we consider our own national security in an upcoming election. Herod reminds us that the pursuit of national security comes with moral questions that we dare not overlook.

If there is one redeeming quality to the story of Herod's national security strike in Bethlehem, let it be this: his willingness to kill the innocent in order to save himself prompts us to ask harder questions, to demand more of our political leaders, and to truly seek the path of peace in a world that doesn't need another Herod.

Ed Cyzewski (MDiv) is the author of A Christian Survival Guide: A Lifeline to Faith and Growth, Pray, Write, Grow, and Write without Crushing Your Soul. He writes at www.edcyzewski.com.