The Holy Innocents, Wounded Knee, and Fear

Yesterday was the Festival of the Holy Innocents, the day the Church commemorates the murder of all the boys two years old and younger in and around Bethlehem, at Herod’s order, once he realized that the magi had deceived him and Jesus–infant threat to his power–had escaped. The children are memorialized as the first Christian martyrs–victims of Herod’s fear [Matt. 2:3]

The death of innocents, because someone in power was fearful of something or someone new, different, “other.” Sound familiar?

Today is the anniversary of the massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, which took place in 1890. For those of you who don’t remember the whole story, this is how Garrison Keillor tells it on the podcast “The Writer’s Almanac”–find it here:

Twenty-three years earlier the local tribes had signed a treaty with the United States government that guaranteed them the rights to the land around the Black Hills, which was sacred land. The treaty said that not only could no one move there, but they couldn’t even travel through without the consent of the Indians.

But in the 1870s gold was discovered in the Black Hills and the treaty was broken. People from the Sioux tribe were forced onto a reservation with a promise of more food and supplies, which never came. Then in 1889 a native prophet named Wovoka, from the Paiute tribe in Nevada, had a vision of a ceremony that would renew the earth, return the buffalo, and cause the white men to leave and return the land that belonged to the Indians. This ceremony was called the Ghost Dance. People traveled across the plains to hear Wovoka speak, including emissaries from the Sioux tribe, and they brought back his teachings. The Ghost Dance, performed in special brightly colored shirts, spread through the villages on the Sioux reservation and it scared the white Indian agents. They considered the ceremony a battle cry, dangerous and antagonistic. So one of them wired Washington to say that he was afraid and wanted to arrest the leaders and he was given permission to arrest Chief Sitting Bull, who was killed in the attempt. The next on the wanted list was Sitting Bull’s half-brother, Chief Big Foot, known to his own people as Spotted Elk. Some members of Sitting Bull’s tribe made their way to Big Foot and when he found out what had happened he decided to lead them along with the rest of his people to Pine Ridge Reservation for protection. But it was winter, 40 degrees below zero, and he contracted pneumonia on the way.

Big Foot was sick, he was flying a white flag, and he was a peaceful man. He was one of the leaders who had actually renounced the Ghost Dance. But the Army didn’t make distinctions. They intercepted Big Foot’s band and ordered them into the camp on the banks of the Wounded Knee Creek. Big Foot went peacefully.

The next morning federal soldiers began confiscating their weapons and a scuffle broke out between a soldier and an Indian. The federal soldiers opened fire, killing almost 300 men, women, and children, including Big Foot.

The death of innocents, because someone in power was fearful of something or someone new, different, “other.” Sound familiar?

As you might have guessed, the thing that struck me in Keillor‘s recounting of this terrible event was his highlighting the fear of the white soldiers as they were watching the Ghost Dance. It was that fear that prompted them to try and capture Chief Sitting Bull in the first place, fear that caused his death, and fear that ran through every subsequent action and decision, which ultimately led to the massacre itself. 

There were other things at play too, of course: greed for the gold that has been discovered in the Black Hills, distrust and hatred, too; but the role that fear played–fear of the other, fear of the unknown, fear of the new and unusual–should not be overlooked or downplayed.

All that was in my mind, then, when I thought back to the words we heard from the angel just a few days ago–“Do not be afraid”–which heralded Jesus’ birth, a tangible sign of good news and great joy.

These words remind me that whatever we might posit as the opposite of fear–courage, openness, trust– these are the things that Jesus incarnated and lived out so fully in his own life and ministry. These are the things born in us as Christians in our baptism; and these are the things that we, too, are called to embody in the world.

The more I reflect on the incarnation, the more I am moved by the radicalness of God’s action, and the ongoing relevance of this one night in Bethlehem so long ago: for you and for me, for the people God is calling us to be, and for the whole human family God loves so dearly–our friends and our enemies; the neighbor and the stranger.

What would it be like, in 2022, for Christians to accept the revolutionary and world-changing invitation of Jesus to incarnate courage in a world of anxiety and misapprehension; trust in a world of suspicion and doubt; and openness to the other in a world of high walls and closed borders? What would the church look like? What might be possible in your home, in your community?

Don’t be afraid; we have been given another way.

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