'Massacre of the innocents' is not only an old story

There's one Christmas story you probably won't see on any cards this year.  It won't be part of the live Christmas Eve nativity.  The “massacre of the innocents” at the hand of King Herod isn't a story we like to dwell on when we sing of the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay. But today, as Syria's ongoing civil war devastates the lives of millions and threatens Christian minorities with persecution, this story nestled at the end of Matthew’s Christmas narrative may be the one we need to hear.

In the same region where Jesus was born, more than 100,000 people have been killed in a war that is about to enter its third year. Over 9 million of God’s children have been forced to flee their homes, flooding refugee camps—or even worse, huddling in neighbors’ basements and half-finished urban shelters--where food is becoming scarcer and disease more prevalent. And Syrian Christians, who are a religious minority in the region, face increasing persecution from all sides the longer the violence continues.

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In the face of these realities, proclaiming the quiet and holy night of Christmas might seem naive and overly-sentimental, the beginning of a story that has little application in the “real” and violent world around us. But as Matthew reminds us, Jesus was born into a land ruled by a genocidal tyrant willing to kill countless children in hopes of preserving his political power. The Gospel holds these two narratives in tension with one another – hope born amidst anguish, light shining in the darkest night.

Jesus tells us we are to be wise as serpents, and innocent as doves. There are no simple solutions to the crisis in Syria and it would be naive to think otherwise. But this fact does not give us permission to turn our back on the victims of this civil war or ignore the consequences of escalating violence in the region.

Our leaders need extraordinary wisdom and courage to secure a negotiated peace that will bring an end to the violence, stabilize the region, and prevent persecution of minority ethnic and religious groups. The international community has been calling for an end to the Syrian civil war, but it will take strong, focused leadership and sustained pressure to bring all sides to the table. The United States has the power and moral authority to leverage international actors and push for peace.  It is vital that our leaders take this path, and ensure significant progress is made at the upcoming peace talks.

Furthermore, we cannot ignore the mounting humanitarian crisis as we seek a diplomatic solution.  Relief and aid workers are denied access to significant areas of Syria, cutting families off from necessities including food and medication. Mothers and children are fleeing their homes, leaving husbands and family behind only to end up huddling with others in make-shift tents on the side of the road where cold and disease prey on the weak, and violence remains a constant threat.  The millions of refugees who can get to the border are spilling over into neighboring countries at rates that cannot be accommodated by their governments, creating the potential for destabilization that extends far beyond Syria's borders. And the longer the humanitarian crisis lasts, the easier it will be for terrorist groups to put down roots and build a recruiting base.

For these reasons, the National Association of Evangelicals and World Evangelical Alliance participated in a Day of Prayer for Syria on December 18. Over 30,000 American Christians in thousands of churches across the country hosted prayer meetings and devotions to raise awareness of the Syrian crisis and pray that God will soften the hearts and inspire our leaders to find a diplomatic solution.

Prayer may not seem powerful enough to influence world events, but neither did a child born in a manger.  As Christians, we are calling on our leaders to not give in to the unimaginative cynicism that holds nothing can be done and instead pursue the path of the Prince of Peace.  The world is waiting.

Anderson is president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Tunnicliffe is secretary general of the World Evangelical Alliance.