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Sunday 5 January 2020


This painting is called The Massacre Of The Innocents, by Léon Cogniet.

It was painted in 1824, and it depicts Chapter 2, Verse 16-18 of the Gospel of Matthew. King Herod - yes, that King Herod - realises that he hasn't been told where the new king has been born, and thus, decides to take the broad-strokes approach; he has every single child below the age of two in the vicinity of Bethlehem killed.

(Jesus, at this point, has been whisked off to Egypt at the urging of an angel.)

It bears mention that there is historically little evidence that this actually happened, and that none of the other Gospels even mention it - some suspect that Matthew was basically just borrowing from Exodus and the Pharaoh's ordered execution of Hebrew children.

That isn't to say that Herod wasn't an absolute asshole when it came down to murder and carnage - after all if historical record is anything to go off he apparently killed three of his own sons and one of his wives.

None of that is really the point, though.

You can't see any soldiers, in the painting. You can't see the people actually prosecuting the massacre. All you can see is - in the left third - people running for their lives, and a mother holding her child, eyes wild with fear and anger and determination.

Take a closer look.

Now you can say what you want about the Mona Lisa but when I look at it, I feel nothing. Nothing at all. I have never seen a face so carefully and measurably bland, so determined to be feeling or expressing nothing whatsoever, aside from maybe slight smugness.

This woman - this nameless woman with her child - makes me feel something.

Do any of them - the woman, her child, the fleeing people - know why they are being put to sword? Do any of them know why the soldiers have come to their town, know why they are having to run for their lives? If they do know, does it change anything?

Some people believe in fate, or destiny. Some people believe that everything happens for a reason.

I don't believe in any of those things; I believe in causality, wherein one thing leads to another.

This woman, clutching her child and looking for a way to escape the doom coming for them, is the latest in a long sequence of events, most of which could have easily been prevented or avoided or just not undertaken at all.

Of course the story from Matthew is fiction, and involves supernatural powers. None of it needed to happen whatsoever. The Magi - rather than listening to an angel and just not going back to Herod - could have gone back to him and lied, told him the child died in childbirth. The angel could have gone to Herod and told him to please not do a massacre today. God could have just smashed Herod into a million pieces.

In the real world, things are a bit different, but the concept remains the same.

I am very fortunate to have never had to experience this - to have never been in a position where I had to flee for my life. My family, though? My family on my father's side literally had to survive a war zone. There are more Lebanese folks in Brazil then there are in the Lebanon, and this exodus, this diaspora, featured hundreds of thousands of moments just like this painting - because of the wars brought into their lands by other people, decisions made by other polities, attitudes forged by decades if not centuries of ill will and hatred.

Nobody becomes a refugee because they want to.

The word "refugee" literally means "someone seeking refuge". Someone fleeing from somewhere unsafe. We humans have made a great many places unsafe, and almost all of that has happened because someone, somewhere, made a policy decision.

Fires, droughts, natural disasters. Scientists warned decision-makers, decision-makers listened to other people instead. Decisions got made. Awful things happened. People ran for their lives, and are still running for their lives. Countries and land masses burning or melting.

Despite World War One being "the war to end all wars" we have pretty much been at war continuously since then. Someone makes the decision to shoot where previously there was no shooting. Someone makes the decision to drop the bombs. The bombs fall. People run for their lives, and are still running for their lives. They flee to places that aren't burning or melting or being bombed, and those places...

...well, a lot of those places made money making sure their home got burned or melted or bombed - and is relying on a percentage of their citizens to hate outsiders enough to overwhelm their sympathy or pity for those fleeing destruction. No room here. No space here. No resources here. Plenty of resources for bombs and drills, none for people.

These things don't happen just because. They don't fall out of heaven, proclaimed by angels. They aren't fated, they aren't destined.

They happen because people make decisions.

We owe it to the entire world, let alone ourselves, to do what we can to stop those decisions leading to the massacre of innocents.

I don't have the answers as to how we do that. I'm just a blogger. What I do know is that it starts with a recognition as to where this starts; what follows is the will to make it change.

If you need to - look at her face again.

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