Day 21: A Voice is Heard Weeping

Then what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
A voice was heard in Ramah,
Wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
She refused to be consoled, for they are no more.

-Matthew 2:17-18

On December 13, John Naju Kibe died after falling from one of the concourses at Lusail Stadium shortly after the Argentina vs. Netherlands quarterfinal game. He was 24 years old and working as a security guard; he was originally from Kenya, and had lived in Qatar for about a year. 

Kibe’s death is the second recorded death of a World Cup staffperson. It comes after years of scrutiny on Qatar’s labor practices. Hundreds of workers died in the runup to this World Cup, as a direct result of FIFA’s orders to host a memorable and luxurious event. Around 20 workers died in the runup to the 2018 Russia World Cup, almost all preventable construction site deaths. 

The official response to Kibe’s death has been dismissive and lukewarm at best. The Guardian quoted an official saying, “We’re in the middle of a World Cup. And we have a successful World Cup. And this is something you want to talk about right now?” As if the existence of joy negates the cost of that joy. Over and over, FIFA and the hosts in Qatar have treated human life as a disposable good in the pursuit of spectacle and power. The same way King Herod did.

When King Herod massacres a city’s worth of infant boys, Matthew writes:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
Wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
She refused to be consoled, for they are no more.

So much of this heart-breaking verse hinges on a single word: heard.

When King Herod sent the order, perhaps he was counting on his power to deafen the pain. It was not the massacre that bothered him, but the fact that the voice was heard. That people knew and witnessed the death. 

The massacre has happened, but has it been heard? We have a choice to hear the voice in Ramah or to ignore it. When you watch the third place game today, and the final tomorrow, listen for the voice from Ramah, the mother weeping for her children. Amplify that voice. Let us hear, around the globe, the mother weeping for her children, as loud as a full stadium, undeniable.

An architect's rendering of Lusail Stadium. The glossy, oval-shaped stadium sits in the center behind a long, triangular, tree-lined boulevard and a large parking lot and outbuildings.
Architectural rendering of Lusail Stadium, which will soon be renamed Lusail Memorial for Exploited Workers.

Day 12: The Prophet Came Preaching

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:

The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
    make his paths straight.’

-Matthew 3:1-3

The man who wore camel hair clothes and who ate locusts and honey was certainly disruptive in ancient Judea. Eventually, he ends up dead for criticizing King Herod’s incestuous marriage. But for now, he is growing up, leaving his mother Elizabeth and father Zechariah behind, and spreading rebellious ideas to the impoverished rural populace. But the kingdom tolerates a certain amount of dissent. Any expansive empire knows dissent is easier minimized than eliminated. 

In the Portugal vs. Uruguay group stage game on Nov. 28, North American broadcasts included a blur of blue-shirt racing across the pitch and the ref balling up a gay pride flag that the protester left on the field. Later, images appeared of the protester’s shirt, which read “Save Ukraine” on the front and “Respect for Iranian Women” on the back.  It was a strange but not unheard of disruption. 

The protestor, Mario Ferri, is an Italian minor league footballer who has made numerous pitch invasions since 2009. Initially, his protests were critiques of the Italian national coach, but evolved over time to human rights messages. Perhaps strangest of all is how the game has evolved to make room for him. He broke onto the field in 2010 and 2014. After he was tackled and taken into custody in Qatar, he reported that FIFA President King Herod arrived within 30 minutes to ensure his release, reminiscent of how Herod had previously shielded John the Baptist because he was “afraid of the people.” Afterwards, Ferri gave positive reviews of the Qatari police, noting that they offered him coffee and a croissant. John the Baptist left no record of croissants among the Roman guards.

The metaphor of Ferri-as-John-the-Baptist doesn’t reach very far (and Infantino-as-Herod extends only slightly farther). I don’t believe Ferri is preparing the way for Christ or is a prophet in the traditional sense. But his behavior echoes the prophetic, and reminds us that the empire will tolerate creative disruption. There are multiple forms of protest, beyond the Boycott FIFA movement which continues. It is an interesting thought experiment to imagine what would happen if more of us protested as Ferri did. 
Preparing the way for Christ can take many forms. We can take cues from both John the Baptist and Ferri, carving out space for counternarratives in the empire. It is strange, sometimes dangerous, but Ferri’s habit of eating locusts and honey on the field begs for reflection. What are you doing to carve out space for counternarratives within the empire?

As 1 Corinthians 12 says, there are a variety of protests but the same spirit. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Day 7: The Victimized Tyrant

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the east came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star in the east and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.

-Matthew 2:1-3

The sixth time the camera cut to FIFA President Gianni Infantino–on his phone, always on his phone–I thought: There is King Herod

King Herod is powerful, cunning, curious, insecure, throws great parties (sometimes with the decapitated heads of his enemies), and is perpetually a victim. Sure, he oversaw the deaths of a few hundred baby boys in Jerusalem (or a few hundred? thousand? migrant workers in Doha), but this was merely the necessary cost of progress.

King Herod is not, in fact, a very powerful king; he is the Jewish puppet king installed by and at the mercy of the Roman Empire. He is the representative of Julius Caesar. His job is to make the Roman Empire look both attractive and undefeatable. King Herod is simultaneously asserting power and abdicating it, and he plays this role very well, better than Infantino and his teen diary-esque monologue.

King Herod is frightened at the news of the child king. If there is a child in the world who is King of the Jews, then it means the delicate system Herod upholds is moot. If the Judean people do not need the Roman Empire, Herod’s wealth and dynasty collapse. 

Imagine that a player arose from the margins of World Cup teams–Messi, Mane, Suarez, Marta, take your pick–and rose to prominence as the greatest player in the world to never play in a FIFA tournament. Imagine this talented player moved as a teen through a prestigious academy training, built a rabid fan following, then left abruptly to travel the world playing pick up soccer, teaching ball skills to impoverished teens and providing them with the food and healthcare to make their neighborhood tournaments as compelling as professional tournaments. Imagine all of it was free. Infantino would absolutely be releasing the snipers to protect his monopoly. 

Throughout the Christmas story, watch how Herod chameleons from omnipotent tyrant to helpless middle manager. Watch how his attitude becomes a template for aspiring conflict-avoidant bureaucrats. 

And another thing: when Infantino hunched over his phone, he was never “checking the scores of the other game,” as the announcers apologetically explained. He was checking on the comfort of those to whom he has pledged allegiance.

If you think Gianni Infantino is persecuted now, wait until his daughter asks for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)