Ordering a census is the easy part. Collecting accurate data is the challenge, especially from ethnic enclaves suspicious of (if not downright antagonistic toward) the government. In such communities there is much suspicion. How is the information going to be used? To snare illegals? More government intrusion into people’s private lives? Or (most probably) collect more taxes? Government officials insist it ensures accurate representation and appropriate allocation of resources. Still, a census makes people nervous. In the last US census, only 65% of Georgia residents were counted. For lots of reasons. Language barriers, undocumented, apathy, general distrust of government. It cost the state nearly $210 million in lost federal money. This census year, with the prevailing anti-immigrant sentiments, those with questionable status will be laying very low. Even though significant sums will be spent on promoting the benefits, the assurances of government officials that census information will not in any way be used against any resident will doubtless fall on deaf ears. There are just too many stories of how this basic tool of governance has been used against people.
Probably the best known census story took place in Palestine, not recently, yet recently retold. The region was troubled, again. The census directive had come down from Rome. At least that’s what Herod said. The census was empire wide, not just Palestine. And Herod was not about to endanger the favor he had skillfully curried with Caesar Augustus by questioning the imperial order. The information, he assured everyone, would not in any way be used against any resident. Perhaps his claims were true. But Herod was not to be trusted. At the slightest hint of sedition, even the suspicion of disloyalty, heads had rolled – even the heads of his own family. There was good reason for Palestine to be uneasy.
Herod would supply impeccable data to Rome. It was his sworn duty, he said. Thus, on the prescribed date, all families were under orders to return to their original tribal city, no matter how many generations they had lived elsewhere, and be recorded with their family genealogy. The whole country was on the move. And, as I said, very nervous.
It was in the midst of all this commotion when three foreign dignitaries arrived in the capital city Jerusalem. Kings talk with kings. Their business, they informed an inquisitive Herod, was to honor the newborn Jewish king. According to their research, this king was foretold by the prophets, the one who would be the ultimate liberator of Israel, a leading world figure. The heavens were guiding them, they said. After a cordial visit the three left the palace with Herod’s blessing and his assurances that he, too, was desirous of honoring the new king. It was a lie. Behind his placid smile a volcano of anger was churning. No sooner had the dignitaries cleared his court than he summoned his security staff. “What do you know about a new king, the ‘Promised One’?” he demanded. The scholars would have to be assembled immediately.
The tribe of Judah, line of Jesse, that would be David’s city. Bethlehem! Excellent! The timing of the census could not have been better. Every living descendent of Judah’s family tree would be funneling into Bethlehem to register. All Herod had to do is sit tight and wait for the visitors to send him word they had located the baby, as they surely would. No soldiers, no home invasions, no panic fleeing, just three unsuspecting visitors doing his investigative work to pinpoint the threat.
As anxious days crept by with no word from the foreigners, Herod’s fears grew. And when his security force returned with the intelligence that the three visitors had slipped out of the country without reporting back to him, he flew into a rage. It was the kind of insane rage that Jerusalem residents had witnessed before. No one was safe. Armed troops were hastily dispatched with orders to seal off the entire Bethlehem area. No male child under the age of two was to survive. The screams and wails of terrified mothers echoed across the Judean valleys as the blood of their innocents spilled on the ground. Not until the last registered child was accounted for and slain did a semblance of calm return to the palace. One more threat to the throne had been eliminated. As Bethlehem mourned, Jerusalem settled back into an uneasy peace.
Meanwhile, on the dusty road south from Bethlehem an undocumented couple cradling a newborn son moved hastily toward the Egyptian border to seek asylum as political refugees.
There are good reasons why people are leery about being recorded in a census.