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In wrath and fear, by jealousies surrounded

November 15, 2015


There is no new thing under the sun.1

For those of us Christians who have been startled and disturbed by the shootings in Paris and bombings in Beirut, which have risen above the background din of violence that we routinely ignore, there is a tendency to imagine that the horrors of the moment are particularly barbarous. But we know very well that they are not.

Perhaps it is appropriate, at this time in the church year when we set our faces toward the New Jerusalem and the advent of Jesus Christ at the end of all time, to take stock of where we are in the world. The answer to the perennial question of How did this happen? is found in the mirror. This can be very discomfiting to those of us who wish to see mankind as basically good and wonderful and making progress. How hard to mourn not only for those offenders out there, but this sinner in here. How much easier to externalize and dehumanize the offender. The shooters and bombers, we believe, are mere products of their environments! They were formed in the cruel cauldron of poverty, marginalization, and ignorance. The fault lies not with the individuals, but with the society, the system that hath made them. If only they knew what we know, they would not have done what they did. But our logic must betray us: if those who do violence are products of their broken environments, would not we, if formed in those same environments, do the same? Would not we be wielding guns in the streets of Paris, would not we be tying bombs to ourselves in the center of Beirut? “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”2

In the face of tragedy, as Fleming Rutledge reminds us, the pastoral response must be to steer toward the pain. It is not sufficient only to mourn, to grieve, to join hands in solidarity; we also must face our hurt and the source from which it springs. As Martha said of her dead brother, “he stinketh.” We stinketh. We in this world are as dead as Lazarus, in need of the saving touch, the saving Word that is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, who hung on the cross as both victim and victimizer, in whose death and resurrection death itself has been defeated, the death which encroaches on every side, the death whose scent lingers in the Parisian streets where sand has been thrown to soak up the blood.

Too often in times such as these, the church is caught flat-footed. Those who look to us Christians for solace, for hope, for something – anything – that will make sense of tragedy and help them find a way forward, these seekers are given no more than the usual flaccid platitudes. Creating an “oasis of radical welcome, joyful inclusion, unlimited respect, and a shared passion for reconciliation, peace and justice” in the face of monstrosity (as one college chaplaincy writes) is just more of the same theologically thin gruel that is served by our dying church week in and week out. Who cares?

Our socially just proclamations are not up to this challenge. As Martin Luther wrote,

For still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great,
And, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.3

On earth is not his equal.

But in the face of our ancient foe, in the face of our utter powerlessness before him, all is not lost. Jesus Christ has gone before us to win the final battle in which we are all warriors, and our challenge as his disciples in the Apostolic heritage is to preach Christ, and him crucified, to preach a gospel that is mighty enough to stand up to the very power of death itself. It is a gospel that is too stunning to be true. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is, frankly, unbelievable. And it is the only thing in which we have any hope at all.

For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.4

For this reason, our hymns and prayers today cannot be the usual sentimental pablum. Our foe is not cosmetic, he is not polite, he is not moved by our hopeful wishing after a better world. We must follow in the footsteps of Christ, who went into the heart of the ugliness, into death itself, to win for us the victory. So we steer toward the pain, as Christ himself has done and is doing, praying to our Father in heaven, as our Saviour Jesus Christ hath taught us, that “thy will be done.”

If we seek for a hymn to sing in these times, it may be found in the poetry of Laurence Housman, who in 1919, in the shadow of the World War, bequeathed to us a hymn for his day – and for ours.

1. Father eternal, Ruler of creation,
Spirit of life, which moved ere form was made;
Through the thick darkness cov’ring ev’ry nation,
Light to man’s blindness, O be Thou our aid:
Thy kingdom come, O Lord, thy will be done.

2. Races and peoples, lo, we stand divided,
And sharing not our griefs, no joy can share;
By wars and tumults love is mocked, derided,
His conquering cross no kingdom wills to bear:
Thy kingdom come, O Lord, thy will be done.

3. Envious of heart, blind eyed, with tongues confounded,
Nation by nation still goes unforgiv’n;
In wrath and fear, by jealousies surrounded,
Building proud towers which shall not reach to heav’n:
Thy kingdom come, O Lord, thy will be done.

4. Lust of possession worketh desolations;
There is no meekness in the sons of earth;
Led by no star, the rulers of the nations
Still fail to bring us to the blissful birth.
Thy kingdom come, O Lord, thy will be done.

5. How shall we love thee, holy hidden Being,
If we love not the world which thou hast made?
O give us brother-love for better seeing
Thy World made flesh, and in a manger laid:
Thy kingdom come, O Lord, thy will be done.

1. Eccles. 1:9
2. Rom. 3:23
3. “A mighty fortress is our God,” Martin Luther, 1529, tr. Frederick Henry Hedge, 1852, Hymnal 1940.
4. 1 Cor. 1:18
5. “Father eternal, Ruler of creation,” Laurence Housman, 1919, Hymnal 1940.

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