You Have Heard it Said… But I Say to You
So, terror remains on everyone’s minds. Paris, of course. But also Beirut, Baghdad, Kenya, and the countless other less glamorous places in the world, places deemed unworthy of inspiring memes and hashtags or temporary profile pictures or any of the other ways that we express our compassion and outrage and brand ourselves appropriately during dark and fearful times.
This is the world we live in.
And every instance of terror leads to fear. Particularly in a media and social-media saturated culture like ours where images and videos and reactions and commentary can be (and are) transmitted instantly.
Fear is, of course, the point of terrorism. To make us ask questions like, When will they strike close to me or to those I love? Who is safe? Where is this world going?
And we know what will happen now, don’t we? We know that the war machine will ratchet up another few notches. French president Francois Allande is already promising “merciless” retaliation on “those barbarians. ISIS is already promising that this is “just the beginning”—that further attacks on “the capitals of obscenity and prostitution,” on the “crusaders” who drop bombs in their lands are coming. We know that there will be much spilled blood in days to come.
We know that the whispers about “those people” will turn into shouts. They’re dangerous. We can’t allow them into our country. We know that the Islamophobia that had perhaps remained dormant for a time will rear its ugly head again. I’ve seen this already in comments sections on Canadian news sites, blog posts and social media updates, in personal messages. Get ready, all you refugee lovers… This is coming to Canada.
We know that there will be some who see the welcoming of refugees to our nation, to our cities and towns, as a throwing open of the door for terrorism. Never mind that refugees are the people who are fleeing the people who committed these atrocities. For many people, what happened in Paris on Friday night is all the evidence necessary to close our borders and keep “those people” out. It’s not at all hard to imagine that things will now become even more difficult for those fleeing violence and war and extremism.
This is our world.
So what do we, as Christians, do (and I am speaking, specifically, to Christians here)?
To begin with, I think we come before God honestly, acknowledging that we are afraid, acknowledging that we are uncertain about the future, acknowledging that we are angry.
The biblical word for this is “lament.”
Lament gives space for and brings before God the full range of human emotion when we are faced with terrible things happening in our world. Read the Psalms and you will see it all—confusion, sadness, protest, weariness, and, yes, rage.
It makes me angry that there are people that I must share this earth with who think they can walk into public spaces and blow themselves up or open fire with automatic weapons, taking as many people as possible with them, because of some perverse cocktail of religion and politics and ideology.
It makes me angry that public places will come, increasingly, to be dominated by “security” personnel, that already oppressive airport security will probably get worse, that ordinary women and men and children around the world have to even consider the question before going out into public spaces, “I wonder if someone’s going to decide to randomly kill a bunch of people today?”
It makes me angry that innocent, vulnerable people will, as always, be forced to bear the brunt of the consequences of this atrocity—that desperate refugees are already being scapegoated for this.
So, yes, sometimes I want to see a bit of—scratch that, a generous dose of!—divine wrath. I’d probably even settle for a bit of screwed up, self-interested human wrath, in my most honest moments.
And it’s important to acknowledge this.
But to be a Christian requires us to move beyond this anger (and the fear that lurks behind it) and into the light of Jesus Christ.
To be a Christian means that while we may visit the Psalms regularly to give expression to our fear and anger, our home is in the gospels with Jesus.
It means that we take as our default, the rhythm and cadence of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5…
You have heard it said… But I say to you….
Five times we hear this refrain in Matthew 5 alone, culminating with:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.
To follow in the way of Jesus means, I think, to constantly be operating out of this basic paradigm.
You know how things tend to go, Jesus says. You know the way of the world. But I want you to go in a different way than the way things tend to go.
And so, it falls to us, the church, to walk in this different way, to point to a different possibility. As Christians, we have been entrusted with an utterly unique and uniquely terrifying task.
To love our enemies.
This is a job given only to us. There is overlap between Christianity and other faiths and worldviews in many areas. Other religious traditions and ideologies and philosophies talk about love of neighbour, about devotion to God, about justice, and peace, about simplicity, and about many other important things that ought to be honoured and celebrated.
But only Christianity has, at its very core, as its central figure and model for all who follow, One whose response to bad people doing bad things was love his enemies to the end, and to die in their place. To break the cycle of retributive violence. To refuse to respond in kind to his enemies.
To take all of the sin and violence and awful hatred into his own self, to absorb it, judge it, forgive it, and to hold out his wounded hand in embrace for all who would accept the gift of peace and hope and salvation that he offers to those who would lay down their arms, lay down their pride, lay down their very selves, and choose to follow him and his way.
Only Christianity says that this One is the truest representation of what God looks like.
There is nothing else so radical in all of religion, in all of human wisdom and philosophy. There is nothing like it in all the world.
So, how do we, as followers of Jesus, respond to Paris…
Or the bombings in Beirut or Baghdad…
Or passenger planes being blown out of the sky…
Or the seemingly endless school shootings that have taken place in the USA recently…
Or the political turmoil of a refugee crisis and all the ignorant hatred it has spawned and will continue to spawn…
Or any other instance of unspeakable evil committed by human beings who have always loved the darkness more than the light…
Is this latest instance of depraved violence the last straw? Has evil reached a unique tipping point? Is this batch of bad news the one after which we just throw up our hands and finally say, “You know what, I think it’s just time to respond to hate with hate. We’ve flirted with this peace thing for long enough. Now, it’s time for revenge!”
It’s not. It never is. And it never will be.
As Christians, we respond the way we always have. Or, at least the way that we have always been called to respond.
By being those who attempt, with great fear and trembling, to align ourselves with the way of our Teacher, our Friend, our Brother. To love even the most unlovely, to refuse the attitudes of hatred and anger that keep violence in circulation.
By being people who are determined that no matter how terrible the news of the day might be, to return to our basic paradigm, our default as Christians.
You have heard it said… But I say to you…
You have heard it said—in the news, by politicians, by media pundits, by neighbours, by social commentators…
Fear, despair, hatred.
But, in the name of Jesus Christ, I say to you…
Faith, hope, love.
The above is an edited version of a sermon preached yesterday at Lethbridge Mennonite Church. The feature image is Cornelia Schmitter’s “Lament” taken from the 2015-16 Christian Seasons Calendar.