Perhaps everything terrible is, in its deepest being, something that needs our love.
I have the above quote from the poet Ranier Maria Rilke taped to my office wall just off to the right of my desk. I look at it often, particularly when “everything terrible” makes its inevitable appearance. Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino. And now, Orlando. Another scarcely comprehensible act of murderous hatred in response to difference. Another convenient scapegoat located. On and on, everything terrible goes.
I look at the Rilke quote when these stories hit the news and I usually sigh. I sigh because it seems so incomprehensible that a human being could do such a thing. And because words—even good ones—are such small things to look at in the context of real human lives ripped apart, real stories and real families whose course will be forcibly altered from this point forward.
I sigh because we are such conflicted creatures, on so many levels, and we struggle to calibrate our outrage. Why, when the bare numbers involved in these Western locations are not so different from a “normal” instance of murderous violence in far away places like Baghdad or Homs or Kabul, do these stories seem uniquely worthy of the predictable deluge of “pray for’s” and quotes and memes. And blog posts. I sigh because our responses seem so uneven and inadequate.
I sigh because even as I look at these words from Rilke on my wall, they seem weak and useless. They seem like the sort of words that look good at the top of a blog post but that don’t really accomplish much in the real world of terrible things. What good is love in the face of assault rifles and suicide bombs and bloodbaths? What good is love in response to utter disdain for human life and a naked refusal to live peaceably with difference?
I sigh because I regularly wonder if all of our lofty ideas about love don’t just create the space for everything terrible to keep on going about its business with reckless impunity. Do not squishy sentiments like “love wins” represent the very pinnacle of naiveté? Or, worse still, the very heights of hubris offered, as they so often are, by those who have never suffered in any way, those for whom they remain only ever words? Love wins? Well, sometimes. Maybe. Sort of.
If we are to go on speaking about love “winning” or being the proper response to “everything terrible,” we must surely acknowledge that it depends on what we mean when we use that word “love.” Everything terrible certainly has no need for mushy sentimentality or flowery illusions about the things that make for peace. It has little need for the papering over of genuine difference or the easy expressions of outrage that cost us little.
But a love that stubbornly seeks the good of the neighbour, even when that neighbour is an enemy? A love that weeps with those who weep? A self-emptying love that lays down its rights (and its perceived rightness)? A love that expectantly opens itself to the stranger rather than fearfully declaring that the other must become like me in order for me to accept them? A love that says, I would sooner lose my life than take another’s? This kind of love, the world will always need. Surely, it must be so.
In the end, the only reason I can imagine that Rilke’s words are true and good and hopeful is because of how Jesus responded to “everything terrible”—by doing all of the above and ending up on a cross for his trouble. By saying, “put away your sword, this isn’t how peaceable kingdom comes.” By proclaiming in word and deed that the last thing everything terrible has need of is a commensurately terrible response. By being the scapegoat upon which to pour all of our fear and malice and wickedness and confusion and sin and pleading with us to stop hunting around for our own. By loving us to the end. To his end.
This is the kind of love that everything terrible needs. This is the kind of love that the world needs to see in and from the church. And this is kind of love that I am convinced will ultimately be validated, if not in this world then in the next.