“Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised.” (Matthew 28:5-6a)
I don’t know what things have been weighing on your mind over the last week, and I don’t mean to belittle anybody whose mind has been primarily on the mortgage. Even so, I can’t imagine that any of us missed what happened on Good Friday (our time), and I’m not talking about our wonderful worship service at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, but about the ‘Mother of all Bombs’ that was dropped on Afghanistan.
Just in case you did miss it, the bomb (dropped by the US air force) weighed about 10,000 kilograms and had an explosive force the equivalent of 11 tons of TNT, giving it a kill radius of around a mile (or 1.6 km). This means that everything within 1.6 kilometres in every direction from the point of impact should have been killed – not just human beings of course, but animals and (I imagine) plant life as well!
The goal though was to kill ISIS-affiliated militants who were hiding underground, and I don’t know whether the kill radius descended to a mile underground but there was a fair degree of satisfaction expressed by the US military as they estimated that as many as 36 targeted people had indeed been killed by the blast (presumably taken unawares as they slept in their underground beds)!
I am no fan of Islamic State, of course, and will indeed be happy to see their entire organisation wound up, and yet I found the news of the deployment of this weapon of mass destruction deeply disturbing. I’m not sure if it’s just the immense killing power of this weapon that so bothers me (apparently the most deadly non-nuclear weapon ever to have been deployed) or whether it was Donald Trump saying that he was “proud” of the bomb, or whether perhaps it was just that it happened on Good Friday, our time (though I appreciate that it happened on Thursday evening, US time, and that may have been deliberate).
The bottom line for me is that Good Friday for me is the day on which we remember the way that God confronts evil in our world, and it’s not by dropping bombs on it!
Now you’ll have to forgive me if this sounds like a rather dour introduction to a sermon that you might expect would be focused on resurrection and new life. Even so, the joys of Easter Day only make sense, biblically speaking, in the context of the horrors of Good Friday, and so it seems highly appropriate to me that we celebrate new life and hope today in the shadow (so to speak) of the mother of all bombs!
Mind you, I must add that one of the most attractive things about the ‘mother of all bombs’ is that it is so economical from a military perspective! At the cost of only $170,000 USD per mother, you can drop nearly five of these for the cost of every one Tomahawk missile (approx. $832,000 USD each), 59 of which were fired at the Syrian airport last week, and when you consider ‘the mother’ might have killed as many as thirty-six unwanted people (in addition to God-knows-how-many plants and animals) as opposed to the Tomahawks, that only killed around a dozen people (and mainly civilians), that’s almost a 1000-to-1 improvement in kill-rate per dollar! BAM!
Of course there are other economic factors that need to be taken into account in any serious analysis of issues like this, including how many more disenchanted young men are likely to sign up to fight ‘The Empire’ on account of this bombing, and hence how much ISIS is saving itself in recruitments costs, and of course, we might also need to factor in some economic value for the lives of those who have been killed, along with the costs associated with not providing dignity, food and shelter to the world’s hungry with the money that was spent on bombs – all of which reminds us that what we are dealing with here is not primarily an economic issue at all, any more than it’s primarily an issue of military science. We are dealing here with human issues, and all attempts to reduce such human issues to purely economic or military or political problems is itself a part of the problem, and a clear manifestation of what the Bible consistently refers to as ‘evil’.
Evil takes a lot of different forms in our world, and I appreciate that it can be difficult to define. Even so, dealing with human beings in purely economic or military or mathematical terms is a clear form of evil, just as the mother of all bombs itself seems to me to be a clear manifestation of human evil.
I’ve just finished reading a book about evil, called “Evil and the Justice of God”, where Tom Wright discusses what he refers to as the ‘new problem of evil’.
Evil is not itself a new problem, of course, but in the good old days, the ‘problem of evil’ was something that used to dealt with through philosophical debate. Then we went through a period when evil was done away with completely (in the university curriculum at least) as all human failing could be explained away as being the result of economic hardship, bad role-modelling, or even poor toilet-training! More recently, Wright says, evil has been rediscovered as a four-letter word. The only difference is that now we try to solve the problem of evil politically rather than philosophically!
Most of us remember George Bush Jr. talking about the ‘axis of evil’ in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on New York’s Twin Towers. Tony Blair went further by suggesting that we could ‘rid the world of evil’ through the waging of righteous warfare! Fifteen years on, I think we can look back and say with some degree of confidence that this response to evil has not worked very well. Despite (what appear to be) the best efforts of our political leaders to rid the world of evil, the world today is, quite frankly, a much scarier place than it was back then, and indeed, you don’t have to travel to Iraq, to Libya, to Afghanistan or to Syria to see that evil today is doing just fine!
I don’t want to suggest either that evil is something restricted to failed states and to battlefields. On the contrary, I’m reminded of the wisdom of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who, when he returned to mother Russia in 1994, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and after many years in exile, went across the country paying his respects to everybody he met, including many who had been officials in the Soviet system that had once imprisoned and persecuted him. Many were critical of the way the great novelist fraternized with these bad people, but Solzhenitsyn had a deeper understanding of human nature.
To quote from his famous ‘Gulag Archipelago’: “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” (The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956)
Forgive me if that sounds like a predictably religious thing to say – that we must beware the evil in our own hearts and not of just political evils – but the reality of ‘original sin’, as it’s referred to in traditional Christian dogma, is, I believe, as relevant to politics and society as the realities of social and political evil are to religion.
As one of my favourite political commentators, Chris Hedges, said (in ‘I don’t believe in Atheists’), “We have nothing to fear from those who do, or do not, believe in God. We have much to fear from those who don’t believe in sin.” As Hedges sees it, it is those who don’t believe in sin (be they religious or otherwise) who end up supporting genocidal ideologies, believing that all that is required for a just and peaceful society to triumph is for the maladjusted or undeveloped or otherwise deficient members of the community be exterminated.
As I say, I apologise if this is not the all-things-bright-and-beautiful theme that you were expecting on Easter Day – the mother of all Christian celebrations – but I do believe that to fully appreciate the wonder of the Easter miracle and all that it meant to the early church and all that it can mean to us, we need to see it against the backdrop of Good Friday – against the backdrop of the suffering and death of Jesus, who dies as the representative of a suffering and oppressed people.
What the first disciples discovered when they came to the empty tomb was not just that a great miracle had taken place (though indeed a great miracle had taken place) and not just that their beloved teacher who had been cruelly taken from them had been returned to them (though indeed He had been). What they saw in the cross and resurrection of Jesus was the triumph of God over evil, and over all forms of evil (personal, social, political and religious)! The early church believed that in Christ God had defeated evil, once and for all, in all its many insidious manifestations, and that God had done this without dropping a single bomb!
God’s way of dealing with evil is very different from the way that we deal with evil. We seem to think that we can destroy evil through inflicting violence on it. God’s way of dealing with evil seems to run in exactly the opposite direction. God deals with evil by suffering it!
I appreciate that, intuitively, this probably doesn’t make a lot of sense to most of us, and maybe that’s why we persist with the other approach – with trying to stop evil by dropping bombs on it.
I appreciate too, of course, that Jesus’ suffering on the cross is unique, and is seen in the Scriptures as a one-off event that deals with sin metaphysically and historically in a way that we cannot do and are not expected to do. Even so, the New Testament is quite explicit in urging all of us who follow Jesus to imitate Him in the way He responded to violence – by suffering it, rather than by mindlessly hitting back!
“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his footsteps.
“He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.”
When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.” (1 Peter 2:21-23)
This exhortation is found in the first letter of the Apostle Peter – a man who was in no way naïve about the realities of human suffering, and who would himself suffer a violent death, following in the footsteps of his master quite literally in that regard!
John Howard Yoder, in his classic work, “The Politics of Jesus”, points out that this is, in fact, the only example in the New Testament where any of the Apostles actually point to the lifestyle of Jesus as a pattern for us to emulate!
Jesus had twelve disciples, yet it’s never suggested that any of us should take on twelve disciples. Jesus did not marry, and yet this is never referred to as a reason why we should not marry. In truth, the lifestyle and habits of Jesus are never held up to us as examples to emulate at all, except at this one point! We are to imitate Him in the way he responded to violence – by suffering it rather than by hitting back!
I don’t want to suggest that there are not more things that could be said here in favour of the occasional use of force in the face of unjust aggression, and I’m not suggesting that on the basis of Peter’s exhortation alone that we should all become committed pacifists. Even so, I think it is undeniable that there is a great and unbridgeable gulf between the spirituality of the New Testament and any inclination we might have to take pride in the dropping of the mother of all bombs.
Christ on the cross defeated evil. Yes, it’s hard to fathom just how that worked! Unfortunately perhaps, instead of leaving us with a clear explanation that would help us logically make sense of all that, what Jesus left us with was a meal. Even so, it is the insistent and persistent claim of the New Testament that evil was defeated in the cross of Christ some 2000 years ago, and that it’s now only a matter of time before the Kingdom of God comes in its fulness!
The resurrection of Jesus gives us a glimpse of that future glory – of a world without corruption and pain, where every tear will be wiped away!
In the meantime, we wait, and we try to follow Him in the way of the cross!
I’m told that it was not hard for first century people to understand that there was always a gap between when a general won his decisive battle and when you saw his standards finally appear in your own town. The mopping up operation could be quite drawn-out. Pockets of resistance to the new Lord’s rule could persist for some time! Even so, in this age of instant gratification I do find myself wondering how much longer this mopping up operation will take, as evil certainly gives the appearance of being alive and well in our world today!
Indeed, I read yesterday that Russia has a bomb that it claims is four times bigger than the mother of all bombs that was dropped on Afghanistan. It’s been labelled … (you guessed it) … ‘the father of all bombs’! Russian staff Deputy Chief General, Alexander Rukshin, said, in describing the bomb, “all that is alive merely evaporates.”
We choose to serve a different God! We choose to take on evil in a different way! We choose to put our hope and trust, not in the mother or father of all bombs, but in the God and Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ, who died and rose again to save us. Jesus, the prince of peace! Hallelujah!
Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on Easter Day 2017