Robbing Evil of All Reasons to Rejoice
Shortly after the bombing of the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok on August 17, the Church of England released a decidedly compassionate prayer via social media. I happened to see it on Twitter. Some of you may also have seen it.
The prayer was concise and to the point. It read like this:
Compassionate God and Father of all, we are horrified at violence in so many parts of the world. It seems that none are safe, and some are terrified. Hold back the hands that kill and maim; turn around the hearts that hate. Grant instead your strong Spirit of Peace--peace that passes our understanding but changes lives, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I responded to this prayer through a tweet and still haven’t heard back from the Archbishop of Canterbury. I’m shocked!
I expressed appreciation for the genuine concern for others that prompted the writing and sharing of the prayer, and just for the record I don’t think the Archbishop, Justin Welby (whom I greatly respect), wrote the prayer himself--not that the author of the prayer has anything to do with how I feel about the prayer. Having expressed appreciation, though, I said in my tweet, “This is a tragic prayer.” And now I tell you, my spirituality community and fellow seekers: this is a tragic prayer. Let me explain why I say such a thing.
Right in the middle of the brief prayer, two imperatives are addressed to God. You grammarians, and for some reason Silverside Church has an abundance of them (but who's counting???!!!???), know that imperatives are the diametric opposites of interrogatives. Interrogatives ask; imperatives demand. That’s just the beginning of the problems I have with these demands, these directives, addressed to God. Whoever and whatever God is, God doesn’t take orders from the Church of England or from me or from anyone.
My more compelling concern, however, has to do with the assumptions made about God’s role and function in relationship with humanity implied in these demands:
“Hold back the hands that kill and maim.”
“Turn around the hearts that hate.”
The author of this prayer identifies the true killer in the Bangkok attack: God. It was God’s fault, and the pray-er evidently caught God redhanded and yet didn’t castigate God because as capricious as God apparently is God can fix this kind of thing in the future simply by forcing would-be perpetrators not to do what they wish to do, what they may even have set out to do.
Furthermore, the Bangkok tragedy wouldn’t have happened if God had been more caring and/or more alert. If God had only been willing to step in ever so minimally to freeze violent hands and warm up hearts of hatred, there would have been one less act of anti-religion terrorism for the world media sources to report.
In my response tweet to the Church of England after I’d seen the prayer in print I called this perspective tragic because is reveals a theological bias that incriminates “god.” Fortunately, the god whom it incriminates doesn’t exist, but, unfortunately, such perceptions of the one and only God there is abound.
God is not the author of terror and tragedy; God neither causes nor “allows” people to hurt others or themselves--with slogans, substances, or shotguns. Nor does God cause or allow people to be stricken with illness or victimized by natural disasters, freak accidents, or drunk drivers. If God willed OR PASSIVELY PERMITTED all the gun deaths from Wilmington to Washington State in these last several months, then we have a serious problem on our hands! That problem is NOT God; that problem is a host of misperceptions about God.
The prayer from the Church of England to which I have referred may come across on the surface plenty pious and maybe even sweet. But its theological bias is wrong though nonetheless destructive for several reasons not the least of which is the influential source under whose auspices it was released. It’s one thing for a random rector to send out something that, intentionally or not, harpoons the absolute reality of divine love for all people; it’s entirely something else for the office of the most influential figure in worldwide Anglicanism to appear to endorse the image of God as capable, but for some unGODly reason, unwilling to halt violence and the carnage to which it often contributes.
I am so excited about my seminar for advanced preaching students at Palmer Seminary this fall! I’ve told some of you about the course, titled “Preaching and Presidents” and focused on sermons heard by US Presidents while in the Oval Office, preached by someone each President, who identified closely with a specific congregation, regarded as his pastor. For example, President Truman and Reverend Edward Hughes Pruden at First Baptist Church; also at First Baptist Church many years later, President Carter and Reverend Charles Trentham. President Ford and Reverend John Harper at St. John’s Episcopal Church. President Clinton and Reverend Philip Wogoman at Foundry United Methodist Church. Etc. Etc. I’m SURE each of you is as excited about the history of preaching as I am! ;)
By the way, I will be teaching the core of this course at the churches involved from October 15 through October 17. If any of you is interested in attending any of the sessions, you are most graciously invited to do so. If you’d like to hear about what I’m researching and teaching but won’t make it to DC, I’d be happy to organize a discussion group and share some of what I have found such as the first sermon Lyndon Johnson heard as President in the ragged, rugged hours after President Kennedy’s assassination.
Speaking of presidential assassinations, President Lincoln’s DC pastor was Reverend Phineas Gurley at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church; the two men were very close, and when John Wilkes Booth, gun in hand, stole Lincoln’s life Dr. Gurley was called upon to deliver the eulogy in the East Room of the White House. That sermon is available; and I have studied it and asked my students to do the same. The sermon is amazingly eloquent; though its theology disturbs me greatly. Listen to a couple of pivotal passages from that sermon, the original manuscript of which is held by the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philly.
- It was a cruel, cruel hand, that dark hand of the assassin, which smote our honored, wise, and noble President, and filled the land with sorrow. But above and beyond that hand there is another which we must see and acknowledge. It is the chastening hand of a wise and a faithful Father. He gives us this bitter cup. And the cup that our Father hath given us, shall we not drink it?
...it is our Father in heaven, the God of our fathers, and our God, who permits us to be so suddenly and sorely smitten; and we know that His judgments are right, and that in faithfulness He has afflicted us. In the midst of our rejoicings we needed this stroke, this dealing, this discipline; and therefore He has sent it. Let us remember, our affliction has not come forth out of the dust, and our trouble has not sprung out of the ground.
So Lincoln’s pastor and friend said to those closest to the President embraced and shared the idea that God had killed off Lincoln to punish the sinful nation over whom he ruled--not him, but rather the nation that elected him to the highest office in the land.
If this horrendous way of understanding Abraham Lincoln’s assassination has any merit whatsoever then John Wilkes Booth should be praised for being the catalyst through whom the United States got what was coming to it from a god who who was not smart enough or powerful enough to pick the sinful culprits from the crowds in order to deal with them and only them; the good President, therefore, had to die by divine decree. Again, what a horrible, horrible picture of God.
I do not believe for a millisecond that God ordered Lincoln shot just as I do not believe that God used the Romans to kill Jesus in order to be able to forgive human sin. Those who believe this should celebrate during Holy Week each year that the Romans killed Jesus since they believe the Romans were doing what God willed, what God demanded. This is an abhorrent view, but it appears to influence more people who identify themselves as Christians than any other doctrine ever dreamt up by the ancient councils who gave us the dogma their descendents were supposed to embrace. I have a slogan for you, a bumper sticker message: “Just say no!”
A wonderful finish doesn’t mean its start was wonderful. Some of the theologians who couldn’t buy into the idea that God calls all the shots for everyone and everything believed instead that something horrible could happen--something offensive to God, something painful for God--but that God came into the picture at just those horrible moments to try to lure people with the wherewithal to take the ugly and shape something beautiful out of the very circumstances that initially made the ugly, ugly.
This was seen to be true in small ways as well as grand ways. The beautiful thing created out of the ugly thing, like a tragedy of some sort, doesn’t make the ugly experience or circumstance beautiful; not at all. Instead, God works in God’s subtle ways to make something beautiful out of the ugly despite the ugly.
Jesus’ execution was and always will be as ugly as ugly can get. That what he endured at the hands of Rome caused people who might never have taken note of his teachings grounded in the expansiveness of God’s love is a beautiful thing, but the beautiful thing never makes his execution either ok or beautiful.
- Neither Hurricane Katrina nor Kim Davis’s homophobia will ever be ok.
- Neither the Charleston shootings nor the collapse of the holy mosque in Mecca two days ago will ever be ok.
- Neither the assassination of Abraham Lincoln nor the terrorist acts in Bangkok will ever be ok.
Never. The loving power that is God doesn’t reconstitute; the loving power that is God utterly recreates.
And so, some New Orleanians found a new lease on life after surviving Katrina; and some gay and lesbian couples in Rowen County, Kentucky, got their long-awaited marriage licenses after all--despite the hateful attitudes of Ms. Davis and her instant new best friend, Mike Huckabee; and all the good in Abraham Lincoln lived on through those who embraced his values despite John Wilkes Booth and his gun. But the beautiful results can never make the ugly beginnings ok; that is not what we hold out for.
Paul’s letter to the Church in Philippi has piles of references to joy in it--to the extent that plenty of readers see only the joy. They forget that Paul wrote it from prison, having been incarcerated by Rome whom he had in previous years praised as a near-perfect government. Like Jesus before him, he fell out of favor with Rome; and like Jesus before him Rome would take his life. Paul knew what the probable outcome of his imprisonment would be; the joy about which he could write was written without an expectation of divine deliverance from his jail cell.
Paul couldn’t wait around for the small possibility that his life would be spared so that he would have other opportunities to get across his message to the Christians in Philippi. He could find reasons to feel and express joy not because the evil that Rome did and would continue to do could be somehow, someday sanctified, but because Paul realized that God simply will not allow evil to have the last word--regardless of how powerful and pervasive it seems to those of us struggling and suffering at its hand. As one of the psalmists put it: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
In spite of all the ugly, listen again to Paul’s message to the Philippians.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice….Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Jesus, the Anointed One.
We will not see immediate reversals of the effects of evil in every case, but in the big picture evil loses out to good--however incrementally; and in time evil is robbed of every reason it ever had for its sinister rejoicing. Thus, we hold out, even against the odds, for the beautiful thing, like joy, that may come in spite of the horrible and the unthinkable and the unnecessary.