(Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-; John 10: 22-30)
All over the world, people are crying today: weeping at the news of deadly illness; weeping at the pain of a loved one torn from them too early; weeping at the tragedy of innocent lives taken; weeping at the oppression they experience; weeping at the destruction of homes and lives; weeping at dreams that have died and hopes that have been crushed. All over the world, people are experiencing grief:
in Boston, in Somalia, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, where lives have been taken through acts of terrorism; in Iran, Pakistan and China, where lives have been lost in earthquakes;
in Manitoba where flooding threatens homes and farms and a three month old oil spill still poisons the landscape;
in Texas, where lives and homes have been destroyed by a massive explosion in a fertilizer plant;
in Ontario, where a First Nations community struggles with a rash of suicides and attempted suicides;
in Nova Scotia and in California, two young women take their own lives after being sexually exploited, filmed and ridiculed by their peers.
On the internet, over the phone, on television, in one to one conversations, people pour out their shock, their anger, and their grief. The song we sing together as the people of God, is a song of lament.
Immediately after the bombings in Boston, the Internet lit up with competing voices: those who wanted to “bomb the heck out of the perpetrators” (even though we didn’t know who they were); and those who urged others not to rush to judgement. Someone close to me suggested we needed to “turn these places into glowing parking lots”. A friend of his countered that “violence always leads to retribution”. And so the conversation went. Meanwhile, in Ontario, families are grieving the loss of children dead or in peril because of their ties with radical organizations; in Somalia, people are crying at the deaths of innocents; in Iraq, those who have dared to participate in the kind of democratic system many of us Canadians can’t even be bothered to participate in, have died and their families are left devastated; and on it goes. It does not matter if we are in the Middle East, Africa or North America. It does not matter if we are Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Jew or Atheist. It does not matter what our politics or our creed might be – when we are hurt, or when those we love are hurt, we grieve. We are more alike in our humanity, than we are different.
In every country, there are people who respond to threat by hunkering down, becoming more defensive, more protective, and more aggressive. And everywhere there are also people who respond to threat by reaching out, risking being vulnerable, offering the hand of friendship to those who count themselves as enemies. Jesus was about as radical as they come in this respect. He prayed that God would forgive those who tortured and killed them, for their acts were acts of ignorance. He told his followers to pray for those who persecuted them, to do good to those who hated them, to give even more than was demanded of them by their oppressors. He said that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. In our readings of “Oil and Water”, we read a story about the prophet Mohammed. After he had entered the city of Mecca victorious, he could have had all the leaders who had attacked and opposed his people executed. According to the tribal customs of the period, that was the expected action. Instead, he forgave them, quoting the story of Joseph and his brothers from the Quran: “This day there shall be no upbraiding of you nor reproach. God forgives you, and God is the Most Merciful of those who show mercy.” (12:92)
You see, we are more alike than we are different. I focus today on the similarities between Christianity and Islam because I know that most of us harboured the suspicion that the bombings in Boston were the work of Islamist terrorists, and we know that the bombings in Somalia were perpetrated by al-Shabaab – a group linked to Al-Qaeda. Both Christianity and Islam have military violence and acts of terror as part of our heritage. Within both religious groups we have a history of being the oppressed and persecuted, and of being the oppressor.
In Christianity, we go back to our roots in the Hebrew Bible, and the descriptions of enslavement of the whole Hebrew people, and then the whole-scale slaughter of men, women and children by the Hebrew people when they entered Canaan. We have stories of rulers punished for not obliterating their enemies, and rulers who were rewarded for their mercy.
Historically, we have stories of Crusaders wading in blood as they entered the city of Jerusalem, killing everyone in sight – Christian, Muslim or Jew. We have the territorial and religious wars of the Reformation period, when not only Christians and Muslims were facing off, but Christians were fighting each other. We’re aware of numerous pogroms against the Jews throughout the period of Christian rule of Europe. We know that under the period of Islamic rule of southern Europe, when most of Europe was floundering in the Dark Ages and people were dying of war and plague, arts and scholarship flourished, and Jews and Christians could live peacefully with their Muslim neighbours.
Within the last century, the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and in Northern Ireland show that none of us are exempt from accusations of violent action. We know that in certain Muslim and atheist countries today, Christians cannot practice their faith freely, and that in some countries, to convert to Christianity is punishable by death. We know that today extreme groups within Islam use the permission given in the Quran which allows Muslims to defend against attacks on Islam, as an excuse for violence and acts of terror. We also know that Christians have our share of “crazies” and fringe elements that resort to violence – mass murderer Anders Breivik in Norway, not to mention the Klu Klux Klan in the States and the Lord’s Liberation Army in Uganda, who have all claimed Christian roots and Christian motivations to a greater or lesser extent. Even Hitler used Christian propaganda in his campaign against the Jews.
We are not exempt from acts of violence, either as perpetrators or as victims. And so, we grieve together, and together, we seek a better way. Historically, followers of our faiths have had to deal with the reality of being hurt or killed for our beliefs. Both of our traditions hold that such a death has special significance, but it is only within the radicalized elements of our traditions that such a death is seen as something to be sought after. The figures in our reading from the Book of Revelation today are martyrs – those Christians of the late first century and early second century, the time when John was writing, who have been killed for their Christian beliefs. In the scene from chapter 7, they receive vindication, as they stand before the Lamb, the symbolic representation of Jesus, the ultimate Martyr. There they will hunger no more, thirst no more, nor be beaten by sun and heat; but they will be comforted and guided and replenished by the One who has gone before them. Is this so very different from the common belief among some Muslims that the martyr will receive special treatment in the next life?
Both Islam and Christianity teach that judgement belongs solely to God, and condemn those who would seek to pre-empt that judgement. As one writer I know puts it: “The fanatic says, ‘Kill them all, and let God sort them out.’ The truly faithful says, ‘Save them all, and let God sort them out.’”
Both Christianity and Islam in their original writings claim that in the afterlife those who have lived righteous lives will be rewarded, and those who have not will be punished. The book of Revelation is full of such imagery, some of it quite violent, just as the Quran contains similar vivid imagery of the Day of Judgement. This is apocalyptic literature – the product of a people who are under threat, for whom martyrdom is not an irrational choice by a person desperate to achieve some sort of glory, but a true possibility just for living their faith. There’s evidence in the first couple centuries of the church that Christians had to be told not to actively seek martyrdom; just as many Muslim clerics now are trying to counteract the claims of the radical fringe and remind their congregations that the Quran says that to seek death is to deny the sovereignty of God over life and death. You see, we really are more similar than we are different.
We are similar in our human urge to return violence with violence, whether that is our own violence, or violence projected into some future time at the hands of a judging God. I have trouble with that kind of projection – with the imagery of harsh and brutal deaths for the faithless in both the Bible and the Quran. But such writing has some redeeming value if it reminds us that we are not to take vengeance for our perceived wrongs – that God is just, and that it is for God to decide the ultimate fate of people who perpetrate acts like the killings this week. Our justice system is temporal and flawed; God’s justice is not, for God’s justice is undergirded by a love for all humanity and a mercy that is boundless. We have a duty to protect the vulnerable from those who would do harm; but beyond that, as people of faith, we cannot go. It is too easy for justice to become vengeance, and for the cycle of violence to escalate and become an endless “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” –as the saying goes “another eye for another eye, until everyone is blind”.
We are alike in our grief; and we are alike in our hope, in our sources of comfort. Jesus says, of those who follow him: “28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.” Though there are parts of both Christian scriptures and Muslim Scriptures that imply at times that God will deliver us and protect us from harm by others, the reality of our lives and of the early Christian community was that death and suffering were real – and a distinct possibility in the periods in which Christians were persecuted by Rome. God did not snatch the early Christians or the first Muslims out of harm’s way, and neither, alas, does God keep us from inflicting harm on one another. What we ARE promised, is comfort, strength, endurance, hope, peaceful hearts, and the presence of God to sustain us. Finally, our Christian Scriptures promise us a time after this time, when there will be no hunger, no thirst, no pain, no sorrow.
“The Lord is our Shepherd”; in the presence of our enemies we receive grace upon grace; we are guided and restored by the living God; and when we make him our dwelling, we find peace. Today, we lament the violence that threatens our world; we recommit ourselves to living peaceful lives and choosing peaceful solutions; we remember Jesus’ call to forgiveness, and that judgement ultimately belongs to God. May God bless our world, and our hearts, with peace. Amen.