There is nothing like inhumanity to remind us that we are human. Tell yourself all you like that you are a piece of electric meat, a random causation of evolutionary theory, and all sense of reality is an accident of perception, of a mental machine grown too strong for its own good, with shocks and shatterings that make it think it is something more than a hard-wiring for the survival of a species. Tell yourself you are purely tangible, a thing that can decompose to the last atom, that can rot in the broiling sun, no more than an intelligent insect doomed to be undone and laid out as bare as your bones.
And yet when confronted, in some sudden moment, with a cry that rises in the throat, because something is wrong, profoundly and to the core wrong, and we find ourselves overwrought with revulsion at it. Some things are too acute to be worded, and yet they rebel within us, and make us lash out, for there is too much of the sacred scouring us. Some of the greatest works of art contain the ability to make us react in such a way, to find ourselves in the warp and wield of dehumanization. The more our humanity is denied us the more we know it to be real. This is why so much in the news makes us what to clench our fists and scream or stare blankly at the horror unfolding, while our hearts throb from the evil that cannot be justified or minimized.
We see wrongs that no animal or element of nature are capable of committing. It is our knowledge of good and evil planted and sprouted tall, our teeth marks on the seductive fruit. And it has drawn much blood. And we find ourselves unsure what to do, but press our clenched fist to our mouth to shudder a scream, knuckles white, lips white. We loose ourselves in silence. I think of some great moments captured in film, moments when no words need be said to describe this inner twisting that overcomes us, for we know that such actions fall short of a reality that is realer than real. It is deeper than our DNA. And it can only be met with the silence of the soul.
In A Man for All Seasons, we see Thomas More listen to the rankings of a crazed and corrupt king in silence. In Roots, we see Kunte Kinte view the callousness of the privileged bidding for him at the auction block in silence. In The Hunger Games, we see Katniss Everdeen observe the children from the Capital play with their toy swords, as their parents await the life-and-death gladiatorial games of others, in silence. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo, after witnessing so much insanity and death, holds the One Ring of power in his outstretched hand in silence. In Waterloo, we see the Duke of Wellington facing the mounting casualties of his men in silence. This is not the silence of apathy, but of breaking up inside, when there is nothing left to be said but that something is wrong, and we are the cause of it, human beings gnawing each other apart.
Project as we might, we know in our hearts that the evil around us is as much a tendency within ourselves. We all lust after it, and there but for grace we would go. It makes us want to cry out, tears that are not evil, but that raise our essences beyond the bones and the blood to the Source from which we have come. For we all come from God, and to God we will return, like a drop of rain that flows into the ocean. He alone can drain blood from a stone, water from a rock, and honey from bitter combs of the heart. We are rare and wondrous, we humans, a creation unlike any other. The very fact that we have been created implies some separation from God to live and learn in a way which gives us freedom to charter our destiny.
And we think ourselves so bold and brilliant. And it goes to our heads with amazing rapidity. And before we can sort out the blindness of our own arrogance, or penetrate our own cynicism, we are off making slaves of one another, sport of one another, and leaving the weaker to die. We rut in the fields and turn our fellow man into prey for our grasping talons. We poison the air, pollute the water, strip the earth, and play with fire. We fill ourselves with the notion that all is “I”, and as such we lose ourselves and all else. We deny the image of God in the most vulnerable, the outcast, and marginalized, and proceed to rob them of dignity, and many times of life itself. All this leads to death, more truly so than a biological secession of functions. It is a death of spirit which looms large, a death that breaths, that moves, that laces itself through the air.
Evil is the most profound of sicknesses. It can corrupt to the core, and crumble us all around, like rotted fruit, like poisoned apples, sunken eyes. But it takes a saint to realize that evil itself is the manifestation of a soul sunken into sickness, deserving of pity. Yes, deserving of mercy. The film Quo Vadis demonstrates St. Peter realizing this when he hears Nero called a monster, responding that rather he is a man “sick in spirit”. Pope John Paul II recognized this through his life and poetry. He was a man who went through so very much under both the Nazis and the Communists and still managed to forgive, to recognize even the most heinous criminals as human beings and therefore of intrinsic worth.
He clung to his belief in the dignity of man and managed to hold faith with something greater, some hope for humanity. He lived as a shepherd shot through by the call to pour himself out for the sake of his flock, embracing the assassin who tried to take his life. He believed in suffering as a redemptive internal transformation, and put his faith in the paradoxical triumph of the cross. “The man has taken with him the world’s inner structure, where the greater the anger, the higher the explosion of love,” he wrote in the aftermath of watching one of his fellow quarry workers blasted to death in the horrendous conditions under the Nazis in Poland during World War II. In the shattered reality of a mangled corpse, he still saw the promise of resurrection.
Christians believe God incarnated into the human drama only to be conspired against, betrayed, and murdered. The problem of evil can’t get more problematic than that, the notion of God, pressed down into 33 years of finite flesh and blood suffocating on a tree. Christians, through an excess of familiarity, forget to be shocked. Sometimes, though, it will feel fresh to me, and I will think “I pray to a God who suffocated to death, and had his heart torn open.” It’s terrifying, and blessed belief. This world has suffering knit into it, and it is not just a God who is who all powerful, but rather all vulnerable, who is, in a sense, knit into the suffering itself, sacrificed to it. All we should ask is that we might be knit into Him through it all. Stephen R. Lawhead writes in his novel Byzantium: “This is the heart of the great mystery: that God became man, shouldering the weight of suffering so that on the final day none could say, ‘Who are you to judge the world? What do you know of injustice? What do you know of torture, sickness, poverty? How dare you call yourself a righteous God! What do you know of death?’”
Christianity engages in suffering with utter realism, never diminishing the reality that some things should strike us like a blow to the very core. Jesus, in all His humanity, wept before the incomprehensible enormity of death. He turned over the tables of money changers in fury at injustice. Yet, this grief and wrath itself is the groundwork on transfiguration, which is not so much to change, as to become more fully itself and more: it is irradiated with beauty. The cross is the pin-point of this cosmic pain and profound tension, where light and dark, suffering and healing are made sisters, the final gathering-place of all ideas, intentions, and dreams of Jesus, that are then diffused throughout the bloodstream of the ever-suffering, ever-struggling human race.There is that wonderful, terrible moment when you took at the stable and see the cross, or look to the cross and see the stable. And suddenly you know He is one and the same, the baby born among sheep and cows who will one day be stretched out and suffocated between two criminals. And you can smell the wood, of manger, cross, and church pew, when you’re kneeling down with the Eucharist in your mouth, and you know all time and all eternity is on your tongue, and my God, it’s a wonderfully empowering, terribly humbling thing. It is the problem of pain suddenly pressing in about you, and becoming present the very workings of your biological reality. It is facing the worst fear, that of death, and suffering through with it to paradise.
When the last path is tread, and the last river drained, when the last star falls, and the last blood bleeds, will our hearts not splinter and our lips resound “My God, my God”? For this is all we have, in the end; this is all we have ever had. We are walking the weary way, haunted by the hallowed ghost, and our breath cannot but carry her wisdom in our souls, beaten in by the light, splintering at the sides of the glass, like a moth outside a lantern, craving oneness with the flame. We may not know the answers, may not feel the faith, may be dead unto dust, and yet, at some point or other we will be pressed, and we will fall down on our knees beyond the ice and the fire, and we will cry out with the force of our forging, from all that is ourselves when the outer garments of the world are stripped, and my God, will that not be the prayer of prayers? Will it not be the act of the dart’s finding, and the heart’s piercing, and our death into life?
For grace is knit into the essence of Man. It is the in-breathed conscious “I”, the original blessing that became our original sin, and yet holds a deeper primal claim. For grace is a beauty that can be warped all too easily, and yet while we live, and move, and have our being, it has never left us, never altogether. This then is our embrace of the sacred for its own sake, for the acknowledgement of goodness as being inherently stronger than evil, and life inherently stronger than death. It is said that immortality and friendship are too good to be believed. And that is all the more reason to believe in them. For we must believe in Love or we are lost. We must be fools in order to grow wise. We must embrace paradox or we are set adrift. We must believe that our stories are worth telling, our songs worth singing, that cosmically, we are beings that reach for greater things. We reach for the unreachable stars, we sing ourselves to sleep. And is it not buried within these secrets, like the spark of life is buried in a dying seed? That we might yet overcome evil with good?
One scene in particular springs to mind, of the resilience of goodness, from recent history, and I remember feeling downcast by the two-way politicizing an act of unexpected and truly exemplary forgiveness in a certain courtroom. I was disheartened that one side seemed to find a black man forgiving a white women distasteful or even a betrayal of their community; I was equally disheartened that some hijack it as a means of pushing off the table the very real issues of racial injustices that still are very much a part of our society, particularly in the African-American community. It was as if this moment of exemplary Christian conduct, yes, a grace undeserved, suddenly became a new opportunity to throw stones.
I observed that certain atheist groups seemed intent upon villainizing the judge for joining the victim’s brother in a show of mercy, based on her Christian faith, passing judgement with justice, but also speaking to her of spiritual salvation, and opening the words of scripture to the condemned. In a world of cruelty and corruption, in a world of injustice and violence, in a world where all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, such a showing of amazing grace is like a rare beam of sunlight in the eye of a storm. Yet some continue to claim it is unhealthy to forgive, as if it magically makes the crime itself unmeaningful, or belies systematic injustices to demonstrate the willingness to see others more as individuals than cogs on a wheel.
I understand how extraordinary it is to see, so radical, so scandalous, indeed so rare, for few are able to rise to the challenge. But how can anyone not admire such emptying of the self? Why must we always hyper-analyze such singular moments in time, why tear them apart? Why hijack them, either to justify bitterness or to turn a blind eye to injustice? Has no one ever thought perhaps there is not a way of wedding these two wings of reality, causing justice and mercy to kiss, as the Scriptures say? Why must we pit the two against each other? Can we not strive after righteousness without losing our sense of common humanity, even for those we deem “the bad guys” for what they have done, or what they have failed to do? As Brian Zahnd says: ‘The Church must be a model of reconciliation, not the cheap reconciliation of empty platitudes serving the status quo, but the deep reconciliation grounded in justice, mercy, and humility.”
This is the test, the fault-line upon which we rise or fall, that we both stand upon our principles as well as forgiving those who trespass against us, that we cry out for God for justice as well as crying out to God to forgive our enemies, for they, and we, know not what we are doing. It is not easy. It is never easy. But this faith we’re bound to never is. The call to love is Radical. Scandalous. Demanding. It bends us like a pretzel, this precious grace. It bent us back to God, when we were gone astray. It manifests itself unexpectedly, unnecessarily, without counting the cost. It is the cross and it is our crown, and we must remember that when all else fades away, this thing remains: that we have loved when our hearts broke, and when Christ cried “I Thirst!” we gave Him water…that we answered the cry of the oppressed, and that we, the undeserving, forgave the undeserving.
As we were redeemed, so we grant the hope of redemption to others, even as we strive to right the wrongs of our crippled world, fixated on such shallow things as the pigment of a man’s skin. This is our baptismal seal; this is our communion hymn; this is what we must bear out in a world of suffering sinners, and only then shall justice and mercy kiss. Then let us be transformed, and have done with it, unto the last drop of wine and head of wheat, unto the last seed that must break open and die! Let the fire burn and the wind whistle in the upper room! Let the Spirit be sent forth that we may be created, and the face of the earth shall be renewed!
I will close with an anonymous prayer was written at Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, and found beside the body of a dead child:
O Lord, remember not only the men and women
Of good will, but also those of ill will.
But do not remember all the suffering they inflicted on us;
Remember the fruits we have brought, thanks to
This suffering – our comradeship,
Our loyalty, our humility, our courage,
Our generosity, the greatness of heart
Which has grown out of all this, and when
They come to judgment let all the fruits
Which we have borne be their forgiveness.