This post originally was delivered as a sermon for Noonday Prayers at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Enid, Okla., April 24, 2019.
“If a thing is free to be good it’s also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible.”
C .S. Lewis, in this brief quote from “The Case for Christianity,” outlines the crux of our human problem, and the root of this feast day observance. God leaves us free to love or to hate, to sow peace or war, to share or squander, to follow Christ or this world. Even a cursory look at human history shows we far too often, and at far too great a scale, use our God-given free will to ignore The Way of Christ, and to side instead with the forces that nailed him to the cross.
Nowhere is this propensity to misuse our free will more grotesquely shown than in our long history of genocide — the wholesale killing of God’s children because of the arbitrary lines we’ve created to divide ourselves, and the hate we stir up around those lines of division. And that, sadly, is our topic today. Today is Wednesday of Easter week. But, on the Calendar of Lesser Feasts and Fasts, today also is Genocide Remembrance Day. And it is the way in which God interacts with us through suffering, to and from the cross, I want to discuss today.
Genocide Remembrance Day is dated in remembrance of the Armenian Genocide, which took place between 1915-1923, when the Ottoman Empire murdered upwards of a million minority — and predominantly Christian — Armenians. In 1918 former president Theodore Roosevelt described the Armenian Genocide as the greatest crime of the First World War — a significant claim for a war that took roughly 17 million lives.
But, the Armenian Genocide was not the beginning or end of humanity’s grossly efficient inhumanity. When the Mongols swept through Europe in the 13th century they killed roughly 5 percent of the world’s population. The Crusades — launched in the name of Christ — killed between 1-2 million. European invaders and colonial powers — often, again, under the banner of Christ — decimated and sold into slavery untold millions of indigenous people across the Americas, Australia, Asia and Africa. The Holocaust claimed more than 6 million Jews, gypsies, people with mental and physical handicaps and LGBTQ people. Stalin killed anywhere between 3 and 20 million (without bothering to keep count), and in the 1970s Pol Pot killed 1.8 million people — one in five Cambodians. These are but a few examples.
Each generation since Cain killed his brother Abel has had to contend with mass killing, born of hatred, sown in jealousy and greed.
I first realized this in the spring of my senior year in high school, when I picked up a copy of the New York Times one morning to learn of the Rwandan Genocide. Like most school kids I had studied the mechanical efficiency of Hitler’s “Final Solution” — the engineered slaughter of millions. But, Rwanda seemed grotesque in a different way. Lacking all the efficiency and engineering of their German counterparts, the Hutu majority in Rwanda had managed, in a fairly short time, to murder a million people with machetes and axes — about 70 percent of the Tutsi population.
I had never considered myself a naïve youth, and yet this horrendous wholesale murder caught me off guard. It surprised me, in a way, because I’d allowed myself the comfort of believing we’d conquered genocide. I’d watched all the old documentaries about the fall of the Third Reich and the liberation of the concentration camps. And, I’d allowed myself to believe that was the end of it — that genocide was an element solely of history, and to history it had been consigned.
But, of course, genocide wasn’t just a horror of the past. There it was, in black and white. I was shocked by the scale of the killing. And, I was shocked equally by our society’s collective and wantonly callous indifference — the same indifference I’d been taught allowed the Holocaust to take root.
Beyond Rwanda, we’ve seen the Bosnian genocide, the ISIL genocide of Christian, Shia and Yazidi populations in Iraq and Syria and the systematic murder and exile of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Today, more than 56,000 Yemenis have died and hundreds of thousands face starvation in a U.S.-backed Saudi war, while more than a million Uighar Muslims are held in concentration camps in China.
In each of these horrors, we’re drawn back to today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 2, and the Slaughter of the Innocents: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
We continue to see Herod murdering God’s children, and we wonder why God allows these things to happen. It brings to mind one of those snarky social media memes, where Jesus is sitting on a park bench with a young man — I’ll call him Kevin. Kev asks the Messiah “Why do you allow wars, famine and poverty to happen?” To which, Christ replies: “That’s funny, Kevin — I was just going to ask you the same thing.”
It’s a bit over-simplified, but the point is true and inescapable. The evil of genocide, along with its companions, famine, poverty and refugee crises, are born of the ways we collectively misuse our free will to abuse God’s creation and children. And, when we see the horrors we’ve created, and ask “Why, God!?”, God asks us back: “Yes, indeed — Why?”
Jesus teaches us this hard lesson — that God will not remove our free will, even to overcome our self-inflicted atrocities — when he is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, in Matthew 26:50-54:
Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”
Jesus goes to the cross willingly to save us from sin, but also to show us the consequence of our choices, to become and to show us in his own flesh and blood the suffering we create. God — Christ Himself — does not intervene with “legions of angels,” because God wants us to choose Him fully and freely of our own volition. God wants our hearts, true and unfettered. And, while God waits for our free will to turn to Him, he walks with us in our weakness, in our suffering, to Golgotha and beyond.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of God’s willing suffering for us, from his prison cell, where he awaited execution at the hands of his Nazi captors:
“God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us . . . The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help.”
God suffers with us, just as God loves us. And God calls us to suffer with our neighbors, as he calls us to love them. When we look at the enormity of human suffering in the world, especially in times of genocide, it can be hard to imagine what we can do to overcome it. We can pray — and we should. But, what Christ teaches on the cross calls for more than just detached prayers. It calls for sincere empathy — not only a willingness, but a burning desire to enter into and share in the suffering of our brothers and sisters. This empathetic suffering — the compassionate feeling of connection with and mourning alongside all who suffer — is the beginning of amending our free will from service of self to service of all. And, in seeing ourselves in all, we begin to see Christ.
This empathy, Bonhoeffer tells us, is what gives feet to our walk with Christ: “It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.”
To understand what this means — to participate in God’s suffering — I turn to the late Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and author. In high school, shortly before my revelation evoked by the Rwandan Genocide, I read Wiesel’s book “Night,” a powerful account of his experience as a Jewish boy in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps.
Reflecting on the horror of the Holocaust, Wiesel tells us it’s humanity’s lack of empathy, our lack of shared connection, that is the root of this evil.
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference,” Wiesel tells us. The opposite of love isn’t hate. It is indifference. It is the indifference of good men and women that allows genocide to keep taking place. And the remedy to that indifference is the long-suffering love of Christ. It’s not an indifferent, cautious love. It is a radical love, an outpouring love, that calls us to take up our cross and walk alongside those who suffer. It is a love that calls us to action, to transform the world in which we live, with and for all who inhabit it.
“We must take sides,” Wiesel tells us. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted … that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.”
That place, where others suffer, must be the center of our universe, for it is there we find Christ, in ourselves, and in the faces of all who suffer.
When we suffer, God suffers with us. But, when we suffer with our neighbor — especially with those unlike us, and those we will never meet — we begin to suffer as God suffers. And, in that suffering we begin to transform the world around us, in all its aspects, into a kingdom that looks more like Christ, into a kingdom that refuses to accept suffering for any, and relieves suffering for all.
Almighty God, who created us in your image: Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our communities and among the nations, to the glory of your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.