HOW CAN THIS BE A SIGN OF HOPE?
– REIGN OF CHRIST SUNDAY –
Jeremiah 23 : 1 – 6 Luke 23 : 33 – 43
The Church Calender helps us to remember important events in our faith. Today is the Reign of Christ Sunday. It is the day to highlight our belief that Jesus Christ is ultimately in charge of the world. Isn”t it strange, however, that today”s scripture reading is the story of the cross on which Christ was being executed; a sure sign that he failed in his mission? It completely betrays the expectation of some Christians that the Christian church eventually will dominate the world in the belief that Jesus Christ is the king of kings. This is because the message of the Gospel is that Christ rules the world but with humility and love, not by power and conquest. Paradoxically his death was the sign of the ultimate victory of love over hatred and self-centredness.
In the last two weeks, we have witnessed the violent deaths of two brave campaigners for justice and peace: Yitzhak Rabin and Ken Saro-Wiwa, an Israeli and a Nigerian, a Jew and a Christian. Rabin was a professional soldier, a General, a war hero turned a peace activist. He successfully fought the British, Jordanians, Egyptians, and Palestinians. He ruled the occupied land of Palestine with an iron fist as Minister of Defence. But in the end, he realized that no matter how much blood was spilt, peace would not come. He realized that security of his people could never be guaranteed with the power of arms, and that violence would cause more violence. Security could only come with peace and reconciliation. So he decided to shake the hands of his arch-enemy to reconcile with him and his people. He became a stubborn peace maker. And ironically, he met a violent death on his way not to a war but to reconciliation . He died not in a battle but for peace.
Ken Saro-Wiwa was a successful Nigerian poet and writer. He could have lived in a safe haven like Switzerland to continue his lucrative writing career. But he went back to his people in the Niger River Delta area, and organized a peaceful protest. His people belong to the minority Ogoni tribe whose livelihood was completely destroyed by an oil company which polluted the river and killed the fish stock. The military dictatorship tried him in a kangaroo court, found him guilty of a trumped up charge of murder, and hanged him. He was bad news for the country”s economy, which depended on income from oil exports.
I had a couple of friends who died in the South African prisons in the 1970”s. When I met them during the late sixties, they were students in a university Christian movement; one was studying medicine and the other Social Work. They tried to help their people to acquire self-confidence, by providing credits for small businesses through a credit union. They were arrested for allegedly inciting violence, and were murdered by the Police while in custody. The story of one of them, Steve Biko, became a Hollywood movie a few years ago.
They were not the only ones who paid for their work towards justice and peace, their wives and children lost their loving partners, fathers and a grandfathers. Saro-Wiwa”s family were not allowed even to mourn with their friends. The Nigerian dictator feared political violence by emotional admirers of the dead hero, and prohibited a memorial service in the church. Even a mention of his name is cause for arrest.
When someone becomes a martyr, the family of the martyr suffers just as much if not more. They become living martyrs. When Jesus was crucified most of the disciples ran away. But his mother Mary sat at the bottom of the cross in agony watching her son suffer. Jesus told some of the disciples who remained at the foot of the cross that Mary was now their mother, and asked them to take care of her. Unlike the disciples, Mary had never understood exactly what her son”s mission was all about. A few time, she tried to stop him in his ministry for fear of his safety. Of course, she was right. The pursuit of total love was a dangerous career.
I corresponded for several years with one of the widows of my dead South African friends. Her name was Nohle. She lost her house for lack of income, and became near destitute trying to raise her children. She often wondered why she had to be the one who married someone who would give his life to the people. Her husband”s suffering ended when he died, but Nohle”s suffering has continued.
At the state funeral of Yitzhak Rabin, 16 year old grand-daughter, Noa Ben Artzi, read the most touching piece, more memorable than any other given by the heads of states. "Excuse me," she said, " I do not want to speak a piece, but to speak to my grandfather…. Grandpa, you are the pillar fire in front of the camp, now we just have the camp alone. Dark. and we”re so cold and alone. I know that people are speaking in terms of national tragedy, but how can you comfort a whole nation and involve them in your personal pain when Grandmother cannot stop crying. We feel the incredible open space without you. Very few people really knew you. They can speak about you, but I feel like they really don”t know anything about how deep the pain is… Grandpa you are our hero. I want you to know, that in everything I did, I saw you before my eyes. Your love, appreciation took us with every step, every path and will be a light to us forever. You never abandoned us, but we are abandoning you now. I cannot do anything to help you. People bigger than me already eulogized you, but your caress, your great caress, your warm hug, that was reserved just for us. Your sort of semi-smile, that great smile doesn”t exist anymore. The pain is so great. The ground is slipping out from under our feet and we”re trying to deal with the vacuum."
This is a cry of a young suffering woman who lost a loved one for the sake of peace, which continues. It is like agony of Mary”s excruciating sadness, who lost her son to the salvation of the whole of humanity. Jesus never looked for such suffering, or for such painful death; neither did many other martyrs who followed him. Furthermore, they never intended their loved ones to suffer so much. But the families” agonies were inevitable because of their uncompromising pursuit of justice, love, and peace. Even as he was dying, Jesus forgave those who were responsible for his suffering and death. His pursuit of love continued even on to the cross.
When a just person suffers by the hands of an unjust, iniquity of the unjust is exposed. Like the snow which melts in the sun, evil can not withstand absolute love. When the good are killed for doing good, the iniquity of the power that kills the good becomes clear. As the darkest of the night is the sign of imminent dawn, the suffering of the just is the sign of hope of the end of the dominance of evil and the coming of the Kingdom of God.
When my friend Steve Biko was murdered, that was the last straw that broke American patience. The U.S. Congress immediately passed an arms embargo against South Africa. Iniquity was exposed in the bright light. The end of Apartheid began as the direct result of the death of one 31 year old medical student. Those who loved Steve carried the torch in their suffering as living martyrs. The death of Yitzhak Rabin caused so much anger in the Israeli society, that the movement for peace is now unstoppable. The word for martyr in the original Greek language (marturion) means simply a witness. Some of the witnesses for Christ died for their testimonies, but many continued to live. For every martyr, there are many living martyrs who continue the task of building a just and peaceful world in their grief.
It is a sign that the Kingdom of God is still incomplete, when the good people suffer and die for doing good. However, it is a sure sign of heaven on earth and the presence of Christ that there are brave lovers of humanity who never stop loving, even if it costs them their lives. The victory of love is achieved not just through the deaths but though the living cloud of witnesses that remembered them. The death of Jesus Christ is a sign of hope, because it means the victory of love.
November 26, 1995