Guest post by Gordon King, CBM Resources Specialist
Events in the past month provoked strong reactions in many of us. An explosion on a plane carrying tourists from Egypt. A bombing in Beirut. The coordinated attack on Paris. The murders at a hotel in Mali. The virtual shutdown of life in Brussels because of warnings about terrorist acts. These recent news stories build upon reports from other places during 2015. We have been exposed to violence in the Ukraine, Israel, Sudan, and Kenya. Television cameras have captured images of refugees crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa in overcrowded boats. We witnessed tens of thousands of refugees walking through Europe. These people know that they are not wanted – but they are desperate.
Like many people, I am apprehensive that life has changed for the worse. At times I have been angry. Most often, I feel a despair bordering on depression. Our capacity to address issues of violence and to assist victims seems small in proportion to the massive evil of men with arms and the immense humanitarian needs.
The story of the Holy Family in flight from Herod the Great has attracted my attention in past days (Matthew 2.1-23). Herod was a brutal tyrant, perhaps not unlike President Assad in Syria. His rule was reinforced by the military power of Roman legions. Herod used force to put down any threats to his throne. He even ordered the murder of a number of his children and wives because he questioned their loyalty. He gave orders that his soldiers would kill prominent Jewish people as his death approached so that his demise would not be publicly celebrated. The story of the killing of boys under two years of age in Bethlehem fits the general historical description of Herod the Great.
Joseph is warned in a dream to flee to Egypt with Mary and the infant Jesus. The Holy Family’s identity becomes refugees crossing a border to seek safety. In Egypt they were forced to live in another culture and to learn a new language. They were probably not welcome, and perhaps even perceived as a threat. Other people, involved in armed opposition to Herod’s rule, would also have fled Judea. The narrative does not tell us if there were Egyptians that offered hospitality and friendship. I wonder if the family stories of flight and exile, told later by Joseph and Mary, made Jesus sensitive to the importance of welcoming the stranger (Matthew 25.35).
Our faith speaks into the confusion, anger and despair of this time in history. Our scriptural traditions remind us:
- God is always concerned for people on the margins including the victims of violence. God always calls us to the margins to meet them and assist them.
- The Hebrew people were taught to care for the strangers and aliens who came to live among them. They were to be welcomed, treated justly, and offered compassion.
- Our early Christian ancestors were sometimes regarded as a threat to social stability and political unity. Some were executed during the reign of Domitian because they would not make a ritual sacrifice, as a public act of allegiance, before the image of the emperor. The book of Hebrews encourages church members to remember those who are in prison and subject to torture because of their faith. We stand in solidarity with people who have suffered for their commitment to Jesus. This fellowship of the oppressed should make us sensitive to the needs of others in our time.
- God will ultimately judge those people who employ violence and inflict suffering on others. The Psalms of Israel teach us that we can pray for justice and the downfall of evil actors in our world.
- Our Lord calls us to be peace makers and people who risk love for our enemies. A peace maker is someone who makes the choice to break from the in-group in order to live in the borderlands during times of hostility. Peace makers work for reconciliation, truth, and the well-being of those who are most vulnerable. Their motives are often misunderstood by people on both sides that take entrenched positions.
- The gospels remind us that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. The myth of redemptive violence proposes that drones, bombs, and arms will solve the problem of ISIS. Too often, wars and armed interventions set loose a new set of demons and resentments. Personally, I hope that ISIS can be stopped soon. But I am under no illusions that the disappearance of ISIS will bring peace to the Middle East.
I try to pray regularly for victims of violence and ordinary people who work for peace in places of conflict. I take comfort from the following description of God found in the poetry of the Old Testament.
But you do see!
Indeed you note trouble and grief,
That you may take it into your hands;
The helpless commit themselves to you.
You have been the helper of the widow and orphan.
The writer of Psalm 10 ends the poem by expressing hope that those who terrorize the powerless will be brought to an end and that oppressed people will find justice. This may be a good place to begin and end our prayers for the world during this difficult time.