If everything you depend upon for your livelihood, for meaning, well-being and security were destroyed, what would you do? What would you do if your world, as you know it, came to an end? If the structures of your society (political, economic, social and public safety) were no more? If the institutions that you trust to provide direction orientation for your life—religious, intellectual and even the media—no longer existed? Can you imagine your church building being destroyed, your spiritual community decimated and the physical symbols of your faith destroyed? And what if your civil and human rights were ripped away and you were now living at the whim of hostile paramilitary groups? This happened to European Jews during WWII, and it is happening in Kosovo. What would you do?
What if you lived in a climate so desperately vulnerable and fearful; so infested with torture, murder, genocide, kidnapping and rape, that even family members, close friends or neighbors could not be trusted. When even bishops and other religious leaders cannot be trusted, as some of them are collaborators in your holocaust. It has recently happened in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzagovenia.
What if life as you know it seemed no different from before, except that the practice of your faith were officially denied—even illegal—and police and special agents rounded up Christians, just as they did burglars, murders and other criminals. If you were arrested, interrogated, beaten, jailed; denied employment and your children denied education unless they denied their faith? Christians in countries like Pakistan and the Sudan live this reality.
And what if you sat helpless while the forces of superpowers held your world in the vice of siege, denied food, medical supplies, inability to trade or import. All around were the overwhelming forces of military destruction aimed at your world . . . your children, your homes and infrastructure. In the midst of this pending doom, fickle religious and political leaders taunted the pending powers of mass destruction with arrogance and defiance. This is the reality of the Iraqi people today.
In today’s Gospel Jesus teaches that this is the time for the Christian—victim or observer—to “bear witness”; to trust the Holy Spirit; and to be steadfast in the work of faith.
Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian, lived and wrote from about A.D. 37 to A.D. 100. He was an eye witness to the fulfillment of what Jesus prophesied. In A.D. 70 Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by Roman forces to end the several years of revolts and insurrections (or “rumors of wars”) by militia Jewish forces. The carnage was so great that the Roman General Titus, who ordered the destruction, lamented and grieved the consequences of his orders. He, like the victims, saw all of this as the end of a world.
Yet, from it grew a new world—and an even stronger judaism spread through the empire; and what once struggled as a cultic brand of messianic Judaism emerged as the Christian church.
We might ask, what does all of this have to do with us in contemporary America, far distant by history and oceans from theses various examples? But if we judge the faith of Jesus Christ only by the relative flowery bed of ease in which most of us practice our religion, we have no sense of the great power and depth, the great potential and demand of the faith we claim.
It is amazing to me, even to the casual observer of history, how in such times of disaster, oppression and distress, grace breaks through. How the seed of good news, of God’s love takes root, gives hope and brings salvation to totally desperate and destitute peoples. Can you even imagine how from the most depraved human institution of slavery could come spirituals, a genre of music that not only sustained spirit and humanity of slaves but continues even today to engender hope, meaning and faith in peoples and movements of almost every race, culture and condition on the planet. Many Americans were amused if not shocked to hear Poles singing spirituals in their solidarity marches or, in the 1980s, Germans singing spirituals as they protested the Berlin Wall. Yes, Negro spirituals are the fruit of grace sprung from the soil of desolation.
And what of that timeless liturgical poetry of faith first rooted in the soil of ancient Israel’s captivity and cultural destruction, which we call the Psalms?
Leo Fraude, Episcopal bishop of Honduras, wrote to the bishop of this diocese, Ronald Haines, of the incomparable devastation in Honduras and Nicaragua and the plight of a people whose world has come to an end. Some international press observers have called it the worst natural disaster of the last two centuries.
Bishop Fraude wrote that in his country alone over 12,000 are dead and 20,000 missing. Eighty-five percent of the country is destroyed, 40 percent of the capital city and 70 percent of all bridges. One million people are homeless. For Christians in his diocese alone more than half of his churches are destroyed and many of his people were either missing, killed or existing as refugees.
But he closed his letter saying, even in the midst of grieving it is amazing how great is the faith of many Christians in a seemingly hopeless reality. Our common inspiration keeps coming forth, he said, which is found in Psalm 93:4, 5:
[T]he waters have lifted up their pounding waves.
[But] mightier than the sound of many waters,
mightier than the breakers of the sea,
mightier is the Lord who dwells on high.
And thus the Honduran church bears witness, even at the end of their world.
Times of great tribulation produce both great charlatans and great spiritual and moral giants. The economic devastation and social desperation of a defeated post-World War I Germany produced the evil charlatan Adolph Hitler, just as it produced moral giants such as Ellie Weisel, the great Jewish survivor and activist for human rights, and Dietrich Bonnhoffer, German pastor and martyr.
The oppression of South African apartheid produced both a brutally militant defender of apartheid, Prime Minister P.W. Botha, and a grace filled opponent, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, opponent of apartheid. It was clearly the witness of Christians like Desmond Tutu, through whom the spirit of Christ as peaceful resistant survived in the struggle. In what seemed a futile political and military struggle, this faith kept alive the message that God was on the side of justice and the oppressed; and also the more incredible the message that, even with the evident coming of justice, God still loved the oppressors.
This Christian witness was the “salt of the earth” in the South African struggle—“the light of the world” in the dark reality of apartheid. It was this message of faith. The indomitable voice of the Holy Spirit, which prevailed and ushered in and the era of President Nelson Mandela’s great moral leadership. I mentioned the Sudan and Christians’ severe oppression there. Constant wars and rumors of wars. Thousands of refugees, starvation and religious persecution. Yet, the Sudan is the fastest growing part of the worldwide Anglican church. Missionaries report as many as 7,000 people coming to outdoor services, singing and dancing with hand made crosses.
Yes, by faith the end of the world can be the beginning of a new world. It is the universal challenge of all Christians in every age, in any world reality to witness to this hope in God and the power of God’s grace to resist evil and doom. The Ecumenical Assembly of the World Council of the Churches of Christ first proclamation in l948 said: “[As Worldwide Christians] We have to learn afresh together to speak boldly in Christ’s name both to those in power and to the people, to oppose terror, cruelty and race discrimination, to stand by the outcast, the prisoner and refugee.”
“We have to ask God to teach us together to say . . . No, to all that flouts the love of Christ . . . [to] the defenders of injustice in the name of order, to those who sow the seeds of war or urge war as inevitable. Yes, to all that conforms to the love of Christ, to the peacemakers, [and for all who] look for new heavens and a new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness.”
Even as you and I sit here this morning as Christians, the fact that people are starving in Iraq because of an embargo cannot be less our concern than the equally troubling fact that an irrational dictator may have devastating biological and chemical capabilities. Still it is estimated that in the past years of this embargo hundreds of thousands of children alone have died because of malnutrition, starvation and lack of medical resources.
We should feel the pain of any pending decision that might kill thousands of innocent people and intensify their suffering. As God said to the prophet Jonah regarding the Assyrians and their ruler Shenecharib, one of the most cruel and aggressive military regimes of the ancient world. After much coaxing by God Jonah prophesied to Nineveh, the capitol city of Assyria, that if they did not repent—change their ways—God would destroy the city. Jonah prophesied, but did so with vengeance and incredulity in his heart. He then took a good spectator’s seat on a hill to watch the destruction, much as we watched the Gulf War on television. But when the destruction did not come he was disappointed and angry and questioned God’s mercy on these wicked people. God said to Jonah, “ Should I not be concerned about Nineveh . . . in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand children . . . ?” (Jonah 4:11).
In an imperfect world, military force maybe an indispensable means to resolution. But as Christians we can never “be at peace” with destruction and suffering “as a means of peace.” So until diplomacy succeeds or the last bomb is dropped, the Christian must bear witness to the call for diplomacy and peaceful resolve, no matter how naive we may appear to others. For the end of too many worlds is being caused by arrogance, impatience and inhumanity purported as a means to security and political peace.
But the fear of the end of the world is not totally lost to foreign countries. Today we in industrial and technological societies live with the suppressed anxiety that our great advances may cause us to destroy ourselves and the world. In the place of biblical imagery, space travel has shown us what could be our future: this barren, pock-marked terrestrial balls of lifeless dust and rock.
As the millennium approaches, the imagination of many Americans is haunted or intrigued by end-times scenarios. We stand in long lines to see movies about nuclear destruction or natural catastrophes. Demonstrations about nuclear weapons are growing around the world and Christian fundamentalist publications showing biblical fulfillment of end times are selling millions of copies. While the growing number of survivalist groups are stockpiling weapons and supplies, others of us have developed an addictive fanaticism for sci-fi television shows of millennial conspiracies like, “The X-Files,” “Millennium” and “The Profiler.” I note the latter group not as an accusation but as a confession.
But we must remember that these are serious possibilities. The bombs dropped on Japan were the equivalent of 20,000 tons of TNT. Enough to destroy far beyond the radius of a major metropolitan area. A Japanese pastor, who survived the bombing of Hiroshima, described the horror of melting flesh and the white ashened horizon of endless ruins. “The feeling I had was that everyone was dead. The whole city was destroyed . . . I thought all of my family must be dead—it doesn’t matter if I die . . . I thought it was the end of Hiroshima, of Japan, of the world” (Friedrich p. 337).
Today’s nuclear weapons equal 25,000,000 tons of TNT, fifty times that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is little comfort that SALT Treaty limits us (the United States) to only 2,200 such weapons.
Otto Friedreich is an author and senior writer for Time magazine. He wrote a book entitled The End of the World, which traces the great military and natural calamities of our times: from the sacking of Rome in A.D. 410 to the Black Death, which decimated Europe in the fourteenth century, to the Lisbon earthquake in the eighteenth century, to the present day nuclear crisis.
The modern spectator continues to be fascinated by the natural catastrophe. Though he no longer sees the hand of God in a epidemic of the bubonic plague or in an earthquake . . . [Such disasters] still have the power to fill even the most skeptical witness with a sense of awe . . . [But] In even the worst of such natural disasters . . . the sense of finality is limited and the victims are far outnumbered by the survivors. (p.13)
Either way . . . [it seems] the end of the world will be the fault of sinning humankind, the repudiation of God’s covenant with Noah after the great flood. We no longer believe in Noah, of course, but we do believe in the metaphor of a covenant [the proverbial rainbow of peace] that gives meaning to our existence, and in the danger of its repudiation [peace]. (p. 12)
I believe Jesus Christ is the rainbow of God’s covenant. He is the ultimate life and witness of God’s call to peace, which transcends even death and the end of the world. As our Lord has promised, “lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20 KJV). This is the “salt” the earth lacks, the “light” that is much too hidden.
I believe that God holds the ultimate time and fate of creation in his hand. But if worlds are to be saved or regenerated, the light of Christ must be made know. As we enter the new millennium this light must be brighter than the flash of a nuclear bomb. For the one light of military power leads us only to destruction; while the other toward the community of God’s shalom; leads us to reconciliation and justice; to the peace of God that passes all understanding. Amen.