Readings: Psalm 58; Luke 13:31–35
On Friday we were exposed once more to the unfathomable depths of human evil. We may have believed that it couldn’t happen here. But we were mistaken. In fact, while some have spoken of this event as unprecedented in New Zealand, tragically it is not. Wayne reminded us down at Araiteuru marae yesterday that in 1864, during the land wars in New Zealand, about 100 Māori women, children, and the elderly took refuge in Rangiaowhia in face of Governor Grey’s attempts to conquer Māori settlements in the Waikato and seize their land. The women, the children and the elderly took refuge while the men prepared to engage in battle elsewhere. Bishop Selwyn was told, and was asked to convey the message that Rangiaowhia would be a place of sanctuary. But on a Sunday morning the crown forces went to Rangiaowhia and slaughtered all those who had taken refuge there.
The massacre on Friday was not unprecedented in New Zealand. Atrocities like that have struck us before. We have been exposed before in this country to the depths of human evil, and it is probably the case that we will be again. Hatred takes root in the soil of indifference, and in fields of complacency. It grows there undetected until it unleashes its terrible violence and destructiveness. We cannot pretend that New Zealand’s soil provides no nourishment for the seeds of hatred and evil. We cannot pretend as some memes on social media have put it, that this is not us. Racism, intolerance and hatred are nourished here too. The man who drove past the mosque in Linwood on Friday and yelled out the window, ‘I’m here to celebrate’, or those who watched the live feed on Facebook of the killer at his work and cheered him on, are people in our midst, here in Aotearoa New Zealand, in this place that we thought was immune to all this.
We are not immune. So what are we to do?
Many of us will have started out already to embrace our Muslim friends, to try to assure them that this is their home too. Sadly, for now, they have good reason to doubt it. We may try to reach out to ethnic minorities in New Zealand and try to assure them that they are welcomed and their culture is respected. But sadly, their everyday experience frequently tells a different story.
We ought to reach out in these ways wherever we can, but we also have other work to do; it is the work of confession. We are not, as a country, as hospitable, as welcoming, as compassionate as we imagine ourselves to be. The seeds of hatred, nourished by indifference and complacency, can grow here too.
Our Gospel reading this morning is a reading for the season of Lent. It continues the story of Jesus making his way toward Jerusalem. Jesus knows what he will face there. He did not need the warning some Pharisees brought to him that Herod was seeking to kill him. Jesus already knew of the darkness and evil that lay ahead. And yet he continues on.
But for a moment he pauses, and utters a lament for the city toward which he journeys. ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem’, Jesus says, ‘the people that killed the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!’
A little later, when in sight now of the city, Jesus pauses again. This time, Luke tells us, Jesus wept over the city, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognised on this day the things that make for peace! … Indeed the days will come upon you when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave you with one stone upon another’.
This is Jesus’ lament for the city. He is speaking of Jerusalem, of course, but we can claim it also for Christchurch today. ‘Your enemies will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you’.
Where do we belong in this story of lament? We want to stand with Jesus of course, joining in his lament for the city, shedding our own tears, longing for the city that it might be comforted, and that it might find a path to peace. It is right that we should stand with Jesus offering our lament.
But we are also those who are lamented over. ‘How often have I desired to gather your children together’, Jesus says, ‘as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!’ We are among those lamented over, and we must confess our resistance sometimes to Jesus’ way of love. For all that we do in seeking to follow Jesus, we could do more. We, I’m afraid, take time off now and again, let our own prejudices show, tire of the work of compassion, and harbour intolerant thoughts. We belong also with those for whom Jesus laments: ‘How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!’ We have work of confession to do.
In a third place of belonging in this story, we may hear a lament for the Muslim community. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you …’ Not only children, but brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers have been crushed by the gunman in Christchurch. We can claim Jesus’ lament for them, and for us wherever we stand in solidarity with them.
We have also read this morning from Psalm 58. It is a Psalm of bitter anguish cried out to God in the face of atrocity. It is not a Psalm we read often in church, for in crying out for vengeance, the psalmist expresses sentiments that don’t seem to fit very well with the way of Christ. Jesus calls us to love our enemies. We are enjoined to respond to evil with love. Can a Psalm like this, crying out as it does for vengeance, have any place in Christian worship?
I want to suggest to you this morning that it does have a place. Psalm 58 is a psalm of outrage, and outrage is exactly what we should feel in the face of what went on in Christchurch on Friday. Approval is unconscionable and indifference is also a failure. In the face of such terrible evil, we should feel outrage alongside our sorrow. What is more, this is precisely the place where that outrage should be expressed – before God, in worship and lament.
But it is important for us to recognise what we are doing in bringing our outrage here. The psalmist pleads that God will bring vengeance upon his enemies, and in doing so, in placing the outrage before God, the psalmist waives the right to seek vengeance himself. To place our outrage in the hands of God is to offer it up for God to deal with.
‘O God break the teeth of the wicked in their mouths’, cries the psalmist, ‘tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord!’ The psalmist has witnessed terrible atrocity and he brings his outrage to God. Outrage is the appropriate thing to feel, but having prayed a prayer like that, the psalmist must leave his bitterness and anger in the hands of God. And then he must wait upon God’s answer to his prayer.
That brings us back to Jesus and his journey toward Jerusalem. Jesus goes to Jerusalem precisely to face the suffering and the evil of our world. Despite the warning of the Pharisees, he does not turn away. He faces the evil by bearing it himself. ‘Vengeance is mine says, the Lord, I will repay’. In Jesus we find that the Lord repays evil by taking its consequences upon himself.
How are we to respond to the atrocity that has taken place in our midst? Outrage is an appropriate response, but we must bring it here and place it in the hands of God. And then we must seek to be faithful to the God we discover in Jesus who does not return evil for evil, but responds to evil with love. It is our Muslim brothers and sisters who need our love most of all just now. We must be diligent in offering our love and our support.
But there is another job for us as well. When we see the evil of racial intolerance appearing among us, or among our friends and acquaintances, when we see the evil of hatred and prejudice manifesting itself in casual remarks among our peers, or in attitudes embedded in our communities, we followers of Christ must call it out and answer it with Jesus’ way of compassion, and kindness, and love.
I sympathise with the thousands of people who have posted on social media and protested before television cameras that the evil unleashed in Christchurch is not our way. But we cannot take that for granted. Compassion cannot be taken for granted. The overcoming of racial prejudice cannot be taken for granted. The removal of religious suspicion and intolerance cannot be taken for granted. We have to work at it, and in that work, we desperately need God’s help.
Let us pray.
Lord we are deeply saddened by what has taken place in our midst. We acknowledge our feelings of anger that an evil man has wrought such destruction among us and brought us all so low. We come before you with our anger, with our sorrow, and also with our confession that we have work to do ourselves to overcome those feelings of intolerance and suspicion and mistrust that we find at times within our own hearts and minds. We need your help, O Lord. We need your help. Do not delay we pray in bringing your aid to all of us, and especially to the Muslim community with whom we mourn today. Amen.
Preached on 17 March at Pine Hill Church, Dunedin, 17 March.
Murray Rae is Professor of Theology at the University of Otago.