Sunday, November 29, 2015

Advent One: Hope beyond Terror

Today is Advent One, the start of the liturgical year. It’s the first day in a season of watching and waiting for God’s intervention in human history, looking back to the birth of Christ, looking forward to the promised second coming.

Our reading this morning was from Luke 21, quoting Jesus’ words about a time to come: 
“There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” 
Tsunami damage, Sendai, Japan, 2011
Tex Texin
Some of that sounds troublingly familiar: anguish, perplexity, terror.

A roaring, tossing, destructive sea.

Yet the theme of Advent One is hope.

Watchful hope.

Hope in a time of fear.

Hope that sets anxiety aside and chooses to trust there is more to the story than the tragedy we see.

We read the words of promise:

The people who walked in darkness
     have seen a great light; 
those who dwell in the land
    of the shadow of death,
 upon them the light has shined. 

And we sing:

O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease;
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel. 

It seems we live in a violent time, torn in every direction by strife and quarrels, anger and accusation. 

Just say the names of the places and grieve: Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Jordan. 

Palestine. Paris. Charleston.

Forgive me for all the places I’ve left out, too many now to mention.

We know the headlines. 

The tallying of the dead.

We also know the deepening walls of division, the arguments for exclusion, the insistence on seeing anyone who doesn’t agree as obvious enemy.

I find myself thinking of Paris: the recent tragic deaths, the upcoming UN climate summit.

But also the time of the French Revolution, when one faction of revolutionaries turned against their own countrymen, their own fellow revolutionaries, in violent disagreement about how to move toward freedom.

In response to the Parisian deaths, President Barak Obama and other world leaders have mentioned the bonds of “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” national motto of France carved into marble arches and inscribed above doors throughout the city of Paris.

The first use of that slogan, “liberty, equality, brotherhood,” was by Maximilian Robespierre, who was also the first to offer philosophical justification for the proper use of terror.

Robespierre believed fully that the ends justifies the means, and was so convinced he was right he condoned execution by guillotine of over sixteen thousand French men and women: priests, nuns, scientists, civil servants, as well as the nobility whose wealth so inflamed the revolutionary fury. Total executions numbered around 40,000.

Among the last to be killed were the Martyrs of Compiègne, 16 members of the Carmelite order of Compiègne, France, who continued to pray for peace when condemned as traitors and sent to the guillotine. Waiting their death, they sang together, “Veni, creator Spiritus.” “Come, Holy Ghost, Creator, Come.” Not long after their execution, Robespeirre was overturned and the bloody years of terror slowed.

In recent weeks and months, some political commentators have noted philosophical ties between ISIS, or IS, (the Islamic State), and the Jacobin Reign of Terror, as in From France’s Robespierre to ISIS’ Baghdadi (11 July 2015)  
Both Robespierre and Baghdadi believed in ideals that bring peace and harmony to the world. The first believed in the Enlightenment and the second in Islam. Yet both carried an ideology that suspended their beliefs. Both believed that virtue without terror is powerless, that virtue needs terror to promote it. Listen to Robespierre: “Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue…” This is not an Islamist. This is a French democratic secular revolutionary. Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety believed – like radical Islamists - that ‘the people’ do not know what is good for them, so the Committee will think on the people’s behalf and force the people to do good. Both have a messianic belief and a vision of a perfect society. They believed that they have the Truth, and are thus entitled to enforce it on those who do not have it. 
That’s an uncomfortable thought. We’d rather believe there’s something intrinsically more dangerous about radical Muslims than that today’s terrorists are displaying the same self-righteous zeal that propelled revolutionary Frenchmen during the same period as our own American revolution.

We’d like to place blame, build walls, open fire on the obvious enemy.

But what if we are all guilty?

What if that furious willingness to destroy the opposition is part of who we are?

Vinoth Ramachandra, a Sri Lankan Christian blogger I follow, wrote last week: 
The responses of President Obama and David Cameron to Friday night’s terrorist outrages in Paris reveal, once again, just how mired such Western political leaders are in self-righteous hypocrisy, historical naiveté and double standards. A few weeks ago, Cameron was again rolling out the red carpet, this time to the Chinese President- demonstrating once more that “British values” include kowtowing to despots and turning a blind eye to crimes against humanity so long as it benefits the British economy. The church pastors, human rights and pro-democracy activist, and journalists who have been killed or imprisoned in China carry little or no significance in the eyes of British and American governments or business leaders. 
As for President Obama- of course, the carnage inflicted on the French is an attack on all of humanity, but so are aerial bombardments of Palestinian families, suicide-bombings of Shi’a mosques in Pakistan and the deployment of chemical weapons in Syria. Are these no less an attack “on all of humanity and the universal values that we share”? And what is it exactly that an American and a Frenchman share that the rest of us do not? Perhaps we should re-phrase Obama’s speech thus: “We are reminded in this time of tragedy that the bonds of liberté, égalité, fraternité are not only values that the French people have (fitfully and unevenly) cared about- just like the rest of us- but that we should all repent of our complicity in historical injustices and renew our collective commitment to pursue justice and peace for all humanity.” 
I wish there were American and European Christians who would openly raise these questions in their media (print and virtual), colleges and universities, and political assemblies! It would be a powerful demonstration of the distinctiveness of the Kingdom of God and how the Gospel liberates people from the self-righteous parochialism that surfaces even in times of national tragedy. 
In the day of Christ’s coming, the self-righteous parochialism of the established religious leaders made it difficult for them to hear or receive the good news of their Messiah’s birth.

And their zeal to be right led them to crucify their savior, execute his followers, miss the promised salvation.

In our day, the self-righteous parochialism of many of our own religious leaders destroys our witness, distorts the message of good news, diminishes our hope.

We forget that the Messiah we worship refused to lift weapons against others, refused to hate or attack or accuse or exclude, invited us to be like him. Demonstrated love as both end and means. 

I find myself pausing over one of the prayers for the day: 
Unexpected God,
your advent alarms us.
Wake us from drowsy worship,
from the sleep that neglects love,
and the sedative of misdirected frenzy.
Awaken us now to your coming,
and bend our angers into your peace. Amen.
So very many angers.

So very little peace.

So much misdirected frenzy.

Yet, the message of Advent reminds us: the story doesn’t depend on us.

God has intervened.

Continues to intervene

Will intervene in the end, beyond the anguish, anxiety, perplexity, terror.

And so our calling is to wait.

To wait, and watch, and pray.

To sing, with the Carmelite nuns on their way to the guillotine:


Come, Holy Spirit.

Come, Emmanuel.

Come, unexpected God. 

Bring us your peace.

This is the first in a four week Advent series.

Earlier Advent One posts:
Advent One: What I’m Waiting For, Nov. 26, 2011  
Advent One: How Do I Know?   December 2, 2012 
Advent One: Rethinking Portfolios   Dec. 1, 2013 
Advent One: Hope Is Our Work, Nov. 30, 2014