Posts tagged ‘Mourning’

Castro’s Death and the Christian’s Hope

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When news first came a little over a week ago that the longtime brutal dictator of the island nation of Cuba, Fidel Castro, had died, the reactions to his death ranged from the viscerally ecstatic to the weirdly and inappropriately sublime.  Many reports simply sought to chronicle the events of Castro’s life without much moral commentary, but, as Christians, we know that a man who, over the course of his raucous reign, murdered, according to one Harvard-trained economist, close to 78,000 people is due at least some sort of moral scrutiny.  As Cuba concludes a time of mourning over the death of a man who himself brought much death, I humbly offer these few thoughts on how we, as Christians, should ethically process the life of one of history’s most famous and infamous leaders.

We should not be afraid to call wickedness what it is.

It is true that there were some bright spots in the midst of Castro’s morally dark oppression of Cuba.  Cuba’s literacy rate, for instance, stands at 99.8 percent thanks to its government’s emphasis on education.  It has also been reported that the robust healthcare system there has resulted in one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world at 5.8 deaths per 1,000 births, although The Wall Street Journal has called this number into question.

Whatever good Castro may have done should not excuse or serve as rationalization for his gruesome human rights violations.  As ABC News reports:

Over the course of Castro’s rule, his regime rounded up people for nonviolent opposition to his government and subjected many to torture and decades-long imprisonment.

In a January 1967 interview with Playboy magazine, Castro admitted there were 20,000 “counter-revolutionary criminals” in Cuba’s prisons…

Under his dictatorship, Castro arrested dissidents and gay citizens and forced them into labor or prison, according to human rights groups. He is also responsible for mass executions of people who spoke out against his government.

There is simply no way to mask or minimize the atrocities that Castro committed.  They were – and are – evil.  As Christians, we should be willing to call evil for what it is – not only for the sake of upholding moral standards, but for the sake of being honest about the way in which Castro’s immorality took countless human lives.

We should remember those who Castro brutalized and pay attention to those who are currently being brutalized.

The website cubaarchive.org is devoted to remembering those Castro murdered.  The stories in the “Case Profiles” section of the site are heart-rending.  In one case, a tugboat carrying children was intentionally sunk by order of Castro himself because the people on it were trying to escape Cuba.  In another case, U.S. citizen Francis Brown was given a lethal injection at a Guantanamo hospital that ultimately killed him while, on that same day, his daughter’s full term unborn child was murdered by doctors at a Havana hospital.  These stories should not be forgotten.  These are victims who should not fade into the recesses of history, for they remind us who Fidel Castro really was – an egomaniacal madman with no regard for any life besides his own.

These stories should also lead us to seek justice for those currently suffering under oppressive and brutal regimes.  The stories of people in places like Syria, Iraq, and Sudan should demand our attention and touch our hearts.

Though we should not eulogize Castro’s life, we also should not revel in his death.

It is understandable that many have celebrated the death of a despot like Castro.  Indeed, Scripture understands and points to this reality: “When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices; when the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy” (Proverbs 11:10).  But even if this is an understandable and natural reaction to the death of a dictator, we do well to remember that God’s reaction to the death of the wicked is more measured: “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways” (Ezekiel 33:11)!  God refuses to rejoice at the death of the wicked because He understands that such rejoicing ultimately serves no purpose. For when the wicked die, they stand eternally lost and condemned.  This helps no one and fixes nothing.  This is why God’s preference is not death, but repentance.  Death is merely the result of wickedness.  Repentance is the remedy to wickedness.  God would much prefer to fix wickedness than to let it run its course.

As Christians, we are called to mimic God’s character in our responses to the death of the wicked: “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice, or the LORD will see and disapprove and turn His wrath away from them” (Proverbs 24:17-18).  These verses caution us not to revel in the death of an enemy while also reminding us that God will render a just judgment on the wicked.  And God’s justice is better than our jeers. 

We should find our hope in the One over whose death the world once reveled.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of God’s refusal to rejoice in the death of the wicked is the fact that the wicked once reveled in the death of His perfectly righteous Son.  The Gospel writer Mark records that when Jesus was on the cross:

Those who passed by hurled insults at Him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save Yourself!” In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked Him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but He can’t save Himself! Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.”  (Mark 15:29-32)

For God not to rejoice in the death of the wicked when the wicked rejoiced in the death of His Son reveals not only God’s gracious character, but His perfect plan.  For God deigned that, by the mocking of the wicked, wickedness itself should be defeated.  Indeed, at the very moment the wicked thought they had succeeded in defeating God’s Holy One, God’s Holy One had accomplished His mission of opening salvation to the wicked.  Our hope, then, is not in the death of a wicked man, but in the crucifixion of a righteous One.  His righteousness is stronger than Castro’s wickedness.  That is the reason we can rejoice.

December 5, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Thoughts on the Martyrdom of Rev. Jacques Hamel

FRANCE-ATTACK-CHURCH-HOSTAGE

A French police officer stands guard by Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray’s city hall.
Credit: AFP Photo / Charly Triballeau

France is under assault.  Less than two weeks after 84 people were killed in Nice when a terrorist drove a large van at high speeds through a crowd of revelers who were celebrating Bastille Day, word comes that an 85-year-old priest, Rev. Jacques Hamel, had his throat slit in front of his congregation in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray as he was concluding a Tuesday morning Mass last week.  ISIS quickly claimed responsibility for the attack, though there is no evidence that the attackers had been been able to make contact with the radical group.  In response to the killing, French President François Hollande remarked, “We must realize that the terrorists will not give up until we stop them.”[1]  But stopping them is proving more difficult than anyone imagined.  It turns out that, in this attack, one of the killers was wearing and electronic tag that tracked his motions because he was under house arrest after he attempted to travel to Syria in 2015.  But his tracking device did nothing to thwart his murderous rampage.

France, of course, is gripped by fear. ISIS and its sympathizers seem intent on starting nothing less than a holy war.  And managing an effective military and police defense seems next to impossible.  This is why it is important that, as Christians, we remember that even though physical defenses can fail us, we have a spiritual defense that is sure.  The apostle Paul writes:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power…Put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:10, 13-17)

Paul’s famous words speak of the spiritual defense we have against every kind of evil attack.  Against lies, we buckle a belt of truth.  Against wickedness, we stand with the breastplate of righteousness.  Against violence, we charge forth with the gospel of peace. Against faithlessness, we take up the shield of faith. And against the devil’s attempts to speak condemnation over us, we wear a helmet of salvation and wield the sword of God’s Word.  We are impressively outfitted.

But Paul is not yet done.  He continues:

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should. (Ephesians 6:18-20)

Even though the NIV translates Paul’s words here as a new sentence, the Greek syntax of this passage lends itself toward being one, long run-on sentence that begins in verse 17 when Paul calls on us to take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit.  In this way, then, Paul’s words in verses 18 through 20 tell us how we are to wield the weapons he outlines in verses 14 through 17.  We are to wield them prayerfully.  When we fight against evil, we are not to do so angrily or bitterly or pridefully, but prayerfully.

Granted, fighting against evil’s attacks prayerfully will not always appear to be effective.  Look at Paul!  The very man who is extolling the prayerful use of the weapons of God notes that he is “in chains” (verse 20).  He is being persecuted for his faith and his persecutors appear to have the upper hand.  But Paul knows things are not always as they appear.  Just like Christ when He was crucified, a person who appears to be a victim can ultimately prove to be the victor.  Indeed, one of the fascinating things about the Christian’s posture toward martyrdom is that although it is not to be sought, it is also not necessarily always to be fought.  The apostle Peter, who himself was eventually martyred for the faith, wrote, “If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name” (1 Peter 4:16).  Peter says a Christian can find joy even in things as ghastly as suffering and death.  When a Christian fights, therefore, he fights more for the truth of Christ than he does against his own suffering and death.

None of this is to say that the death of Father Hamel is anything less than tragic.  Prayers for his family, his friends, and the parish at which he served are certainly in order.  What happened last week was evil.  And Father Hamel’s voice is now added to the voices under Revelation’s altar that cry out, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until You judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood” (Revelation 6:10)?  The cry of Father Hamel’s blood will not fall on deaf ears.  When Christ returns, there will be a reckoning for his unjust death.

Shortly after last week’s events in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, a friend of mine posted a quote from the great Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard: “The tyrant dies and his rule is over, the martyr dies and his rule begins.”[2]  This is most certainly true.  This gentle, aged priest, though he no longer leads in a parish, is now ruling “in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6).

And for that, even as I am sorrowful, I am thankful.

________________________

[1] Adam Nossiter, Alissa J. Rubin and Benoît Morrene, “ISIS Says Its ‘Soldiers’ Attacked Church in France, Killing Priest,” The New York Times (7.26.2016).

[2] Søren Kierkegaard, Papers and Journals, Alastair Hannay, trans. (London: Penguin Books, 1996), 352.

August 1, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

Easter MorningThe women on that first Easter went to the tomb to mourn.  They went to mourn the loss of their friend.  They went to mourn the loss of, for one of the women, a family member.  They went to mourn the loss of hope.  Of course, when they arrived the tomb, they got something they had never bargained for.  They were greeted by a glorious being with an unlikely message: “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; He has risen, just as He said” (Matthew 28:5-6).

It was on Easter morning that these women, to use the words of the prophet Jeremiah, had their “mourning [turned] into gladness” and received “comfort and joy instead of sorrow” (Jeremiah 31:13).

Mourning may not be pleasant, but it is needed.  In many ways, I would argue that we don’t mourn enough.  At funerals, rather than addressing the reality of death, people will often try to dull the pain of a loss by casting the service in terms of a celebration of the person who has died.  A eulogist will say something like, “This person wouldn’t have wanted us to be sad!”  Mourning, which is nothing other than the natural and inescapable response to something as heinous as death, is dismissed, downplayed, and depressed in favor of a skin-deep smile.

To make matters worse, when we are not mourning something as intense as the loss of a loved one, we can wind up jettisoning mourning altogether. We not only try to moderate our mourning, we can replace our mourning with something different entirely.

There is plenty that should command our mournfulness.  Greed, corruption, malfeasance, and general godlessness should pain us all.  Sadly, rather than mourning these things, we often trade mourning for grumbling.  This seems especially true in the political arena.  We grumble about health care.  We grumble about immigration.  We grumble about political constituencies that are not our political constituencies.  But replacing mourning with grumbling is dangerous.

The ancient Israelites were experts at grumbling.  Exodus 16:2 says, “In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron.”  Numbers 14:2 repeats the same refrain: “All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, ‘If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness!’”  The ancient Israelites were experts at grumbling.  But their grumbling carried with it consequences.  The Psalmist recounts the story of Israel during her wandering in the wilderness and says: “They grumbled in their tents and did not obey the LORD. So He swore to them with uplifted hand that He would make them fall in the wilderness” (Psalm 106:25-26).  The apostle Paul admonishes his readers to “not grumble, as some of [the Israelites] did – and were killed by the destroying angel” (1 Corinthians 10:10).  Clearly, God has little time or tolerance for grumbling.  Why?  Because grumbling leads nowhere good.  It leads to rebellion.  The Israelites grumbled about God and then built a golden calf in rebellion against God.  It leads to revenge.  Cain grumbled about his brother Abel’s sacrifice to God right before he killed his brother.  Grumbling leads to sin.  James puts it quite succinctly when he writes, “Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged” (James 5:9).

There is plenty for us, in our day, to mourn.  But sincere mourning over sin is quite different from self-righteous grumbling against sinners.  One perpetuates sin by doing little more than whining about it.  The other fights sin by asking the Lord to rescue us from it.

In a world filled with grumbling, may we remember how to mourn.  And may we also believe Christ’s promise: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).  Mourning, Jesus says, is blessed.  Grumbling, Scripture warns, is condemned.  Let’s make sure we’re doing what God blesses rather than falling prey to what He condemns.

March 28, 2016 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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