Beslan

5 September 2004 at :00 am

Sermon for Matins, 5 September 2004, Westminster Abbey
by the Reverend Dr. Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon Theologian

This morning, as every morning and every evening at the Abbey for almost a thousand years, we have recited a portion of the psalms. Some of the psalms make very uncomfortable reading, so we prefer to leave them out. I often wonder whether that is wise. One such passage leapt into my mind as I heard about the terrible events in southern Russia on Friday:

‘O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back, What you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones And dash them against the rock! (Ps 137:8-9)

These are not words to be said or sung lightly: they are words to be whispered with fear, for they represent thoughts that are truly part of the human condition, thoughts which might go through the head of any one of us if we suffered sufficient trauma and loss. What we have seen acted out this week is an agony of human suffering which would not have surprised the Greeks who constantly re-imagined and re-enacted the horrors of the Trojan War; or the Jews, who have experienced the agony of whole communities, including their children, on an unimaginable scale, in Europe, within living memory; or, the people of Rwanda. Let me quote just one person’s experience of suffering of this depth:

"What I saw is so horrific I shall hardly be able to describe it … I think I was was incapable of absorbing the meaning of this cruelty any more, for there were also so many little babies, terribly mutilated … I was aware that I had constantly to brush hands away from me, hands which belonged to people who wanted me to take them with me, hands which clung to me. But I was much too weak to lift anyone up." [J. Glover, Humanity(London: Jonathan Cape, 1999), p. 79]

That was a description by Margaret Freyer, a survivor of the British bombing of Dresden on 13 February 1945, in which upwards of 30,000 people died. For the Sun to describe what happened this week in Beslan as ‘A New Depth of Evil’, as it did yesterday, is simply ignorant. The nightmare we saw this week has been part of our human condition for as long as human beings have hated each other. Those who read the psalms know that.

The simple and the easy reaction is, of course, to condemn the action of the terrorists, as world leaders have rightly done, without looking any deeper. I expect many of us have wept as we have heard the news or looked at the pictures coming out from Beslan and found ourselves unable to comprehend what must be every parent’s nightmare: for their child to be suffering and to be unable to reach and protect them; or now not to be able to find their children at all. I guess we are also all struggling to take in how anyone could herd children and adults together, could not be moved with compassion by their fear and incomprehension and thirst, and abuse them so terribly, even though we know exactly such things happened as the result of a carefully designed policy, month after month, to the Jews of Europe only sixty years ago; and images of children in extreme suffering are regularly planned, produced, paid for, and sought out on the internet. Now we are faced once more with what we human beings are capable of doing to each other there are no words adequately to describe – even if we were able to enter into – the suffering so deliberately inflicted on the people of Beslan. Acts like these are beyond the powers of mere human condemnation. In the end, they are acts that can only be laid before God the judge of all of us, who alone knows how human hearts could become so hardened and so sick.

I think we must, however, try to go a little deeper in reflecting, before God, on events we can still hardly take in. As a Christian, I do believe that in Christ we have been given just enough light to enable us to live with, and even overcome, terrible realities like those which have engulfed the poor people of Beslan. If the Gospel has nothing to say to those people; and to those who brought such agony into the midst of their community; and to us in the face of these events, everything we do in this Abbey is a sham and a waste of time.

So, let me ask, what does the Gospel have to say to the people of Beslan? Before trying to answer that question, there is an important preliminary comment to be made. What I can say in a sermon, trying, before God, just a little to see these terrible events in God’s daylight, is not what I would say if I were with someone in the midst of such agony. All I could do, all any of us do, would be to reach out to them, and, if they would permit it, to put our arms round them, to weep with them; simply to stay with them for as long as it took until it became a time for words. And that – which is the most human reaction regardless of whether we are believers or not – is also a Gospel reaction, for the Good News is that in Christ God has committed himself to the human condition in its entirety, from birth to death, and that when children are forced to drink their own urine, and their parents cannot reach out and put their arms round them, God is not absent. And in each human act of compassion and love and understanding God is present. Gathered this morning, as Christian people, we are called to enfold the people of Beslan with genuine love and with pity in our prayers. So let our prayers first be without words, perhaps with tears, perhaps with the ikons we have in the nave, so like the ikons of Christ and his mother throughout Russia; let our prayers be a sharing of grief – but then let us pray that our sisters and brothers who have suffered in this way, whether in Russia, Chechnya or many other parts of the world, may find the healing of Christ for their physical and psychological pain, which means the strength to forgive, and the grace not to be bitter or seek for revenge. They would not be human if they were not deeply, deeply tempted to seek revenge, and few of us can have experienced the challenge of the Gospel in circumstances remotely like theirs, but it in a situation like this the command of Christ needs to be heard again: ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy”. But I say to you, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven”’ (Mt 5:43-4). Such love is something against which the hostage-takers had clearly hardened their hearts - and may God have mercy on them for that - but it is precisely in a situation like this that the Gospel of forgiving your enemies - your real enemies, your tormentors - offers hope, for it points to the only way in which the cycle of hatred and killing, for the sake of all our children, may be brought to an end.

And what does the Gospel have to say to those whose hearts are hardened against even the suffering of babies? It says that God will judge their sin as a merciful judge; and that though they have taken a path which, in human terms, has put them beyond the reach of reconciliation or forgiveness, it was for people like them – and us - that Christ came into the world, ‘for Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’. It is not for us to judge the weight of guilt they must carry for what they have done: that is for God to judge. We know that the women in the group of militants, like the women who brought down two Russian aircraft last week, may well have themselves been bereaved in horrific circumstances and come to feel all that made life worth living was gone; we know that both the women and the man may well have believed that what they did was actually pleasing to God. At the very heart of the Christian faith is the Good News that the deepest, the most enduring and the most creative mystery in the whole of creation is the mystery of love: that God is love and in God there is no hatred at all. Yet, as the terrible story of the slaughter of the innocents in Matthew’s Gospel tells us, - ‘Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled because they are no more’ (Mt 2:18) - the cost of the coming of good into the world is a terrible intensification of evil. It goes to the heart of the human condition to say we find costly love and costly forgiveness utterly terrifying - revenge is so much easier. Yet it is God himself who invites us, who longs for his broken sons and daughters, to enter into this dynamic of reconciliation. The people who did such terrible things in Beslan had so obviously refused this dynamic: and this is why all we can do is to commend them to the judgment of God.

And what of ourselves in the face of such events? We do not know at what time and in what way the suffering and hatred that engulfed Beslan may touch us. In fact it already has, through the voices that analyse the situation in terms of ‘them’ and ‘us’; ‘light’ and ‘darkness’; ‘terrorists’ and ‘normal human beings’. The Gospel that has drawn us to the Abbey this morning is for normal human beings who can think and even act out the thought, ‘Happy shall they be who take your little ones, and dash them against the rock.’ We too are the sorts of human beings who can think such thoughts, and, caught up in circumstances of hatred and horror, could approve such deeds, as the psalms remind us. So, in our daily prayers at the Abbey, we not only read such Scriptures, but we also cry from the depths of our hearts for God’s forgiveness and God’s strength to enter into the dynamic of reconciliation which can only come from him. The wonderful news of the Gospel is that we don’t have to judge and we don’t have to condemn, either others or ourselves. That is for God to do, and we know - because of Christ - that God is always more ready to forgive, to rebuild, to recreate, than to condemn. So may God rebuild and recreate the lives of those who in Russia, and in Chechnya, who have suffered, and continue to suffer beyond words; and may God use us as agents of forgiveness and recreation in the situations where we find ourselves in our own lives. None of us can know, until we are pitched into a situation of tragedy such as we have seen this week, – from which, please God, may we be spared – how we would react to it. Our starting point can only be to face with honesty the knowledge that the propensity for hatred and cruelty is there in us, but that the Good News is also for us, and for all who in their inmost being have already died for need of healing and reconciliation. So, when we say the psalms, let us not omit a verse like the one we have been considering this morning, but let us whisper it with fear and trembling, and let our revulsion from such terrible images as those acted out before our eyes this week, bring us back to the feet of the one who, when he was abused, did not return abuse; when he suffered, did not threaten; but entrusted himself to the one who judges justly’, and let us, as we contemplate our own propensity for violence and pitiless cruelty, even against children in all their innocence and beauty, hear again that, ‘Christ himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we, being freed from sins, might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed’ (cf. I Peter 2:23-4). And let us pray for such healing in Beslan today.

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