This has been a month of terrible and disturbing news. Islamic State fanatics have executed U.S. journalists and British aid workers, sending out grisly videos of these killings as well as of their mass shootings of helpless people lying face down in ditches. The visuals are horrifying. I can’t stop thinking about the Holocaust and other despicable acts of barbarism.
I realize that these heinous ways of torturing and killing each other have been going on since the dawn of what we call humanity. Is it any less humane to drop a nuclear bomb on a city? Somehow it doesn’t seem so awful because we don’t have to watch a video of the terrible, unthinkable act of a human killing another human by hand. Just like the truckload of turkeys on their way to be massacred and eaten, it’s all quite acceptable as long as we don’t have to watch the reality of it.
I’ve heard people ask how God could allow such evil brutality to exist. They often point to the story of the crucifixion of Yeshua (Jesus) as proof of God’s own cruel nature in requiring a blood sacrifice. Or they cite God’s lack of compassion for our frailty by expecting us to embrace painful circumstances and man/woman up to them because Yeshua was able to; their point being that Yeshua would be able to endure the cross if he was God incarnate or God’s son because he knew he was going right back to heaven afterward. Big deal, right? He had nothing to worry about, nothing to fear, unlike the rest of us worrying about the great unknown.
George MacDonald has a good answer regarding whether Yeshua truly suffered or not:
“Let no one think that … [his sufferings] were less because He was more. The more delicate the nature, the more alive to all that is lovely and true, lawful and right, the more does it feel the antagonism of pain, the inroad of death upon life; the more dreadful is that breach of the harmony of things whose sound is torture.”
(From George MacDonald: An Anthology • 365 Readings, compiled by C.S. Lewis, p. 17)
This is not like the torture of hearing someone sing or play out of tune, or the torture of a jackhammer going outside your window. When the world is out of tune, when evil has a field day, when blood is spilled in rivers on the ground, when innocent people are brutally murdered, we feel the same wrenching heartache that the gentle soul of Yeshua felt watching our unending hatred toward anyone not like us. This hatred was what motivated his killers, and it is a hatred that runs deep in our so-called humanity.
Because of what these Islamic State monsters have done, I confess with much sadness that I see hatred growing in my own heart for followers of Islam. Would I grab a gun or push the red button if they had killed my friend or family member over there? I’d be sorely tempted. What do I do with this hatred? If I pretend it’s not there, it festers. If I act on it, it explodes.
Here it is, Rosh Hashanah and the beginning of the days of awe prior to Yom Kippur, which will then finish the traditional 40 days of repentance. If I repent of my hatred, will it stay away? If I allow my hatred to remain unchecked and unchallenged, will I become like the very enemies I abhor?
It may seem like a stretch to bring up the Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah in Genesis 22, the story of Abraham when he was told by God to sacrifice his only son. I have read many fascinating commentaries on this story of a father doing the unthinkable (here’s a thought-provoking one: http://www.aish.com/tp/i/moha/68264477.html). Many of them refer to Abraham’s unwavering faith that if Isaac indeed lost his life, God would bring him back to life.
This sounds just like the argument that Yeshua had it easy on the cross because he knew he was going to be okay in the end. I don’t believe Abraham had an easy time, any more than Yeshua did. I think when he raised the knife to kill his beloved son, he was feeling the same horror we feel when we see the terrifying videos of innocent people being slaughtered, the same horror Yeshua felt when he was cruelly tortured and killed.
The story of Isaac’s eleventh-hour rescue on the altar is called the Akeida. I think the Akeida has much to tell us about our natural fears as well as our natural hatred. I always wondered why such a disturbing story would be the centerpiece of a positive celebration like Rosh Hashanah, with all the shofar-blowing, apples and honey, and wishes for a joyous New Year. We are deathly afraid of fear. I know I am. Gut-wrenching cold terror is not something I seek—ever.
But if it’s true that God’s ways are not our ways, that what makes sense to us naturally has no bearing on what is really going on, that God’s thinking is our thinking turned on its head, then everything we fear is actually something to be desired.
Is death to be desired? Like Gandalf says in The Return of the King, “and then you see it . . . white shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.” Like Pippin, I would say, “Well, that isn’t so bad.”
Is horror to be desired? I venture to say (quaking in my boots, of course), perhaps we should be more like those intrepid soldiers on the front lines instead of hiding at home waiting for someone else to die for us. Perhaps each of us is quite capable of facing down an ISIS terrorist like each victim in the videos, just as Yeshua coolly faced down his murderers.
I don’t know what the faith foundation was for each person who was murdered by ISIS this month, but I pray that each one found the strength to embrace the unknown, to let go of the known, to face the end with the dignity of a true human being, rising above the bestial evil around them. That is how I will remember them and honor their lives and their sacrifice. And I pray this enduring, transcendent vision will stand in stark contrast to our natural view of these horrors, especially for their families. May God bless the families of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, David Haines, and Alan Henning, and the countless other victims of this evil group.
“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” There are many ways to die, from the unthinkable to the painless, and it is a portal we must all pass through. Does it ultimately matter how we take leave of our tiny lives here to go on to the next step of our journey? No one owns our souls no matter how they may treat our bodies, and therein lies the hidden victory.