Friday, 22 January, 1999 should have by all means been an ordinary working day for Graham Staines, his wife Gladys and his three children. The Staines‘ were Christian missionaries from Australia, serving the poor and taking care of the lepers in Odisha, India. Graham had worked in this place for thirty-four years by then, from 1965. That fateful night, Graham was camping overnight with his two sons in his jeep after a visit to a jungle camp. They were woken up suddenly to the cries of Hindu fundamentalists who had surrounded the jeep. The group of about 50 men, who carried torches, axes and other weapons, started chanting religious slogans and proceeded to set the jeep on fire, with the Staines still in them. When they tried to get out, they were pushed back inside, ensuring the three were burnt alive. The atrocity was widely condemned, though violence against Christians since then has never abated. Be it violence against a minority group, political or otherwise, be it opportunistic violence against women or something systematically executed, it is always terrifying to fall into the hands of a mob. It is the place where the worst of (fallen) humanity comes to the fore, amplified as it were by the collective, giving it some kind of super-human (or should I say sub-human) strength in all its monstrosity. But it is terrifying also, because one of humanity’s deepest fears is to find oneself all alone, alienated from everyone, from everything. Whether it is before an angry mob or it is in dying alone, as so many are experiencing in this time of isolation, they all touch on the same fear of alienation.
Faced with such incidents, with such terror, we can lose our voice. The lack of any kind of rationality mean there is no-thing to be made sense of. That is why Augustine and the Fathers, described evil as simply no-thingness. Nietzsche was not far when he described the Abyss. The Scriptures are familiar with man’s depravity and uncontrolled violence. It uses different images to describe it – the chaos or the flood. In Genesis, as sin spirals out of control, all of creation goes back into a watery chaos, destroying everything created. And whenever man would try to fight it or look too much into this nothingness, he would, as Nietzsche understood, be sucked into it even more. Because this flood, this violence that always threatens to destroy everything arises from one’s heart.
And to those who would begin to find a voice, it is easy to ask where is God in the face of such horrors. It is especially when violence is carried out in the name of God, that one can be sure that God is also not present. To turn the question another way, is to acknowledge this place, unleashed in man’s depravity as one of god-lessness and god-forsakenness. The real question however, is where man is, in the face of such in-humanity that regularly (dis)graces our television screens. How can man lose so much of his humanity, how can he transform, behave in ways which even animals wouldn’t? The two questions are not different. It is when man knows God, that he also finds his humanity. One who is fully human, is the glory of God. And in the Passion of Christ, we see all of these together.
The Gospels have often been called passion narratives with a long introduction. Most of it is focused on only the last three years of his life and with increasing focus on the last week and on the last few hours before Christ’s death.
Almost every human dysfunctionality, sin, depravity is out on display during this time. There is the persecution by the religious elders – as they struggle to protect their own power. Their hypocrisy as they have an invalid trial and convict with false testimony. The betrayal by his closest friends, their abandonment in his moment of need. The mocking of the crowds who have for three years known his kindness and miracles aiding them. The cowardice and injustice of the Roman procurator, the representative of an empire which prided itself on its justice. The false piety of the religious leaders who stand quoting the Scriptures at the foot of the Cross. The insults as they demand that he come down so they could believe in him – because there had not been enough miracles already. The boredom of the soldiers, hardened to such violence, who sit there casting lots.
Pilate will wash his hands, handing Jesus over to the mob, as all justice fails. Into this storm which unleashes all human depravity, the Father hands over his beloved son. In handing over his Son, the Father hands over himself, because the Father’s life cannot be separated from that of the Son. The God who created all, lets himself be manhandled and degraded, tortured and crucified. Jeremiah’s storm would burst upon with all its fury over the Son. Jesus, who would fully know what is coming, would already experience all this terror in the garden, as he would desperately cry out to his Father for strength. Being sinless, he would experience the horror of all that was coming much more than anyone else could. His disciples, constantly falling asleep would deny him even the little human consolation he could have expected, at the time he needed it most. And on the cross, the Father would finally hide his face, letting Jesus experience complete abandonment, so that his suffering would be complete.
Here, God answers those who would ask where he is in the storm. He is near those who suffer. He has suffered our violence. On the Cross, he would take our violence and sin upon himself and set us free through his forgiveness. He who would climb the mountain of the Beatitudes and tell people to forgive their enemies, will forgive and even make excuses for those who would torture and kill him. He who said love your neighbour, will love those crucified next to him.He stepped into the waters in his baptism, now he would fully be immersed in the flood. He would step into the Abyss, into that place of god-forsakenness, so that there would be no place where we would find ourselves abandoned and alienated.
On the 23rd January, Gladys Staines woke to the news of her husband and children’s brutal murder. She came out and spoke of forgiveness to their murderers. She stayed in India for the next fifteen years, continuing their ministry among the lepers. She spoke of this grace to forgive using the words of a popular Christian song – ‘because he lives, I can face tomorrow’. Just as the tombs would be opened at Christ’s death, beginning the end of death’s stronghold, it would continue working in those who would open themselves to his love, setting them free from death’s grasp.
Maybe you find yourself isolated and alone this Sunday due to the pandemic. Maybe you feel alone and cut off from others and even from God. Maybe you are being crushed under a burden you feel too heavy to bear. In Christ’s forsakenness, God has come close to you and me. He has borne our burdens and carried our iniquities. He is near and all we have to do is give thanks for his love and his death which sets us free.