I had a conversation with my best friend the other day. I’d just read an extremely disturbing article in Time magazine about war atrocities against women in the Sudan. It is unspeakable, almost unwriteable, and I had to vent my feelings lest they poison me. (You can read it here, but I’ll warn you, I had to stop reading about midway through.)
“Sometimes I think we should just eradicate these barbaric demons. They are barely even human. I know the women and girls would probably be collateral damage, and that would be terrible, but right now what they are living with is worse than death. Some of them would probably welcome death as mercy.”
My friend, who is the epitome of non-judgment, kindness, and unconditional love, replied to me with deep compassion, “That may be, but it would also be genocide.”
He was right, of course, and I sighed, grateful that he could listen to me without actually calling me Hitler. But my argumentativeness wouldn’t let go.
“But isn’t it the moral equivalent of justifying abortion when the fetus has a genetic problem or abnormality that would cause them great suffering, or would be born into poverty to a mom with a bunch of kids and no way to feed them?
“I think you know the answer to that question,” he said.
I paused, then continued. “But even God destroyed whole cities of people because of their depravity. Heck, He sent the flood to destroy the whole damn sinful world!”
“And you can see how well that worked.” My best friend can be as snarky as he is kind. “Let me ask you something,” he said. “If God Almighty Himself couldn’t eradicate the existence of evil in the world, what makes you think human beings could do any better?”
My friend then went on to give examples of how God actually did address the problem of saving the world from itself. Of course, they were familiar to me; I shared these very same with my third graders this year in religious ed. First, God made a promise to Noah never to destroy the world by flood. Then He befriended Abraham and made a covenant with him to make his descendants His chosen people. Then God saved His chosen people from the cruelty of slavery to the murderous Egyptians. He disciplined them for 40 years in the desert, but provided for their basic needs, and finally, He settled them in a land He designated as their permanent home.
God gave them laws – LAWS! – when the rest of the world was made up of lawless barbarians who were little more than animals, and God’s laws set limits – LIMITS! – on punishment and retribution. It was revolutionary to seek only an eye for an eye. Vengeance is mine, said the Lord. And even though these chosen people continually turned their back on God and suffered the natural consequences like misbehaving children, God never turned His back on them, and the whole world could see these people were unique and their solitary God was unlike the panoply of idols and beasts they worshiped.
The barbarism of humanity continued, admitted my friend, but God tended His chosen flock. Finally, He was ready to bring them to a new level of spiritual maturity. No longer was eye for eye enough, but turning the other cheek and forgiving 70 times seven times. God gave a new law to complete what He had begun in Genesis and Exodus. He donned flesh and lived not just in spirit but in body with them.
“And they killed him,” I interrupted obstinately. “At the end of the story the chosen people were no better than all the pagan hoards they thought they were so superior to.”
“Did you read this Sunday’s readings?” my friend asked. It was a rhetorical question; he knew I had. He started quoting Paul from the passage in Acts:
“It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first,
but since you reject it
and condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life,
we now turn to the Gentiles.
For so the Lord has commanded us,
I have made you a light to the Gentiles,
that you may be an instrument of salvation
to the ends of the earth.”
“God’s plan was never just for the Hebrews,” he said. “It was always intended for anyone who wanted an alternative to the evil ways of the world.”
I thought about all non-Hebrews in the Bible whom God had blessed – Ruth, the widow whose son Isaiah brought back to life, Naaman the Syrian who was healed of leprosy, the woman at the well, and many others.
“The Jews were jealous,” he continued, “they didn’t want to share, and they barely understood what a gift they’d been given in the first place. Their vision was so distorted they couldn’t even recognize their own God standing right in front of them when he quoted their own scripture! And sadly, they denied their blindness. But Jesus hand-picked a few friends and opened their eyes and their hearts. He made a new covenant with them and gave new commandments. He mirrored everything his Father had done in Genesis and Exodus, because He and the Father are one. Only this time, he told them to share it with the world. He showed them what love truly looks like when he died, and he proved to them there is more to living than just earthly existence when he rose from the dead and went before them to Heaven.”
“It’s a shame human beings have so corrupted the church Jesus started,” I said. “Christians have been no different than the Jews who had Christ crucified. They’ve done terrible things in God’s name.”
“Human nature is what it is, and even God won’t violate the rules he set up in the Garden of Eden,” said my friend. “Love is not possible without free will, and love was always more important to the Father than obedience, control, earthly perfection, or even peace. After all, He already has perfection in Heaven and within Himself, and the peace He gives surpasses earthly circumstances.”
I let it all sink in. My friend has so much wisdom, which is why I love spending time with him. An added bonus is, he’s one of the few people I know who never tires of my questioning and debating. This nut actually encourages me! I think he knows this is how I learn, and that I’m being teachable, not obstinate.
“I can tell you’re not fully satisfied,” he said, inviting me to continue our conversation long past the point where most courteous friends would have set the topic aside and moved on to the kids or the weather or the great new restaurant they tried last week.
“Well,” I started,” “All this salvation history stuff sounds great, but what difference does it make to the women and children who are raped to the point of death in the Sudan? Christianity doesn’t seem to be doing them a whole lot of good. It’s not doing Christians any favors in Iraq or Syria either, for that matter. Even Christians in the U.S. face first world problems like ridicule and disrespect from an increasingly secular society.”
“You need to hear the Sunday readings again,” He said. And then He read them to me. In the voices of two lectors and a priest, I heard His voice at Sunday evening mass.
“These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress;
they have washed their robes
and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
“For this reason they stand before God’s throne
and worship him day and night in his temple.
The one who sits on the throne will shelter them.
They will not hunger or thirst anymore,
nor will the sun or any heat strike them.
For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne
will shepherd them
and lead them to springs of life-giving water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
I imagined all the women, old and young, in Sudan who’d been raped, sodomized, left for dead only to survive carrying scars that few of us could ever understand, being washed in a heavenly river and restored. I could see them in my mind’s eye, at peace.
“My sheep hear my voice;
I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.
No one can take them out of my hand.
My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all,
and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand.
The Father and I are one.”
By the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, this sheep hears His voice. This is the relationship I have with my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This is why I can sing at mass every week, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,” and believe it. Christ comes again to me, personally, whenever I want to be with Him, and sometimes even when I don’t. He is the reason I’m rarely lonely when I’m alone, and the reason I’m frequently lonely when I let other people, places and things crowd Him out. He is the reason I write these words and the reason I wake up in the morning.
He is my best friend, and I feed our friendship whenever I eat his body and drink his blood in the Eucharist. I repair it whenever I go to Reconciliation. This friendship began before my memories, in the waters of baptism, which is why I had my children baptized, in the hope they would one day know Him like I do. I took him with me into adulthood at Confirmation. I experienced a deeper understanding of His sacrifice when I entered into the sacrament of marriage, a marriage that taught me unconditional love can look an awful lot like failure from the outside, and being born again can happen if I surrender my fantasies of how I think things “should” be, and let my ego and pride accept whatever cross will bring new life.
It is the most intimate relationship I’ve ever had or ever will have, and sharing it with others scares me. What if you make fun of me, or think I’m crazy? What if you judge my very human mistakes and call me a hypocrite? I’d hate for someone to reject friendship with God because of my failings to live up to the person He calls me to be.
I wonder if the disciples had these fears when they went out to spread the good news. Paul and Barnabas, it says, just shook the dust from their sandals and moved one when they faced rejection. Their focus was not on the ones who rejected them, but on the Gentiles who welcomed them. I need to remember that whenever I’m worried about what other people think of me.
I asked my friend how I should end this reflection, and he reminded be of a woman whose story I heard a few years ago. She had been gang raped in her twenties. She is now a recovering alcoholic, and her journey in recovery had taken her into prison to share the message of hope with some of the male inmates there who went to 12 step meetings. She told her story to them, and a few of the men came up to her afterward in tears. They had gang raped someone, and had found deep remorse for their behavior, and expressed their deep contrition to her. They begged for forgiveness. And she gave it, not only to these strangers, but to the men who had hurt her so deeply. When I heard her story I was moved to tears.
“You live in a world where not only can that happen, it actually did,” says my best friend. “Don’t ever forget that.”