We are reeling from the shock and tragedy of the massacre on March 15th, trying to show solidarity with the suffering and grieving, and trying to come to terms with the questions it asks of us as a nation. I saw that someone had calculated the statistical equivalent per head of population of 50 deaths in New Zealand with 3,344 deaths in the USA. No wonder we are reeling.
There is a verse in the Quran[i] about how the killing of one person would be as if the murderer had killed all humankind. The verse points to the ripple effects of unjust murder cascading out bringing pain and heartache to so many.
As people of faith who gather this morning on our day of worship in our sacred space to have such a massacre happen to other people of faith on their day of worship in their sacred space is an affront to many of our core religious values. In a place that celebrates life, death has come. In a place of the beauty of holiness, has come the ugliness of violence. In a place where any are welcome, hospitality has been brutally violated. Bigotry, hate and violence have come through the front door.
Every day in our papers there are columns, opinion pieces, and letters of people, here and overseas, trying to grieve and grapple with this affront. Here’s a few that caught my eye:
Sheila Pritchard, spiritual director, writes: I do think there are dangers in being quick to talk in us/not us terms. These kinds of attacks are motivated by fear of the other. Hard as it is to admit, there are in NZ, many people who fear and (therefore hate and attack) various groups as "other" than themselves. These people are part of the corporate "us" of NZ. Of course that doesn't mean we condone or in any way support their actions. Maybe we need to think a bit more about Alexander Solzhenitsyn's quote that "The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being."
Matthew Willis, UN peace keeper, writes: Current trends in the West show us that kindness and decency are not default settings and can erode quickly if not sufficiently protected. So when we stress that this is not "who we are", we should be prepared to also champion why "who we are" is so important. We should actively make the case, repeatedly if necessary, for decency, kindness, and respect whenever and wherever we encounter bigotry or hate, and to explain how these qualities make us a stronger and safer society.
Lloyd Jones, author, writes: We are not an entirely innocent people. Like any other nation, we have our demons. Our colonial history which over decades has made each new generation blush with shame. But, one of the fine things about New Zealand and its people is a willingness to face up to its ugly and unflattering history. We have been strenuous and sincere in our efforts to re-make a society based on inclusiveness and dignity and cultural awareness.
And on Farid Ahmed: What a remarkable man he is. Despite losing his wife in the shooting his message is, “Anger and fighting doesn’t fix anything, but through love and care we can warm the heart. We should do that.”
The Bible readings for today seem far removed from the horror of the massacre on March 15th. They seem to be about snake-bite, miraculous healing, and some pious claims about Jesus – descended from heaven, offering eternal life to believers, and saving the world. And they can be read that way. But they also can be understood quite differently, in a way that speaks to our fears and offers a way into hope.
The context of Numbers chapter 21 is of Moses leading a group of Hebrew people out of Egypt and into the wilderness, on their way to the supposed ‘Promised Land’. But the wilderness doesn’t look promising. There is a gap between expectation and reality; and the reality is the wanderers are hungry and thirsty. So they grumble.
The author of this passage from Numbers, having a god who doesn’t brook no grumbling, has snakes come along to bite the dissenters, and many die. Animals too often get the blame in the Bible!
Let’s assume for a moment that there is a historical incident here where deadly snake-bite and resulting fatalities are common. On top of other privations a deep sense of despair pervades the group. Not surprising, having a deity who is meant to be omnipotent, the deity gets blamed; as does the deity’s spokesperson, Moses.
When tragedy strikes we want to apportion blame. And some of that apportioning is for the noble purpose of avoiding a repeat of the tragedy. And so, in our context today, we see comments and planned actions around gun control, confronting hate speech and prejudice, racism, anti-immigrant sentiments and the like. We want to do something so that it never happens again.
Like the people in the Book of Numbers we can also blame past policies and leaders, though in secular NZ we rarely nowadays blame God.
The focus on avoiding a repeat of the tragedy through blame can though distract from our fears and our personal responsibility in shaping a healing future. One of the key things we can do so that it never happens again is to dream, affirm and work together for what we want that future to be like.
As the Bible story goes the dissenters say sorry for their grumbling, and Moses – under instruction from his god – makes a bronze serpent and raises it up on a pole. When someone has been bitten they can look upon that pole snake and find healing.
So the solution offered to the tragedy and trauma of snake-bite deaths was to look up at the thing you feared. The solution was not sending a plague to kill off all snakes. The solution was not the promise of a good afterlife or a future snake-free ‘Promised Land’. The solution was to look clearly at what has hurt and wounded you.
Many centuries later the Johannine Community trying to interpret the stories and memories of Jesus in their context, used this text from Numbers 21. A word about Johannine context: Following the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE antagonism between faithful Jews who would later be known as followers of Rabbinic Judaism and faithful Jews who followed the teachings of Jesus increased. At the Council of Jamnia in 90 it was formalized that members of the Jesus movement would be expelled from the synagogues. This expulsion produced a crisis of faith for the movement, and John’s Gospel was created to address the needs of the newly isolated community. [It also explains why this is the most anti-Semitic gospel].
So the writer of John chapter 3 likened the beaten and tortured Jesus, nailed to the cross, to Moses’ serpent on the pole. The writer was suggesting that members of this community in crisis would likewise find healing, salvation, and restoration by looking at the thing they feared – suffering, isolation, and abandonment. Remember the crucifixion narratives not only have Jesus suffering physical torment, but being abandoned by his friends, followers, and even by his God.
To use the light/dark metaphor that is prevalent in the Johannine gospel: It is by looking into the dark/suffering that we will find light/understanding.
So the hope that is offered by the writer is not that of a triumphal god swinging down to rescue the elect and carry them off to a heavenly home. Rather ‘lifting up the cross’ is an action, a theology of solidarity with the suffering. It is looking into the abyss of suffering in order that we might understand both God and ourselves – a God who suffers with us.
That’s where the text finishes but not our reflections. We have a resurrection belief that love is stronger than hate. In our sorrow and solidarity with the suffering of the Islamic community we also must take time to look at our own fears. What do we want Aotearoa New Zealand to be like? Can we look at the prejudice and racism in our land, in us, and change? Do we really believe and want to work towards a country that proclaims love is stronger than hate? It’s a very practical belief for us that we have to choose to live by, and live by every day. It’s a belief that was attacked on March 15th; and it’s a belief that needs to arise and re-assert itself.
But a belief that love is stronger than hate is not enough. We need to sketch a grand narrative that makes room for everyone – regardless of race, culture, religion – to fit in. I see Jacinda Ardern’s words to those grieving about ‘New Zealand being your home and you should be safe here’ fitting into this sketch. This grand narrative does not ignore our racism, faults, and the disparities in our land. Rather it holds out the vision of a radical hospitality. It does not ignore the hard work of living with people who think very differently from us and who wish to impose their views on others. But it invites us to participate in building a dream of Aotearoa without violence; Aotearoa honouring individual freedom; Aotearoa celebrating difference; and Aotearoa creating and supporting caring communities.
Sometimes change happens
through persistent and strategic protest,
like a dripping tap upon a stone slab
wearing its way through the impenetrable -
like equal rights for women, minorities…
Sometimes change happens
through an innovation that looked innocent -
like the printing press, electricity, the internet…
little transforming the massive,
re-shaping the categories of possible.
Sometimes change happens
through searing trauma and tragedy,
and resolve not to just avoid a repeat
but to sketch a big inclusive vision that all
can join in colouring in and living out.
My hope is that we may be
on our way towards the latter.
[i] Quran 5:32 The verse also says to save one soul would be as if the life of all was saved.