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The third way

The third way

The third way

21 May 2019

Photo: Chang Duong

By Mark Hadley

A few weeks ago, arguably the most despised man in New Zealand appeared in court. He stands accused of perpetrating what Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has labelled as “one of the darkest days” in her nation’s history – the deadly attack on two mosques in Christchurch.

The 50 fatalities and numerous serious injuries that followed have resulted in a variety of responses over the past months. Yet broadly speaking they fall into just two categories, both of which have proved equally ineffective as longterm solutions to the problem of pain.

So, is it time we give serious consideration to an unlikely ‘third way’? Sympathy is our first appropriate and understandable response. It’s not just the tragedy of the circumstances, or the scale of the killings, or even the Western world’s shocking unfamiliarity with violent death. It is the point of connection. Among 50 victims, it’s not hard to locate one that mirrors some part of your own life.

Reporting the death of three-year-old Mucad Ibraham literally brought New Zealand newsreader and father Patrick Gower to tears. Our hearts break because we can too easily see ourselves in this tragedy.

But the truth is even this heartfelt sympathy evaporates over time. It’s not just because the news cycle replaces horror with horror at a relentless rate.

In 2009, the international aid agency World Vision instructed media workers to specifically avoid showing the faces of starving children, even though they were dealing with a crisis in Uganda, because doing so was proving counterproductive.

The phenomenon has been referred to as ‘donor fatigue’. Opening ourselves to one problem makes us aware of another, and another ... and the world contains a bottomless pit of sadness and need.

But there is only so much of it the human heart can absorb before it grows a self-protecting callus. More massacres and famines, floods and fires follow, and many quietly conclude that these tragedies are unhappy facts of life.

They are to be grieved, certainly, but ultimately to be borne and accepted. However, as Christians, we need to admit with great shame that sometimes even the worst disasters fail to elicit our sympathy.

This, again, is a heart problem. We feel the pity associated with a Christchurch-style incident in a detached way because our responses too often flow along sectarian lines. Our hearts ache at the idea of Coptic Christians killed for their faith, but Islamic worshippers...?

“Aren’t they playing for the opposite team?” a quiet, internal voice asks. But Jesus steadfastly rejected the idea that an extraordinary tragedy somehow signified extraordinary guilt.

When he was asked about the Galileans Pontius Pilate had murdered alongside their sacrifices, he responded: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:2-3).

In times of tragedy, Jesus doesn’t suggest hunting for simplistic explanations that settle on ‘guilt’, but instead he urges us to ensure our own house is in order. For some, though, sympathy leads to a second response. The path of activism.

In Christchurch, the cries of agony quickly transformed into calls for action. News services trumpeted Ms Ardern’s quick response in announcing a ban on all military-style semi-automatics and assault rifles in New Zealand.

Other bulletins reported New Zealand’s overwhelming mood for change. A meeting in Christchurch led to the Human Rights Foundation creating a website to report incidents of ‘Islamaphobia’. Across the Tasman, calls emerged for reviews of Australia’s gun control and anti-discrimination laws.

In the United Kingdom, Muslims began campaigning for greater protection following five attacks on Birmingham mosques. These attempts to rework society to avoid tragedy are both logical and laudable.

Sadly, though, they run up against the same limitation as the sympathy that inspired them: the human heart. The motivation behind such calls to action is the conviction that we are capable of making a better world. However, gun control has only ever succeeded in limiting such tragedies, not eliminating them, because ultimately it’s not the guns that are at fault.

Evil does not spring from circumstances, but the cavities of the human heart. Consequently, even the best planned attempts for restraining its outbreak are undermined by our own natures. In the wake of Christchurch, the very politicians responsible for implementing protective legislation are now being accused of profiteering from the tragedy that inspired it.

There is a third response, though, that embraces sympathy and acknowledges the need for action, but does not rest its hope in either. At a time of immense persecution and government-sponsored terror, Jesus called on his beleaguered countrymen to try something no one had thought of before: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy’. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you ...” (Matthew 5:43-44).

It was a shocking thing to say then, and it remains so today. The idea of loving the man responsible for the Christchurch murders, and offering prayers on his behalf, sounds like utter madness.

Yet Jesus’ words carry the seeds of three essential truths. Firstly, any response to evil must include an acceptance that at some level we all carry part of the problem within us. We are all in need of overwhelming, transforming love, not just our enemies.

Secondly, we need to ask for help. The 2000 years of history between now and when Jesus spoke is evidence enough our world is no closer to finding a solution to suffering.

Thirdly, the solution is beyond humanity. The purpose of such a response, Jesus concluded, was that it would lead us to change not just our society, but our very identity: “... that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:45). We don’t just need hearts that feel the pain of those around us. Nor do we just need a reformed social contract.

Prayers for those who have hurt us arise from hearts that feel their own faults. We need an identity-transforming relationship – every single one of us.

That relationship has to be with the only One who can truly claim to be our father, the One who gave us every good thing. What humans have brought about in Christchurch and 10,000 other places is a result of the fundamental breakdown of that relationship.

We can and should do much to prevent another ‘Christchurch’, but to find a permanent solution, we need to listen to Christ.

Mark Hadley is a contributing writer for Others.

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