The First Hour

21 March 2008 at :00 am

If you travel a few miles north of Munich in Germany you soon come to an attractive little market town set in gently undulating Bavarian countryside. As you drive up the main street it seems a typically happy place, families quietly going about their business, children playing in the side streets in the friendly way children can. Off the High Street you can turn to the right following the signs to the industrial area of the town, and suddenly you come across a large compound enclosed by a high wall. You can pay to enter, and you can walk around to see the foundations of the buildings that used to occupy most of the area, visit the exhibition in what used to be the main administrative block, and go to the memorials that are placed at the far end.

It's a terrible place, and the town's name says it all, for this is Dachau, and the compound is the concentration camp that has made the town’s name synonymous with much that is evil in the 20th century. It is, I think, one of the most awful places I have ever visited. I could not but be filled with a sense of horror and outrage at the pictures in the exhibition, and I could only go to the little chapel that is set off the compound and fall to my knees and pray. To go there is to be reminded just how ghastly some of the things that have happened in the last hundred years have been.

But it is, of course, not just so in the past: in our own day the horrors of Gaza, or New York at 9/11 or Iraq are little better. We live in a world where squalor, misery, inhumanity are brought into our living rooms every evening on the television, and we cannot escape from it.

But it has not always been so. Towards the end of the 19th century as our forbears prepared to enter the Twentieth there really was a sense that a new age was dawning, a new world order if you like. And one Christian reaction to that was interesting. As they read the New Testament much of it they could come to terms with and use as the basis of the ethics of the new world they hoped was coming into being. But one book stood out and seemed strangely out of place, the Book of Revelation. Its fantastic pictures spoke of a world so odd and strange that it could not be comprehended, and there was even some talk in liberal circles of removing the book from the Bible. It came, of course, to nothing, and the notion died along with so much else in the mud and blood of Paschendale and the Somme. The four horsemen of the Apocalypse, who had seemed so remote at the turn of the century, had suddenly arisen from the mythological dead and were now carving their way through that first horror of the century, and they have been riding ever since. The rider of the first white horse was war, and it is worth remembering that there have been only relatively few brief periods in the life of anyone alive today that have been without war somewhere in the world. The second rider on the red horse was revolution, Kosova and all the Balkans, Iraq and Al Quaeda remind us that he is still alive. The third on a black horse famine, and what pictures does that conjure up on our minds as we watched television news from parts of Africa, and the fourth, on a pale horse, was death. We may have eradicated smallpox, and made huge advances in medical research, but premature death is still a reality in many parts of the world. Few people now, after the last 100 years, would suggest that we should lightly abandon the imagery of Revelation.

And what, I suppose, is the real difference of the suffering of the last century flows from its sheer scale. Six million killed in the holocaust, one every minute of the day and night for three years in Auschwitz alone, to say nothing of what has happening in Kosovo or the Middle East in much more recent times. This is evil on such an unimaginable scale that it goes beyond the comprehension of any suffering we might have known personally. Indeed a previous Dean of Westminster, Wesley Carr, suggested that the horrors of the century require a word altogether stronger than suffering or even horror, and he suggested torment. We have to come to terms with relentless, catastrophic, huge suffering on the part of many of our fellow human beings, and to begin to turn with any sensitivity towards it is to encounter torment.

And in the face of torment it is very difficult to believe in God. The suffering is so immense, and in some cases the victims as innocent as anyone could be. On a hill in West Jerusalem there is the Memorial to the victims of the Holocaust called Yad Vashem, built by the State of Israel. In one place you can go down into a sort of underground bunker and walk through a glass corridor, lit by a myriad of tiny candles shining and reflecting through the glass. As you walk through two voices, one male, one female, simply reads names, the names of all the Jewish children who died in the concentration camps. No wonder in Auschwitz one day the Jews there decided to hold a trial, and the person they put on trial was none other than God, the God of the covenant, the God who had promised to look after his people. The prosecution made its case, a defence was given, the matter debated and the mock court made its decision. They found God guilty, and who can blame them. Though it is worth noting that, having made that decision, they then all went and prayed to that same God. But the message is clear. When confronted by torment most of us are on the brink of atheism.

And there is no simple explanation for torment. In the case of the holocaust you can't say it was all Hitler's fault, although he must bear a terrible responsibility, but so many other people joined in, people just like you and me. Some years ago a famous experiment was carried out in America, and people were asked in to assist. They were told that the purpose of the exercise was to assess the effect of pain on learning, and so they had to administer increasingly powerful electric shocks on volunteers every time the volunteer got something wrong. What they didn't realise is that they were the subjects of the experiment, and the volunteers to whom they thought they were administering shocks were all actors. And the terrifying statistic is that 60% were prepared to go right up to the danger levels on the dials. They knew, or at least assumed they knew, they were risking the lives of the volunteers, but they were prepared to do so because the professor said it was alright, they were assisting science. Too many of us have it in us, in the wrong circumstances, to be the compliant accomplices of torment.

So today in this world if we are at all sensitive we are forced to face the fact of torment. And we can't face it by simply loading the blame on someone else, we all have the potential to share in it, and, who knows, perhaps we all in the West contribute in some tiny way to it as we effectively ignore the claims of, say, the starving in Africa, and label that as a problem too difficult to solve. We are all caught up in torment in one way or another.

But today of all days we face the fact of torment from a particular perspective, from the foot of the cross. And we see not just torment on our television sets each night, or torment in our own hearts and minds, but we see it in front of us, in that figure hanging on a cross. At one level it is just another example, Jesus isn't the only person to die a cruel and barbarous death, but Christians see something else here, for here they see God's involvement in torment, and if you can bear the phrase, we see God's final solution. Final here doesn't mean last in time, it doesn't even mean complete, but it can mean ultimate: God's ultimate solution to the evil of this world. And it is not to give a simplistic answer, nor to wave some mythical magic wand to take it all away, rather his response is to be involved in it and to let it do to him the worst it can. And I don't think we are being fanciful if we see in the cross much of the other pain of the world as well. A First World War Army Chaplain, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, put it well once:

I look upon that body, writhing, pierced
And torn with nails, and see the battlefields
Of time, the mangled dead, the gaping wounds,
The sweating dazed survivors straggling back,
The widows worn and haggard, still dry-eyed,
Because their weight of sorrow will not lift
And let them weep.

The cross tell us that God is there, right in the midst of this world's grief and pain and torment, and his final solution lies not in something that he does to others; it is more awesome than that. It lies in what he allows to be done to him.

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