Yesterday a church gathered to worship. Twenty-six of those people were murdered, and another twenty were wounded — the victims of this assault ranged from 18 months to 77 years.
What good can grace and love do against such reckless violence? Should we give into fear and “fortress up,” ready to do unto others before they do unto us? Do we Christians jettison “the golden rule” of Jesus’ teaching 1 in order to feel secure in this world? I’ve seen a great many Christians considering just this. On the night he was betrayed Jesus’ rebuked one of his disciples, who had stepped in to defend his master with violence, “Those who use the sword will die by the sword 2.” And yet it seems now we’re of the opinion Jesus was wrong. We think, “Those who don’t use the sword will die by it.”
Faced with such bleak considerations, I’m struck again by the hymn “I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day,” based on the Poem “Christmas Bells” by Henry W. Longfellow. It begins well enough,
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men.
But by the third stanza Henry Longfellow’s tone takes a turn toward the darkness,
And in despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth, I said,
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
This verse is important because it reminds me Christianity does not need to filtered through an obtuse optimism. There is a real darkness in the world, and its presence will weigh on us.
But the bells in Longfellow’s poem seem to play the role of an angel chorus, announcing the ever presence of hope.
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.
This hymn, it is important to note, was written during one the bleakest times in US history — the American Civil War. Longfellow watched as the country fell into warfare, and even had to endure his own son being wounded in action. It was too much for him. On Christmas Day in 1863, with two years of carnage already behind, the chiming bells celebrating Christmas seemed feeble indeed.
But even still, he didn’t give up hope.
Longfellow’s poem is far from gentle. In fact, his original poem contains stanza’s which emote a barely-contained anger at the Southern States for their folly of attempted succession. But that’s the point, hope isn’t pretty. It lives in our turmoil.
And so, when I gather in worship next Sunday hope will be my shield against despair and hatred. I will hold out hope the Lord of Creation isn’t sleeping and will see righteousness prevail in the world — that the world will be made new. But, while many people see hope as an escape from the work which needs to be done in this world, hope is not passive. In the weakness of my hope I will continue to educate, to teach, to write, and work towards a more just society. The fragile, pitiful, hope cherished by Jesus’ disciples may be the most powerful gift Christianity has to offer.