On August 17, Canadian conference executive director Willy Reimer invited churches, in solidarity with thousands of other Christians around the world, to pray for the people of Iraq.
Over the summer, the church watched in horror as a militant group called Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS) lashed out in violence against Christians and other religious minorities, demanding people convert to Islam or be killed. Many chose to flee as refugees, leaving their homes and lives behind.
On August 13, the UN sounded the alarm, declaring its highest level of emergency in Iraq and estimating that 1.2 million citizens had been internally displaced.
Sadly, many Christians could not escape persecution. “Over the past three weeks, there have been various reports detailing the gruesome violence that IS is carrying out toward those who did not escape in time, including mass executions, beheadings and crucifixions. Many local Christian leaders are calling it the Holocaust of the 21st century,” reported the organizers of a Facebook page called “Pray for Iraq – 1 Million Strong.”
“We condemn the awful evil being committed against minority communities in general and Christians in particular by militant Islamists in IS,” said Geoff Tunnicliffe, secretary general of the World Evangelical Alliance. “There can never be any justification whatsoever for this indiscriminate persecution of a community which has lived in the region since long before the arrival of Islam, and which has consistently contributed to the welfare of its neighbours, whatever their religious convictions.”
Crying out to God
Naturally, our first response is to pray. Our trust is in the God who hears the cries of his people and reaches out in mercy. Even so, the horror of the situation can be almost too terrible to comprehend.
I’ve spent much of this afternoon trying to write a sermon about 2 Corinthians 5:14–20 and the love of God while keeping abreast of news reports about the unspeakable atrocities currently taking place in Iraq.
The absurdity of this task has, however, proven to be unbearable, and I’ve simply given up. How can one speak of the love of God after reading about human beings starving and dying on a mountain, fleeing the awful choice of conversion or death? How can one write about beauty and goodness after reading about – Christ have mercy! – children being beheaded or thrown from mountaintops. How can one craft a sermon about the “new creation where the old has passed away” and “everything has become new” after seeing images of such gruesome violence that words well and truly fail?
The incongruity of the task is too much
Groping for words to hold on to, I finally latched on to the closing paragraphs of David Bentley Hart’s little book on the problem of evil, The Doors of the Sea:
Until that final glory, however, the world remains divided between two kingdoms, where light and darkness, life and death grow up together and await the harvest. In such a world, our portion is charity, and our sustenance is faith, and so it will be until the end of days.
As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child, I do not see the face of God but the face of his enemy….
Now we are able to rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands into one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that he will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, he will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes – and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and he that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”
And in that hope, we pray.