"The greatest of evils and the worst of crimes" - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

"The greatest of evils and the worst of crimes"

George Bernard Shaw was describing poverty when he wrote those words, but they apply much more appropriately to the terrible events in the town of Beslan on the Russian-Chechnyan border which unfolded at the end of last week. The full enormity and horror of what took place is only now being revealed, and it leaves us stunned and uncomprehending. How can other people be so lacking in human feeling and mercy as to subject fellow human beings to such inhuman and brutal treatment, especially innocent children? We fall silent at the contemplation of such evil, and the terrible grief of those who have lost loved ones in the indiscriminate carnage in the precincts of School No 1.

There are many questions that have to be asked in the aftermath of this tragedy, particularly of the military forces and of the politicians. But for the person of faith Beslan raises the terrible question, where was God in all this? Can we really believe in a God of love who can permit such things to happen, or do we, like Alyosha in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, say that to allow the suffering of even one innocent child as a necessary condition for human existence means that we want to 'return our ticket'?

For me, however difficult it is, it is intolerable to conceive of a world without the presence of God within it: it makes at least some sense of what otherwise is senseless and appalling. Where was God? If, as Corrie ten Boom, who endured the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, was able to say "there is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still", then my reply has to be that God was there in the school hall, in the touching acts of kindness, generosity, heroism and self-sacrifice which children and adults displayed; He was crucified afresh in the bodies of those so cruelly shot, bayoneted and burnt to death; He was in the agony of waiting parents and in the inconsolable grief of those who lost loved ones and who may never recover or identify their bodies.

The God I believe in is a God who freely makes himself vulnerable to the suffering of his creation and who stands in solidarity with the world's pain. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from his German prison cell before being hanged, "only the Suffering God can help." Or as the English theologian W.H. Vanstone has so movingly written in his Hymn to the Creator:-

"Thou art God; no monarch Thou
Thron’d in easy state to reign;
Thou art God, Whose arms of love
Aching, spent, the world sustain,"

But faced with the grief of those who gather this week in the makeshift cemeteries of Beslan to bury their dead, all I can do is utter the De Profundis:

"Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord: Lord, hear my voice." (Psalm 130)
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