Preacher: The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

This past week there have been horrific headlines once again as hate quite literally exploded into our lives through dreadful events in Manchester and Minya Province in Egypt.

Last Monday, Salman Abedi murdered twenty two people and injured fifty nine others, some seriously; many of the dead and wounded were young, the youngest to die being only eight years old.

Some have called the act evil, the Queen herself referred to it as ‘wicked’. All murder is wrong but there was something particularly heinous in Abedi’s targeting of the young – the slaughter of the innocents.
And then on Friday, in Minya province in Egypt, masked gunmen attacked a group of Coptic Christians, killing at least twenty eight and wounding twenty five; two children two years of age were amongst the wounded. The group had been on their way to the monastery of Saint Samuel the Confessor in southern Egypt when they were attacked. They were pilgrims. This awful attack had come in the wake of seventy Christian deaths in Egypt since December through bombings of Coptic churches.

The attack roused anger from all sides in Egypt and surrounding countries with even Hamas labelling it ‘an ugly crime’.

These two acts should remind us that there is evil in the world. We cannot simply mitigate away the events of Manchester and Minya by excuses of perceived injustices elsewhere or by relativist perspectives that compare death tolls to assess seriousness or by protestations that the perpetrators were crazy. For if such approaches were valid in these two cases, they would surely have to apply in exonerating any act anywhere of wrong by one person or group against another. In other words, it would be to say that there can be no quintessential act of wrong – which is simply not true.

How then should we react in the face of such evil? Ban all Muslim immigration, introduce repressive measures against Muslims currently in our midst? These have been two of the immediate responses heard in the wake of the Manchester slaughter.

Before I come to a deeper consideration of the question as to how we should react in the face of such evil, let me first make two comments. Firstly, such kneejerk reactions would be grossly unfair; and secondly, they would be tactically foolish.

To target all Muslims presumes that they are all complicit in the evil that some have perpetrated in the name of Allah. Yet the truth is that many Muslims both here and in the United Kingdom have expressed horror at such events. More significantly, it has been reported in the UK press that members of Abedi’s own family, friends of the family and others in the UK Muslim community had tipped off MI5 on at least five occasions over the previous five years about Abedi’s behaviour and suspected links to terrorism. His own mosque, Didsbury, had not only banned him from attending prayers due to his extremist views but had also contacted the Home Office about their concerns.

Secondly, at a tactical level I recall when Stephen Fry came to Adelaide in 2015 he was asked about how we should respond to terrorism from groups like Daish, also known as Islamic State. His response was to recall what he had been told by a chess master when he was first learning the game. The master had explained that the most successful chess players succeed by doing what their opponents least expect them to do when they play their pieces. He extrapolated this to how the world should consider responding to terrorism. He noted that terrorist groups are intent on fanning discord and hate; they are pathologically opposed to reconciliation. Indeed what IS wants, when it supports such dreadful acts of violence as were perpetrated in Manchester and Minya, is to spread fear and encourage violent responses from those attacked. They particularly wish for those violent responses to target fellow Muslims in the hope that it will then see them rally to their distorted fundamentalist banner.

However, to go deeper into the question of how we should react in the face of evil, we must first understand that there is another important question to be confronted, namely: What does evil seek from us in such situations?

And, after reflecting upon that, then we can start to address the divine question: What does God seek from us? And God does seek something from us; why else would he have sent his son to us?

What evil seeks from us is that we join forces with it. Whereas IS tactics might be for us to respond with violence, evil seeks that we do so in order that we might traduce God by denying him through our own acts of violent response. Denying God by failing to believe in his ultimate power and his amazing and unfailing love for humanity. In our liturgy, we regularly affirm the two greatest commandments: to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbours as ourselves. Understandably the monstrous events of Manchester and Minya confront us; we don’t know how to deal with the second commandment in such circumstances. And thus we are left vulnerable to evil’s beguiling invitation to smash the second great commandment as if it were no more than a golden calf.

However, not responding to evil’s beguiling invitation is itself much more complex than it might seem at first sight. In place of a response of violence and hate does not mean that we should adopt some pastiche love response, some feel-good emotionalism of shallow goodwill of the like of ‘All you need is love, love; love is all you need’. Such an approach trivialises the contest … for there is indeed a contest between love and evil. A contest that is too profound to be defined by clichés and sentimentalities.

By fortuitous circumstance we currently have a very dear friend from Canada visiting us, Chinglu who is here with us this evening. As a gift, she and her husband, Ian, have given me a copy of Stefan Zweig’s book “Beware of Pity” which was written in the late 1930s, a time of a serious contest between love and evil.

I have started reading the book and was struck by an observation of one of its characters on the subject of pity:

There are two kinds of pity. One, the weak and sentimental kind, which is really no more than the heart’s impatience to be rid as quickly as possible of the painful emotion aroused by the sight of another’s unhappiness,  that pity which is not compassion, but only an instinctive desire to fortify one’s own soul against the sufferings of another;  and the other, the only kind that counts, the unsentimental but creative kind, which knows what it is about and is determined to hold out, in patience and forbearance, to the very limit of its strength and even beyond.

Reading those words, I immediately thought of their parallel with how ‘love’ may be considered. The same idea could be meaningfully rewritten this way:

There are two kinds of love. One, the weak and sentimental kind … and the other, the only kind that counts, the unsentimental but creative kind, which knows what it is about and is determined to hold out, in patience and forbearance, to the very limit of its strength and even beyond.

For me, this rewrite spoke of the profound love of a parent pausing me to think of the parents who lost children in Manchester and Minya. Then I thought of that other great parental love – the love of our Father in Heaven.

This then led me to reflect upon how each of these kinds of love – the weak and sentimental against the patient, forbearing and strong – exist in relation to evil. The first, albeit unintentionally, can so easily become complicit with evil; especially, if it seeks to mitigate or deny the evil that has occurred, in other words be some form of apologist for it.
On the other hand, the love of God and the love to which we are called in the two great commandments cannot be collaborationist. This love of God never willingly abandons anyone but it will also not accept the evil that may have entrapped them. Salman Abedi and the gunmen on the road to the monastery of Saint Samuel the Confessor are not beyond God’s love. But the key is that the issue between them and God’s love is redemption.

Redemption is an entirely personal matter that each of us has to come to terms with regarding our own lives. God made it personal by his outreaching to us through Jesus’ incarnation. Jesus, made human, reaches out in act of reconciling us to him. Paul’s comments on the ministry of reconciliation from 2 Corinthians 5:16-22 come to mind:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Thus in responding to hate we should not become enemies of the living Christ ourselves, which we would if we espoused hate as our creedal response.

The psalm which the choir sang this evening has much of great relevance to this topic of the contest of divine love against the evil of hate.  The power of God comes through very strongly in its verses; and the certainty of victory is asserted without doubt. No wonder that the psalmist sings God’s praises.

Still there is more to be gleaned from these verses than simply praising God the certain victor. While we read that ‘he will give strength and power unto his people’ causing us to warm to the strains of such stirring anthems as ‘onward Christian soldiers marching as to war’; we should consider some other phrases of the psalmist in this psalm such as- ‘his strength is in the clouds’ and ‘he hath scattered the people that delight in war’. Or this verse:
The Lord gave the word … (and great was the company of preachers) … Kings with their armies did flee.
Here we are reminded of the opening words of John’s gospel “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God”
And what is that word? Hate? Anger? Revenge? Some such word as these would be evil’s choice offered to us, but that is not the word of the Gospel.

The psalmist wrote of the universality of God’s plan for humanity – verse 32 speaks of all the kingdoms of the earth singing praises to God – that is God’s intent … not that a victorious remnant shall be there to worship God after having slain the recalcitrant, but that ‘every knee should bow’.

And it is precisely against this proposition of humanity being reconciled with God that evil combats so furiously. Evil is like a drug dealer promising satisfaction with the drug of hate; the emotional rush that a feeling of hate may give us in response to some monstrous event in our world. And evil knows just how powerfully addictive is this drug of hate.

So, not only in this week where there has been such evil exploding in our headlines, but generally in a world where evil’s word of hate contends against God’s divine concept of love, how might we respond?

Well firstly by prayer. Let us pray that our love may speak truth to evil in the world. Pray that our hearts and minds may be open to the Holy Spirit and that the Word may infuse and enthuse, empower us. Empower us not to underestimate the threats we face, nor to make apologies for them, but neither too to be swallowed by them into a shared vortex of mutual hate. True divine love will always win over hate; human hate can never defeat the hate of another.

So, as we reflect on the terrible events in Manchester and Minya as well as other places, let me close with a verse from 2 Corinthians:

God who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.

As believers in Christ, are we prepared to do our part in that ministry of reconciliation?