Hanging Saddam Hussein was like fighting fire with fire

Light shining through cracked, red glass.

I didn’t want the year to end without sharing these thoughts with you. I, like many, woke yesterday to the news on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that Saddam Hussein had been executed by hanging in Iraq earlier that morning. And just as I had felt a deep pang of sadness when I heard the news last month that he had been sentenced to death I felt an equally deep sense of regret that he had been killed.

It’s not that I don’t believe that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the unlawful killing of thousands, including his own people. It is that fundamentally I’m against the death penalty because I do not believe that killing someone who is responsible for killing someone is a solution. It doesn’t redress the balance, it doesn’t sit with me as being an act that brings justice.

As I lay in bed listening to the news, to the audio recordings of celebrations on the streets of Baghdad and (presumably wildly edited) vox pops from politicians from around the world I remembered something that I’d preached in Inverness in 2003 when the most recent war with Iraq began. I’ve adapted parts of it below.

God’s Response

To respond to an act of violence with an act of violence is never God’s response. In his first epistle St Peter writes:

If you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When [Jesus] was abused, he did not return abuse; when [Jesus] suffered, he did not threaten; but [Jesus] entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.
(1 Peter 2: 21ff.)

God as Judge

The notion of God as Judge is an important one. I have been particularly challenged … by a book by the new Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Revd Dr Rowan Williams, called Resurrection: Interpretting the Easter Gospel. In it he explores why it is good news to say that ‘Jesus is risen’ and explores too the connection between resurrection and salvation.

But before he reaches that he unpacks the importance of Jesus as the ‘pure victim’ — the victim, as Peter says, who did not return abuse or violence when he was abused or violated. “The ‘pure victim’ alone can be the merciful, the vindicating judge,” he argues, because to judge is to be exposed to judgement oneself, and only he who has suffered without threatening in return is in any position to judge others mercifully.

What I think Rowan Williams says that can offer us some direction in the current political situation, and which Noam Chomsky also points to, is that we cannot claim to be doing what is right in God’s eyes if we are in a position of judgement and power in which we make others our victims. Williams writes,

“When we make victims, when we embark on condemnation, exclusion, violence, the diminuation or oppression of anyone, when we set ourselves up as judges, we are exposed to judgement (as Jesus himself asserts in Matthew 7: Do not judge, or you too will be judged), and we turn away from salvation.

To hear the good news of salvation, to be converted, is to turn back to the condemned and rejected, acknowledging that there is hope nowhere else… If God’s love is shown in the pure victim, it is shown as opposition to violence: so it is impossible to conceive of the Christian God with the oppressor in any relationship of violence.

The powerless sufferer, whether ‘innocent’ or ‘guilty’, is the one who belongs with God, simply in virtue of being a victim; so that the saving presence of God is always to be sought and found with the victim. Conversion is always turning to my victim — even in circumstances where it is important to me to believe in the rightness of my cause.

For we are not here dealing with law and morality… What is at issue is simply the transaction that leads to exclusion, to the severance of any relation of reciprocity. It may be unconscious, it may be deliberate and wilfully damaging, it may appear unavoidable; but as soon as such a transaction has occured, God is with the powerless, the excluded.

And our hope is that [God] is to be found as we return to our victims seeking reconciliation, seeking to find in renewed encounter with them the merciful and transforming judgement of Jesus, the ‘absolute’ victim.

As hard as it might be to accept, it seems to me that in the case of Saddam Hussein, this now powerless sufferer, regardless of his guilt, belonged with God simply in virtue of being powerless and excluded. And as I said in my last blog post God is to be found where he is least expected.

But what I’m saying does not mean that Saddam Hussein is vindicated for all that he did during his years of reigning terror of his own people. What I am saying, I suppose, is that in that moment of execution — somehow, in ways that we cannot possibly imagine — God was with Saddam Hussein, and that his judgement lies with God alone. What I am saying is that what should have been done was not put Hussein to death but somehow try, over time, to help him seek some kind of reconciliation with those whom he had victimized. Now that would have been justice. If it could happen in South Africa it could happen in Iraq too.

As I heard in a film the other day, often the harder path is also the right one. And at the end of the day Saddam Hussein was still just a human being like the rest of us. If I was to be absolutely honest and blogged openly every thought that I had and shared with you every human emotion and struggle I have you would — I have no doubt — call me a monster as bad as Hussein. I can’t imagine that I’m alone. But I’m simply and humbly thankful that I believe in a God of love who takes my brokenness and offers me forgiveness and a way to slowly become a better human being.

In the meantime, the execution of Saddam Hussein has done nothing to bring to an end the killing in Iraq, with more car bombs and murders happening in response to the news of his death.

Pray, pray, pray … that’s all I can suggest, and somehow, somewhere the God who is to be found in the most unexpected of places will bring about new life and new hope.

The Surprising Love of God

Scene of a river flowing towards the sunset or sunrise.
“Flow” by Olivia Kuser

Last year Mum added me to the mailing list of The Community of the Sisters of the Love of God and a couple of weeks ago their latest newsletter, Fairacres Chronicle, arrived. In it there is a wonderfully thought-provoking article entitled “The Surprising Love of God” by The Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Revd Dr Rowan Williams, from a talk he gave at the community’s Centenary Day celebrations in September.

The Surprising Love of God

Reading: Galatians 2:19 – 13; 3:13-14; 6:14-16; including:

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us-for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’-in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith … May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

Christ redeemed us by becoming accursed, says St Paul. Christ redeemed us by going to the place where everyone was sure God was not, and everything in the Letter to the Galatians hangs on that single-though I cannot call it simple-confession. The love of God is love that goes where God is not supposed to be, where God is not imagined or conceived to be.

Love, we may often think, is free and gratuitous, and yet in most of our human relations, it rather tends to go where it is expected or returned or where it makes sense. God’s love is recognizable precisely as that love which goes where it has no business to go and which lives, blossoms and acts in the place of the curse, in the place where God is forgotten.

When St Paul writes about what does and does not justify us, set us right with God, he is reminding us that anything less than this vision of the God who redeems us through the accursed body of Jesus on the tree is likely simply to be a more or less sophisticated way of telling ourselves that at the end of the day, we deserve to be loved; that is to say, that we have a contract with God. St Paul wants us to believe both that it is utterly, absolutely, eternally, divinely natural that we are loved, because God is God, and that it is not divinely, naturally, the case that we are loved, because we are who we are.

St Paul walks that particular tightrope in all his letters, trying to save us from the twin abysses of despair and complacency. It is very much what justification by faith is all about; recognizing the love that is God’s love, because it goes where it is not expected. And whether we think we are a place where God’s love is to be expected because we are good, or whether we think we are a place where God’s love could never be expected because we are bad, St Paul drives a coach and horses through both these errors. God is God, and the love of God is the love that goes where you don’t expect.

… And so, when St Paul says ‘God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of Christ’, I believe what he is saying is that he wants to be simply a place where the love of God in the cross is made visible — that is, the unexpectedness of God’s love being the place of the curse.

Paul doesn’t say, ‘My credentials are my learning, my energy’, and happily he doesn’t say, ‘My credentials are my niceness and easiness of temperament’ either, because that would be extremely implausible from what we know about St Paul! He does say that he will boast in the cross, because he has been called simply to be that place where the unexpected love of God comes alive.

… It is not an easy time for this Community, or for any community — we are all aware of that — but that is, at the very least, a good moment to celebrate the God of surprises and the God whose love lives in unexpected places, and the God whose love seeks nothing more than to be in the place where everyone thinks it is not — in our hearts or in the world. So may God strengthen the purpose and resolve of this Community, called to be under his cross, boasting in his cross. May God strengthen the resolve of every one of us to be witnesses to that God who will not be confined by any expectation or any law, but who will obstinately and relentlessly go where he is not expected. and even where he is not invited, because he is who he is; and he is eternal, burning, unqualified love.

Archbishop Rowan Williams at Fairacres, Vespers of the Feast of the Holy Cross, 14 September 2006 (Centenary Day).

I find in these words of Dr Williams’ that I am both encouraged and challenged. Encouraged that God is not confined only to those places where he is expected to be, and challenged to demonstrate the love of God more effectively in these places.

As this year draws to an end I find myself pondering the journey I have travelled in these last twelve months; at the time I often felt that I was simply putting one foot in front of the next, but looking back I can see that I’ve come some distance. I’ve found myself asking again why I moved out of parish ministry: have I made a mistake or have I been obediently following God? Have I been running away or running towards God? I’m not sure that I have an answer that is truly satisfactory, at least at this stage but with so many doors opening and the path to where I currently am having been travelled so effortlessly I can’t but conclude that I am where God wants me to be. At least for now.

One of the many reasons that I stepped out of the parish setup was to step out into the unknown, out into the place where God is not believed to be. It may be comforting to confine God to the church building and to be the property of the faithful, but God is bigger than that.

Where will God lead me next? I don’t know. But I do know that 2007 will be an exciting adventure with God as he leads me deeper into his surprising love and both allows and enables me to share that with others.

Happy New Year folks and thanks for sharing part of the journey with me.