By Susan Brown Snook
In 1919, in the aftermath of World War I, Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote perhaps his best-known poem, “The Second Coming.” The first stanza says this:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
In the second stanza, he expresses his theme in Christian words: “Surely the Second Coming is at hand.” But in the third stanza, it becomes clear that he’s not talking about Jesus’ second coming, the one we describe in our creeds, as he ends with: “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
In his poem, Yeats seemed to express all the fear and anxiety of the modern world, a world in which frightening, anarchical violence spins out of control. It’s an understandable feeling in the wake of the first world war, with its senseless slaughter and endless trench warfare. And it anticipated the horrors of the 20th century that were yet to come, horrors that were unimaginably worse than the world had seen before.
And we here in the 21st century could repeat those words all over again: “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold … the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” What words could better describe a world wracked by terror? After all, our new millennium started with 9/11, and we seem to reel from one act of senseless violence after another, as students are in danger in schools, ordinary people are in danger in movie theaters, and terror attacks in Beirut, in Nigeria, in Mali, in Jerusalem, and in Paris. It’s a city where some of us have traveled, and where my daughter spent a summer studying several years ago — so I was struck with grief when I learned that an American college student had died in one attack.
The attack in Paris horrifies me because I can imagine myself enjoying a concert or dinner in a café, and having my life suddenly, irrevocably torn apart. Even closer to home, as a mother of one daughter who is a college student, and one daughter who is a teacher in middle school, the shootings in schools terrify me because I can imagine one of my children being there. “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” — it’s an apt description of a world wracked by terror.
The thing with terrorism is, it doesn’t have real strategic importance — what do terrorists really gain by killing civilians in Paris or Mali, what do lone gunmen gain by shooting up elementary schools and colleges? Nothing, really. St. Augustine way back in the 4th century wrote that one of the major characteristics of evil is that it is senseless, pure destruction. In his Confessions, he tells a boyhood story of running around with a gang of boys and stealing pears from an orchard, taking one bite of each pear, and throwing the rest away. It was a senseless act of destruction because the boys who stole the pears didn’t even eat them. In the case of terrorism, there is no strategic purpose, no sense or meaning to the violence and destruction, except the fear that comes over the rest of the population — people like you and me who can imagine themselves in the same situation, and grow afraid. That’s why it’s called terror, after all — its main purpose is to inspire fear.
So here’s the question that we have to address as Christians in times like these: What does our faith have to say to us in a time of terror? How are we to live and believe? Well, the first thing to remember is that one of the most often repeated phrases in all of Scripture is: Be not afraid. I did a quick computer search that showed that some variation of this phrase appears in the Bible at least 78 times. God says it to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph; Moses says it to the people of Israel getting ready to escape from Egypt; the prophets say it numerous times to a people fearful of conquest; the angel Gabriel says it to both Mary and Joseph as he is preparing them for Jesus’ birth; Jesus says it to his disciples when he calls them to come follow him, and Jesus says it to them again when he is preparing to die: “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
In a very real sense, we could say that God called Israel as a people, and Jesus came to humans as the Son of Man and Son of God, on purpose so that we should not fear — not fear evil, not fear death, not fear any powers that might overcome and harm us. As Paul says in his letter to the Romans: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We are not subject to fear.
Or, as Franklin D. Roosevelt said: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Fear changes us, fear makes us close in upon ourselves, fear prevents us from acting in accordance with our values, fear separates us from each other and convinces us that we can rely on no one but ourselves. And Jesus has come to release us from the power of fear and power of death.
Jesus shows us in the gospel today what it means to live without fear. Today is Christ the King Sunday, when we recognize the coming kingdom of God, but we choose an odd gospel to honor a king — the gospel in which the king is sentenced to death. Jesus stands before Pilate, the Roman governor. Pilate thinks Jesus is the one on trial, but Jesus puts Pilate and the kingdoms of this world on trial instead.
Knowing that Pilate has the power of state terror behind him, knowing that Pilate can torture him and have him killed, Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world, and that his kingship brings him into the world to witness to the truth. In the face of lies, power struggles, and violence used as instruments of political ends of the Roman Empire, the one thing Jesus has to proclaim is the truth that there is a different kingdom. And those who belong to the truth, he says, listen to his voice. The next line of the story is not in the lectionary today, but Pilate simply sneers, “What is truth?” Those who belong to the kingdom of lies can hardly believe that truth exists.
But it does exist, in Jesus and in Jesus’ kingdom. And truth stands against all the lies told by the evil powerful ones in this world. Truth stands against all the false kingdoms of the world. Truth stands against the senselessness of evil. Truth stands against violence and death. And the truth, soon after this scene, will be sentenced to die on the cross, in another senseless, and ironic, act of evil and terror. That’s what the cross was: an act of violence, sponsored by the Roman state, meant to strike fear in hearts of Jews who might fight back against the power of Rome.
And it was a very effective tool of terror — except in the case of Jesus. Because Jesus died, and yet was raised from the dead. Fear and death and the rulers of this world had no power over him. In Jesus, truth triumphs over lies, and life triumphs over death, and we have been invited into a new kingdom in which true justice — not the justice of Pilate — reigns supreme. And in Jesus, we await a Second Coming that is not like the Second Coming Yeats saw — some rough beast, slouching toward Bethlehem to be born — but the Second Coming of Christ’s kingdom: the kingdom we pray for each Sunday, where God’s will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven.
For Christians, the challenge before us is how to live as followers of Christ in the meantime. As followers of Christ, we are asked to make Christ’s story our story. So how do we live as citizens of Christ’s kingdom, tellers of Christ’s story, when Christ’s kingdom has not yet fully come?
In a sense, we Christians stand with one foot in each kingdom: one foot in the kingdom of this world and one foot in the coming kingdom of Christ. In the kingdom of this world, I am not a pacifist: I believe that good must stand up against evil: forces of law and order and justice must rise up against the senselessness of evil, defend the powerless, protect the refugee, bring the guilty to justice. And the powers of good do sometimes prevail; but as soon as one Nazi Germany is defeated, another evil arises. The fight against evil is a constant one.
For us regular people, who don’t have decision-making power in this world, I think we must have confidence in God, so we don’t become subject to the fear that closes us in on ourselves; to hold on to our values to love God and love our neighbor, because that’s what Jesus has given us to do.
Because as Christians, we know the truth that is beyond all lies: that evil cannot ultimately win. That’s the lesson of the cross. God is more powerful than evil, life is more powerful than death. And the final defeat of evil and terror will come in that day we pray for, when Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom shall have no end.
The ultimate temptation for us in a time of terror is to lose our faith and believe that evil will win the day. But if we believe that, we forget that the only power terrorists have is the power of fear and death. And against the power of fear and death, we can hold up the power of the life-giving cross — the cross that lets death triumph, and yet rises beyond death to bring life. The cross that is the most powerful expression of love this world has ever seen. The cross that is the ultimate throne of the ultimate king of the promised kingdom of God.
A kingdom in which the Holy Spirit renews the face of the earth. A kingdom in which God wipes away every tear. A kingdom in which love triumphs, and hate will no longer exist. A kingdom that will bring all people together to serve the God of love. A kingdom in which there is no fear, no terror, no sighing, no grieving, but only life everlasting.
And in that hope that rises above despair, we take our stand for the Lord of love, Christ our King. Amen.
The Rt. Rev. Susan Brown Snook is Bishop of San Diego.