‘…unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.’
So I thought that today of all days might be a good day to sow my first seeds of 2016. Good Friday, the day when Jesus ‘falls to the ground and dies.’ Sowing some lettuce or spring onion might be a small act that reminds me in time of self sacrificial love, of His death for the sins of the world, of something being buried in the ground but bringing forth new life and a harvest in time.
Those words of Jesus also got me thinking about these words he said:-
‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.‘
And that in turn got me thinking about the Easter Rising and Easter, about self sacrifice and what it means to die for the sake of some bigger picture.
The main time I encountered these words as about the laying down of a life for friends was not to do with Holy Week but to do with British (and Commonwealth) Remembrance Sunday each November. It was the Sunday that we all pinned red poppies to suits and watched a wreath walked up the aisle. I think we sang the national anthem..
It was tied in with those who had paid the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ and gave up their lives for the freedoms that we now enjoy. It was an unearthly silence as we reflected on those who had died to serve their country, my country against another evil country.
In my memory it was the only day of the church calendar that seemed to rival Good Friday for seriousness and solemness.
In Northern Ireland there was an extra solemn dimension as we remembered members of the security forces who had been murdered. That usually personally involved someone in church because so many had loved ones taken from them in cruel circumstances by men and women of violence. All of us from the north knew people in our community who had been personally wounded and scarred by terrorism. The hurt is tangible even as I think about it now.
It was clear in those days who our friends where and who the enemy was, who was right and who was wrong.
The thing isn’t so clear to me now.
Who are my friends that I would be willing to die for?
Who is my clan? What ethnic group do I belong to?
Am I Irish or British? Am either?
Does loyalty to my countrymen trump other considerations?
A 100 years ago thousands and thousands of Ulstermen died in the trenches of the Somme. As a child in Tyrone these were my people, names on plaques in churches we worshipped in. They had died in tragedy, in rat infested trenches. I can’t imagine the horror these men suffered.
But who are my people now, where is my country?
Besides the question of which Kingdom a Christian has ultimate allegiance to living in Galway I am just as likely to know a Spanish man as a Northern Irish unionist.
Members of my primary community (the church I attend) are more likely to be from west Africa than west Belfast.
How do I remember something like the horrors of World War I as a European citizen?
How do I remember the horrors of World War II as global citizen?
Because I am just as likely to be good friends with a German or Austrian than a member of the Bristish Army
How do remember the Easter Rising when I’m Irish in one sense, but not Irish in another sense?
When it comes to Northern Ireland I still think that people who maim and kill and destroy are murderers. There are absolutely no excuses for taking another life in violence circumstance.
But does it matter if someone kills and maims and destroys if they do because they have been ordered to do so by army generals and the government of a country compared to an act of terrorism?
If someone from IS indiscriminately goes into a airport lobby and massacres people that is a horrible act.
But why is it not a horrible act if someone from the US Air Force is sitting firing missiles by remote control at terrorists based on information from spies or electronic surveillance?
Is there ever such a thing a good violence?
Or is violence necessary in some instances?
Who decides when violence is necessary? The government? The majority?
(Every Easter as I read about the crowd calling for Jesus to be murdered I’m reminded that democracy and the will of the majority of people doesn’t mean that it is the right decision..)
What if the rulers are oppressive and heartless? Can act of violence be seen as regrettable but necessary but there was no other option?
Sacrificing your life for your friends doesn’t seem to me to be a necessarily noble thing in itself.
Look at the horrible acts committed by IS suicide bombers this week.
They are prepared to lay down their lives for their ‘friends’ and IS brothers. If the cause of their friends in IS will be furthered by them blowing themselves up and causing death they are prepared to do it.But sacrificing your life for your friends is the opposite of love in this instance. It’s a horrible act of hatred and destruction.
Closer to home what about the Easter Rising?
I confess to not understanding much or anything about it. I don’t feel particularly comfortable with the nationalistic flag waving and promises of a celebration on Easter Monday at the local shopping centre.
What about that sense that these people where prepared to sacrifice their lives for their ‘friends’ ? They saw injustice and oppression and wanted to change it. Does it matter that they mightn’t have had many friends at the time? They still knew that the British would crush their rebellion.
What then about Allied bomber crews in World War II who put themselves in great danger and risk to drop bombs on civilians in Dresden? Was the laying down of their lives noble in that instance?
I guess that who your enemy is and who your friend is depends on a lot of factors outside yourself.
If you are kid growing up in an area governed by IS and the threat of violence is hanging over your head each day, every day and if you don’t do what you’re told by those leaders in your community you’re going to get stoned you’re more likely to be a member of IS than not.
Or if you had grown up in Nazi Germany what would be the consequences for you or your family if you didn’t tow the party line? You’re likely to be coerced into becoming a Nazi.
Same if you grew up in a housing estate in Belfast and didn’t want to get involved in loyalism or republicanism. What if the paramilitaries in your area decided you should be involved or else?
I guess that my main thought walking home last night is how uncomfortable I am with the Remembrance Sunday, Union Jacks, poppies, national anthems in church around the 11th of November in churches in Northern Ireland.
If people from the north came down to a Presbyterian church on Easter Sunday and it had a an Irish flag flying with the congregation wearing Easter lilies, if the Irish national anthem was sung after the benediction had been given, if there was a minutes silence to reflect on the horrors of war and those Irishmen and women who had paid the ultimate sacrifice would that be OK?
I’m guessing that many would find it offensive. It would never happen though because it would seem nationalistic and patriotic and out of place with the Kingdom of God.
Yet if someone from the south of Ireland or Germany went to many Presbyterian churches in Northern Ireland on the Sunday nearest the 11th of November they might hear ‘God Save the Queen’, see Union Jacks, have poppies being sold to raise money for the Royal British Legion etc and they would have to accept that this is the way things are, it is a day that is almost sacred and to be treated with the utmost respect and gravity. And that seems a little hypocritical to me.
If Irish flags in a church would seem offensive/provocative/insensitive down here why is it OK up there?
I guess the thing that is truly amazing about Jesus and Good Friday is that he lays down his life for his enemies!
He dies for people who hate him and want to see him violently exterminated. He is crucified by the Romans, the enemies of his people and instead of getting all nationalistic he forgives them. He doesn’t sacrifice his life only for his friends, but for people who hate him.
That is one of those completely counter-cultural, it doesn’t make any sense really unless there is something else going on types of things about Christianity that makes me believe there is something true and other-worldy about it all.
Where else are we told to love and lay down our lives for our enemies at the very core of the whole thing? Everything I’ve seen about this world outside of church says that we should obliterate and destroy our enemies. You don’t forgive them, your try to get even and take them down. You trust God to defeat death, evil and destruction and not our own strength. God defeats death and frees us to love, to love even our enemies!