14th after Trinity, year C

God and extreme evil:  The Beslan atrocity

back to sermons year C


Where were you on September 11 th 2001?   I imagine many of you can remember the moment of hearing about the attack on the twin towers.   I was sitting in a school car park listening to the radio news.   The events just over a week ago at Beslan, in the Russian republic of Ossetia, are of a similar nature.   Where were you this time when the news came through?   This time I was listening to the news on the French radio, in Brittany, struggling to understand and make sense of something so horrendous that I could not believe what I was hearing.


The world has been horrified at the depths of depravity, the callous inhumanity, shown by those who were able to use children, without mercy, for their political ends.   Holding hundreds of children hostage; starving them, depriving them of water, stripping them – a technique used to break the will of prisoners – how much more barbaric can one get?   We have heard it said that a new line has been crossed, and many would agree with this.   There have of course been many comments by those who have done their best to interpret the meaning of this horror – a horror which tears at everything within us which wants to believe that human beings are essentially good, and that there are limits beyond which nobody will go.   There has been quite a lot of discussion in the media about what this massacre means for religious faith.   Where was God when it happened?   what does it mean for the Christian belief in a loving God?   Even the Archbishop of Canterbury found it difficult to understand the Beslan brutality in the light of his faith.   When asked by John Humphrys whether his faith did not tremble at times like this, he said that it was probably the suffering of children that most deeply challenges anyone’s personal faith.   “Yes”, he said, “there is a flicker, there is a doubt”.  


So what can we say in response to these two fundamental questions:   (i)   Where was God during the violence at Beslan, and (ii) should the Beslan events shake our faith?


The first point to make is that it is not the first time that large numbers of children have been victims of brutality.   Psalm 137 evokes the murder of babies when Jerusalem was sacked by King Nebuchadnezzar in 587 B.C, and calls for the same to be done to the Babylonian oppressors.   Herod massacred innocent children in the search for the baby Jesus.   Then of course in more recent years there was the killing of thousands of Jewish children by the Nazis in the Holocaust;   the children of peasant families in Vietnam who happened to live in territory attacked by the Americans; remember also the harrowing scenes of murdered babies and children ten years ago in Rwanda.   So such horrors are not new:   although one can argue that the deliberate targeting of children is more unusual than the deaths of children just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.


This does not of course make it any better or more acceptable.   But where was God at Beslan?   People asked the same question of the Holocaust, the extermination of millions of Jews, and others, including women and children, during the Second World War.   Some Christians replied by saying that God was there in the gas chambers; just as Jesus suffered the worst possible death, crucifixion, God knew the extremes of human suffering and could therefore reassure those who were condemned to death that they were sustained by his love. The death of the Son of God on the cross meant that God had shown that he is with us even in the most extreme forms of suffering.    But while some might see this as an acceptable theological argument, it seems to have a hollow ring to it when we think of the anguish, torment and barbarity which we have seen so vividly at Beslan.  


Some have said that God was at Beslan in the acts of heroism which were seen there.   For example, the self-sacrifice of the woman who threw herself on top of her daughters, to protect them.   Or the boy who, having escaped, returned to the school to comfort his ten-year old sister.   And in the teacher who defiantly removed the bombs which had been attached to his pupils, and was killed for doing so.   I am not sure what exactly we mean by saying that God himself was in these actions, but certainly the love, self-sacrifice and disregard for one’s own well-being which lie at the heart of the Christian faith shone forth from these actions, and from all those people who put others first when it would have been so easy just to concentrate on protecting themselves.


So where was God at Beslan? To answer this question, we need to ask what was really happening there.   It was an example of human behaviour which was characterised by everything which was as godless as one can imagine – an example of pure evil.   Words which come to mind include utter darkness, total depravity, complete inhumanity - in other words, an extreme form of that which the Bible has traditionally called sin.  


At the heart of the Christian message lies the problem of what can be done about the sin which festers and flourishes in the human heart from age to age.   The books of the Bible, written over many hundreds of years, were forged in the crucible of various wars, and during times of oppression, injustice, cruelty, and godlessness.   Beslan reminds us that the Bible is not old fashioned and out of date when it talks about sin. Sin - which is separation from God, the flouting of God’s will, self-centredness in all its forms – is alive and well.   The Christian response concerns what we – and all people – are to do about sin.


When we ask where God was at Beslan, we must remember that it was not God who tortured and murdered those children. The writer C.S. Lewis once wrote, “It is men, not God , who have produced racks, whips, prisons, slavery, guns, bayonets, and bombs”.   But why did God let it happen, you may ask.   Sadly, there are certain things about the world which we can not fully understand, such as why innocent people suffer.   Which brings us to the second of those two questions with which we started.   Should the events at Beslan shake our faith – our faith that God is good, and that he is a God of love?

God should not be the target of anger for permitting such atrocities.   They are certainly not God’s will.   Our task as Christians, rather, is to return afresh to a faith which recognises the potency and persistence of sin, and offers a way to overcome it – a way to build a world which is not based on violence and oppression, but on love and reconciliation.   These of course must be more than clichés.   As I said after the events of September 11 th 2001, the Christian way is not to seek revenge for acts of barbarism.   You cannot necessarily tell someone who has been bereaved that they should forgive the murderers of their loved ones; but many people have found that in the end, forgiveness is the only way to move on.   Only by doing all we can to help the world to break out of the cycle or revenge and retribution – an eye for an eye, or worse – can we hope that the power of good will ultimately triumph over the power of evil.   The experience of the last three years has been, as many predicted, that trying to stamp evil out by force only makes it rear up somewhere else.


So if anything, the events at Beslan should strengthen our faith in that they remind us that the Christian way of not seeking retribution, of trying to build communities and nations built on reconciliation and trust, is all the more important as the world becomes increasingly polarised.   Let us then pray that the way of violence and retribution may not prevail; and may the power of love, justice and reconciliation, which is God’s way, as pioneered by Jesus, spring forth afresh in human hearts, and finally triumph over evil and sin.

Christopher Harrison, 12 September 2004