This week the world was horrified by photographs of an American journalist about to be beheaded by a terrorist in Iraq. I didn’t watch the video but the picture of an helpless man kneeling with a knife at his throat was more than enough for me. I agreed with whoever called it an act of pure evil, and wanted someone in power to “take out” the people responsible. I’m certain that I was not alone in that reaction.
A few days later I was talking to my 96 year old friend Joe and asked him what he thought. He had an interesting response. “It sure raised a lot of questions, not the least of which is where is God in all of this?” Yes, I thought to myself, if any good can come out of such an act, then raising that question about God’s response (or lack of response) to an act of pure evil will cause many people to reflect on something that they might not ordinarily think about. Is God actually involved in our world? Or does God distance himself from such things and so-to-speak avert his eyes, ashamed of what his greatest creation –man– is capable of. To find my own answer, I tried to see this terrible event through Jesus’s eyes.
Coincidentally, I have been reading several books about our “true” self and our “false” self. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest says this — “Our false self is who we think we are. It is our mental self-image and social agreement, which most people spend their whole lives living up to — or down to.” (1) Rohr also describes the true self using a passage from 2 John 2 – “There is a truth that lives within us that will be with us forever.” Rohr calls this an “immortal diamond . . . something utterly reliable, something loyal and true, something we can always depend on, something unforgettable and shining.” (2) Saint Catherine of Genoa ran through the streets shouting “My deepest me is God!” St Paul in his letter to the Colossians (1:27) also shouted, “The mystery is Christ within you — your hope of glory.” Life is a journey of discovery of our true self.
So, when I try to see this act of pure evil through Jesus’s eyes, I am trying to let go of my false self and allow Jesus’s words and thoughts (my true self) to emerge and put this act into God’s perspective.
My false self’s reactions
In a way, it’s easier to see what isn’t God’s perspective by considering my own normal perspective. If I think about my initial reactions to the pure evil of that beheading — again all completely understandable — I can see my false self’s patterns:
- My anger was instinctive, triggered by the desire to get even with the terrorists who did this horrible act.
- Rationalizing why the USA probably couldn’t send in its commandos to find and kill these men.
- Asking why the media gives these terrorists what they want — publicity, stirring up hatred.
All these reactions came to me in the first 5 minutes after seeing the evening news program with the picture of the poor journalist and his executioner. They were based on my ideas about “an eye for an eye” justice and how power ought to be used in the modern world to defeat evil men. All these reactions could be easily shared with my friends — they would understand and probably share many of them. It was only my elderly friend Joe who brought the provocative ‘God question ‘into play. (Although, after awhile, before seeing him, I did have hints of my true self’s reactions. More about that later.)
Where do these ‘false’ self reactions come from? Basically I have formed them throughout my life. I love western movies, where the ‘good guys’ march down the dusty street and slay the bad guys. That defines the epitome of a happy ending to a movie for me. “Taking out the bad guys.” I was a Marine in the US Armed Forces as a young man and of course there was a sense of duty and honor connected with being a Marine and defending the innocent with force. In other words, I collaborated with the cultures I lived in to form my false self for most of my life including the present. But for the past 30 years or so I have been aware of another subtle theme playing in the background of my thinking and behavior.
My true self’s reactions
After awhile, when my initial angry reactions to the evening new story about the beheading cooled off, I had another thought. How did that journalist feel at the moment that picture was taken, an instant before his death? I put myself in his shoes and found that his story might have another dimension to it. He had willingly placed himself “in harm’s way” in Syria to tell the story of what was happening and possibly bring the violence to an end. That’s why he was captured by the terrorists in the first place and held for over 2 years. He might have been feeling a sense of peace amidst his fear that he had done his best even though it all ended badly. (I learned today that the journalist may have volunteered to be the one executed, saving the other captives, supporting this view.) Then I thought of Jesus’s thoughts as he hung on the Cross. His entire life had been spent helping others and now, at the end all that was lost. Even his friends had deserted him. Yet, he was faithful to the Father’s will for him. Perhaps Jesus felt some small peace amidst his desolation and fear.
In identifying Jesus and the journalist I was experiencing my true self’s reactions. I was being shown that, no matter what a situation looks like, God is there, sharing in the pain and possibly bringing peace to assuage the terror. Then I thought of everyday life. When I identify with another person’s situation and pain (or joy), that is my true self. When I match that situation against what Jesus experienced, and try to see it through his eyes, that is my true self growing in wisdom. And when I act to be with another in their pain (or joy), that is Jesus acting within me.
I can’t do anything except pray about the terrorists in the world and their victims. But I can let my true self enter these terrible situations — and all the ordinary situations of others in everyday life. I can learn more about the nature of God’s love in everyday situations and tell others about what I experience and understand about life in my true self. That is how one lives in the Kingdom every day.
(1) Richard Rohr, Adam’s Return
(2) Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond