(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, March 30, 2013)
KAMPALA, UGANDA ✦ I’m the odd man out in a loose circle in the campus home of the university president talking about God’s grace, an unsurprising discussion because, besides being a university and my own family’s home, this is a nearly century-old theological training centre.
The horrible news of late is the roadside murder of a young law student, John Otim, beaten dead with an iron bar for money that he didn’t even have. It creeps into discussion, but it’s awkward and we’re soon back to God’s grace.
Now, words like grace are rather shopworn in some religious circles, and unknown in others, and I’m feeling unsettled about this glib familiarity. So while I’m hardly an expert among these African theologians, I offer a story.
Imagine, I say, that you love someone dearly and they return that deep affection. But one night a criminal comes to your home and kills your love. Right in front of you. It’s a heinous crime and nobody would fault you for pushing for life in jail, if not state execution.
If you were to forgive that killer, that would be tremendous grace. If you were to forgive and work for his freedom, that would be dramatically unusual grace, the sort to get some talk going.
But what if you freed that killer and formally adopted him? What if you cared for and educated him? Now imagine you’re very rich and you then say, “You’re my heir. Everything I have will be yours. I’ll lavish it all on you. This is how much I love you.”
This was the story. Of course, you don’t need to be a theologian or even religious to get the drift. This is supernatural grace. It’s divine — i.e. God’s — grace. It’s more than we can understand. It’s also more than we can even sensibly tolerate.
Africa, by the way, despite good news you may hear about pockets of change and economic growth and hope, remains the most violent region on earth with one-third of the world’s murders. Uganda is among Africa’s worst, with more than 11,000 murders in 2011, about 20 times Canada’s rate.
In fact, deaths from any variety of causes are never far away around here, as common as a bicycle ride on a warm day. But there’s something that’s even more troubling. It relates to Easter.
There’s Christ, according to the biblical account, having his own doubts. He knows what’s coming and he’s deeply afraid, humanly afraid, sweating great drops like blood. Then his friends leave him. Then the all-night kangaroo trial. Then that rugged and bloody cross, that horribly violent, state-sanctioned murder.
Finally, bleeding out, convulsing and breathless, what are Jesus’ last pained words? “Daddy, why have you left me?”
This is the real trouble of it. If a good person, a person as good as Jesus, can be left by everyone, even his own Father, where does that leave the rest of us? And how does this square with that Father who wants to lavish his riches on even the worst of us criminals?
Not very long before Jesus was killed, something else happened. The account says his good friend, Lazarus, was lying nearby, dead and cold. Jesus, in fact, could have saved him, but took his time arriving at the scene. He had made himself scarce. Then the account gives two simple words: “Jesus wept.”
There they are, the tears running down his dusty cheeks. Why? Surely he knew how it would end, that he would raise Lazarus, a foreshadow of Jesus’ own resurrection now being celebrated in Hamilton and by millions around the world.
But maybe it’s in Christ’s tears, just like in Christ’s doubts, where even in a skeptical age, the most faithless and fallen of us can find something.
Because maybe Jesus didn’t weep only for his dead friend. Maybe he also wept for many other things: maybe for the murdered John Otim, or maybe for Uganda, or maybe for all of Africa. Or maybe Jesus really wept for our entire violent and broken world.
Maybe he wept for when God is silent, or for our deafness when God is not. Or maybe Jesus just wept for the hope that, for now, is only that, but somehow has to be enough.