My husband and I have begun to take it in turns to visit the local public hospital every week. We spend time with children in the Burns Unit, playing and chatting. We went a few weeks ago, but Robyn, the lady who runs the project wasn't able to spend much time with us, as she was with someone who had burns all over his body as a result of an intentional burning.
In parts of the country there is often little state intervention and it is still common for communities to carry out their own justice where they feel it is necessary. This particular incident was particularly harrowing and sad. Apparently, the man in question and his brother had kidnapped two young sisters, aged eight and 11, raping them both and murdering one. The community responded by burning him, and when he came to hospital, he was in a lot of pain. Robyn provided him with free medicines, but she said she could see the fear in his eyes. He died the next day, leaving behind his pregnant 17-year-old wife.
There are a lot of sad stories at the hospital, but this story was unsettling on so many levels, maybe because it has at its centre the most horrible of crimes. Although not personally involved, I was overwhelmed by the situation and wondered how anything related to it could ever be made right again. The community’s actions and response to these acts of crime reminded me of the Old Testament practice of taking an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth (Exodus 21:23-25). In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus responds by saying:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (Mark 5:38-3)
In the parallel passage in Luke, Jesus says: “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” (Luke 6:27-28)
Love your enemies and turn the other cheek. How is this dangerous act of subversion, of forgiveness, actually worked out when a community is outraged and hurting following the violation of children? I tried to imagine what it would be like to visit these people and explain that Jesus asks us to love those that hurt us, because God is ‘... kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.’ (Luke 6:35). What a command – how dare he ask it of us and how can it be lived out?
Where is the justice in this? How is this fair? A girl has had her life taken from her, and another her childhood taken. I do not agree with the community burning the suspect, but I can understand a little of their pain and suffering. I can understand them wanting some kind of justice. But, as Christians, are we called to be a people of justice – who seek justice - or to be a people of mercy and to show mercy? The passage in Luke ends with this verse: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36)
And this, I think, is the essential part. Jesus’ challenging words and his revolutionary life are incredible. Yet they also need to be seen in the light of his death and resurrection. What justice was there in an innocent man hanging on a cross? And yet in some mysterious way, it means that I know mercy. We are called to show mercy, to let it flow from us. For what mercy do we know?
In Luke 23:24, Jesus says, as he hangs on the cross, dying a vulgar and painful death, ‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.’ Suddenly, his command to turn the other cheek and practice mercy takes on a deeper significance. He can ask this of us, because he has demonstrated it and his resurrection has overcome the dirt and darkness. Once and for all, this act of love has transformed the whole of creation.
And so I return to the hospital. I can’t imagine what the man was thinking in those last, dark hours of his life. He needed redemption - personal salvation - and I hope that he found it. However, the need for redemption doesn’t end there. There is a collective need for redemption in his community, who, while in deep pain and fearsome anger, appeared to respond with violence and hate – Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.
Jesus came not just to redeem me, or those in my church, or those who fit in with the Christian sub-culture, but he came to redeem it all – the whole of creation. He came to redeem the paedophiles, the criminals, the lost, the dirty and those communities that respond to the human filth with hate and fear. This is perhaps described best in Colossians 1:15-29, which includes these words: Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation....For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
And we are called to take our place, to practice mercy individually and corporately. We are called to do the impossible in impossible situations – to show mercy and hope where there is only despair and hatred. We are called to make known the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. I think that something of the glorious riches of Christ, something of the hope of his glory was shown at the hospital a few weeks ago when Robyn gave the medicine to that hopeless sinner – the condemned man. It was a beautiful act – an act of hope, mercy and grace in a hopeless and awful situation.
This is not a story that appears to end happily. It is a story of murder and violence; it is a story of people trapped in these destructive cycles. And let’s not forget the man’s 17-year-old wife, pregnant and I am guessing alone, unable to return to her community, with no social system to support her. She has most likely disappeared but I pray that she experiences something of this grace and mercy, this hope of glory, as her husband did, through the actions of others. Please pray with me.
Amanda Roper is a Mission Worker with BMS World Mission in Cusco, Peru, along with her family. You can read more about her experiences of making the transition to a new culture here on the Sophia blog and on her own website: http://theropersinperu.blogspot.com/.