This is post 2/2 originally recorded for the Inglorious Pasterds’ Lenten Reflections series, “From Inside The Whale.” Visit their site, support them on Patreon to hear this and other materials, or listen to their main podcast for free.
I stared at my phone. Two-hundred people. Two-hundred. Dead. And for what? As I finished reading the article from an April 2017’s LA Times titled, “‘Take Ahmed and let me die’: Victims of U.S. airstrike in Mosul recount a day of horror,” I felt the all-too-familiar numbness creep slowly over me as I again read the accounts of real people who survived — or didn’t survive — the unimaginable. Senseless atrocities – a man searching through the rubble of his former home to find only his wife’s torso; a four-year-old girl coughing up what looks like oil as she waits three days to see a doctor. Homes and families dissolved in minutes.
“Acceptable civilian losses” our generals would call them.
“Collateral damage” the news terms them. Unfortunate, but to be expected in our military’s push to dislodge yet another militant group wreaking supposedly worse damage on these people.
Closing the phone, I half-remembered reports flashing across screens over two weeks ago – Estimated 200 civilians killed in U.S. airstrike: investigation ongoing – but at the time I was too busy . . . what? Working? On the treadmill? Watching Parks and Rec? Too busy to give more than a cursory sigh and hastily turn my attention elsewhere before the tide of helplessness washed over me.
Only this time, I couldn’t push it down; couldn’t redirect. The humanity behind the facts crashed into my heart like a crumbling building and the horror, the rage — and the frustrated impotence — rose in my throat.
Let’s be honest, I’m not totally without agency here. I could donate to groups like Preemptive Love Coalition, or go there myself and bring aid. I could advocate for the helpless both here and abroad and vote for policies and politicians that snuff out violence rather than proliferate it. I could do all of that but right then, as I finished getting ready, pulling on my slacks and fixing my tie, I could only vent to my wife about senselessness, my feeling of powerlessness, and especially the uselessness of the church service I was about to attend.
She nodded as I rambled on and continued saying, “We’ll all stand there and talk to God and yeah, I guess it’s cool we’re part of a community that cares and talks about this stuff – that does the refugees support thing and is full of people who are educated about these issues and are willing to help – but what the hell’s the point!? They’re still dying while I sit here with my fucking $5 coffee singing bad hymns and feeling bad . . . .” I trailed off since there was, after all, nothing to say or do.
Then I actually went to church.
The service was as beautiful and as useless as beauty always is. A hopeful sermon about . . . something interesting, I’m sure, followed well-read scriptures. Then I knelt for the lengthy Lenten confession and the choir began to sing Mendelssohn’s Kyrie and, as the room slowly filled with the billowing sound, I felt the rage and the helplessness slowly drained or driven out – displaced by beauty.
And I exhaled.
I didn’t even realize I’d been holding my breath. Holding it since I’d read the article. Maybe for longer. Weeks. Months.
I say I exhaled and the faces in that morning’s articles swam before me as that ancient refrain continued: Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, and as it did I felt the redeeming power of lament actively molding despair and impotence into hope and resolve.
While the sound washed over me, I remembered a scene George MacDonald’s fantastical At the Back of the North Wind. The boy Diamond is speaking with the North Wind, who has taken him for a ride through the sky, but has now told him she must set him down to perform a task: she must go stir up a storm and sink a ship, and watch as all its passengers drown.
Diamond, who is scandalized at this news, begins assaulting her with questions:
“But how can you bear it then, North Wind? For I am sure you are kind. I shall never doubt that again.”
“I will tell you how I am able to bear it, Diamond: I am always hearing, through every noise, through all the noise I am making myself even, the sound of a far-off song. I do not exactly know where it is, or what it means; and I don’t hear much of it, only the odour of its music, as it were, flitting across the great billows of the ocean outside this air in which I make such a storm; but what I do hear is quite enough to make me able to bear the cry from the drowning ship. So it would you if you could hear it.”
“No, it wouldn’t,” returned Diamond, stoutly. “For they wouldn’t hear the music of the far-away song; and if they did, it wouldn’t do them any good. You see you and I are not going to be drowned, and so we might enjoy it.”
“But you have never heard the psalm, and you don’t know what it is like. Somehow, I can’t say how, it tells me that all is right; that it is coming to swallow up all cries.”
“But that won’t do them any good—the people, I mean,” persisted Diamond.
“It must. It must,” said North Wind, hurriedly. “It wouldn’t be the song it seems to be if it did not swallow up all their fear and pain too, and set them singing it themselves with the rest. I am sure it will.
The conversation continued, ending when North Wind sets him in a cathedral to await her return, sets off to perform her duty, and drowns a shipful of people – people who would soon know the suffocating horror of their lungs filling with seawater as their ship sucks them into the murky depths. Real people: with spouses and children and parents who would never see them again. And surely the London papers the next day told the story of the passenger ship that foundered off the coast, leaving no survivors. Someone probably read the article and felt the helpless fury at unnecessary evil. Surely these people were not able to hear the “far-off song” over the din of the perilous North Wind; nor were their loved ones able to hear it over their own wails of shock and grief.
And yet, somehow, we’re called to hope.
Hope? In the face of despair and tragedy?
Not because I hope for escape. Not because I believe there is some other sweet by and by we all get to fly away to someday, where humanity’s pains here seem as nothing to our joys.
Nor because I hope for utopia, that humanity unaided could summon the energy to push against our destructive, power-hungry nature and create peace, safety, and justice for all on this tired world.
I don’t hope because I necessarily have faith in God. If God is real, if Christ is really there to offer mercy, then that mercy and its consolations are offered on some plane of existence to which I have no access.
I hope because . . . well, because I do. I hope because I can’t help it. A fool’s hope that Beauty will be both our first and last word and that it is worth pursuing, whether humanity lives to see its fullness or condemns itself to the flames of its own insatiability. I hope because the call of those who knelt beside me and cried out to this Lord and this Christ, asking for mercy, believed fiercely in their vocation as beauty-bringers – as called-out-ones sent into the world to arrest death and decay through self-giving love – singing their one note as truly as they can, believing their voice adds one more note to the far-off song, adding to the tide of Beauty that not only created the universe and will someday gather it to Itself, but also sustains it in the interim.
This morning as the Kyrie echoed the sound of that far-off song, I was able for the briefest of moments to understand the North Wind’s confidence. For the slightest moment, in the midst of lament, I was able to believe that Beauty may indeed “save the world.”
As a final thought: it is fascinating that this particular song is the church’s confessional refrain during the season of Lent and that, as we move steadily toward Easter, the shattering beauty of the lament begins to be reshaped even as we sing it into a song of hope, of ascents, even of rebellion. Whether you buy into the Christ story as it’s been told to you, I ask you to consider it less a story of God’s inability to deal with human sin and rather a tale of humanity’s attempts to deal with our self-destructive tendencies; a story in which one of our own gave his life as a powerful testament to violence’s failture to solve our problems; a testament to the slow, irresistible march of life. Not as path to escape but as a door into a life fully lived here and now. Easter is the terminus of Lent; the feast of the resurrection will last 50 days to our current season’s 40, because for some reason, a community of people believe that death is not the last word, that the feast will always outlive the fast, and that even if we are at the last cheated of our hope and, when the lights go out that’s it, we will still have been a people who lived for Beauty and wholeness in the here and now.
I want to leave you with the words of David Bentley Hart from his short book on theodicy titled The Doors of the Sea:
Easter is an act of ‘rebellion’ against all false necessity and all illegitimate or misused authority, all cruelty and heartless chance. It liberates us from servitude to and terror before the ‘elements’: It emancipates us from fate. It overcomes the ‘world’: Easter should make rebels of us all.
This post is compiled largely from “The Far-Off Song,” originally published in April 2017.