“No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.”
–Rabbi Irving Greenberg
This morning I need to prepare my sermon for Sunday, but I am paralyzed. I cannot write one word. It’s not because I don’t know what to say. There is too much to say, but none of my words will do justice to the word I have been given to preach. Our lectionary passage for this coming Sunday is Isaiah 11:1-10. It is a familiar passage for many of us. When we hear it read, our minds immediately draw up one of the many famous paintings of the Peaceable Kingdom. Images of a wolf embracing a lamb, a leopard with a kid, a calf with a lion, a cow and a bear, and a child playing with snakes. It is that image of the child that slams me to a halt.
“A little child shall lead them.”
Maybe it is because I am a new parent. The last few days I’ve been able to spend more and more time with my little girl, Joey. I love watching her explore. I love how her eyes light up as she reaches for a new object that she will eventually put in her mouth. I love her excitement; she bounces her hips back and forth when she sees me come into the room. I love how she takes off crawling on the floor at breakneck speed when her mom calls to her from the other end of the hallway.
I’m a vegan. And I’ve never really been afraid of snakes. But my spine begins to crawl at the thought of a child’s hand on the nest of an adder. An adder is a small venomous snake with dark winding zigzags on its back. What’s even more creepy is that adders give birth to living, little, crawling baby snakes. You can bet I would quickly turn into a snake murderer if ever I found Joey remotely near one.
Isaiah’s eschatological image is beautiful, I think, because of its blatant absurdity. In a world riddled with violence and fear, awaiting the next crisis, the prophet has painted us an image of hope that we all know has no basis in reality.
But as absurd and creepy as it is, it’s not this image of a child playing with snakes that paralyzes me. It is the fact that this image challenges me to be honest about the violence that wreaks havoc on our world—the violence that endangers our children.
Reflecting on Jewish theology after the Holocaust, Rabbi Irving Greenberg once gave this working principle: “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.”
Rabbi Greenberg was challenging hope peddlers like me to be honest. Not spirituality or sentimentality, but truthfulness. I don’t know how to be that honest. I don’t know what honest theological statements in the presence of burning children sound like.
This morning, my imagination is stuck on the image of a child. Not Isaiah’s infant playing with snakes, but the five year old Omran Daqneesh, setting silently, motionless, emotionless in that orange chair in the back of an ambulance, his faced covered in dust and smeared with blood. I’m sure you saw it. The whole damn world saw it. He was that that little child who was rescued from a building hit by an airstrike in Aleppo back in August. This image reminds me that I have no idea what honest hope looks like?
Nevertheless, I will preach it. I will preach this Sunday of a fervent, relentless hope. I will preach a hope beyond hope. I will preach of a repentant faith that challenges us to question everything, to begin again at the beginning. To remember how sacred life really is. Rather than peddle a dishonest hope, I will give voice to an ancient prayer that the Creator of the Universe would help us give birth to a beloved community, a peaceable kin-dom where all the world’s children can live in safety.
But I will not do so without bearing the weight of Dostoevsky’s challenge. I can never unread how Dostoevsky read Isaiah, and the protest he presented the world in The Brothers Karamazov. I will leave it here in the bowels of the internet, and pray that others can find it and join with me in prayer for Isaiah’s beloved image to take root amidst this darkness and the light of life can begin to grow.
Listen! I took the case of children only to make my case clearer. Of the other tears of humanity with which the earth is soaked from its crust to its centre, I will say nothing. I have narrowed my subject on purpose. I am a bug, and I recognise in all humility that I cannot understand why the world is arranged as it is. Men are themselves to blame, I suppose; they were given paradise, they wanted freedom, and stole fire from heaven,though they knew they would become unhappy, so there is no need to pity them. With my pitiful, earthly, Euclidian understanding, all I know is that there is suffering and that there are none guilty; that cause follows effect, simply and directly; that everything flows and finds its level- but that’s only Euclidian nonsense, I know that, and I can’t consent to live by it! What comfort is it to me that there are none guilty and that cause follows effect simply and directly, and that I know it?- I must have justice, or I will destroy myself. And not justice in some remote infinite time and space, but here on earth, and that I could see myself. I have believed in it. I want to see it, and if I am dead by then, let me rise again, for if it all happens without me, it will be too unfair. Surely I haven’t suffered simply that I, my crimes and my sufferings, may manure the soil of the future harmony for somebody else. I want to see with my own eyes the hind lie down with the lion and the victim rise up and embrace his murderer. I want to be there when everyone suddenly understands what it has all been for. All the religions of the world are built on this longing, and I am a believer. But then there are the children, and what am I to do about them? That’s a question I can’t answer. For the hundredth time I repeat, there are numbers of questions, but I’ve only taken the children, because in their case what I mean is so unanswerably clear. Listen! If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me, please? It’s beyond all comprehension why they should suffer, and why they should pay for the harmony. Why should they, too, furnish material to enrich the soil for the harmony of the future? I understand solidarity in sin among men. I understand solidarity in retribution, too; but there can be no such solidarity with children. And if it is really true that they must share responsibility for all their fathers’ crimes, such a truth is not of this world and is beyond my comprehension. Some jester will say, perhaps, that the child would have grown up and have sinned, but you see he didn’t grow up, he was torn to pieces by the dogs, at eight years old. Oh,Alyosha, I am not blaspheming! I understand, of course, what an upheaval of the universe it will be when everything in heaven and earth blends in one hymn of praise and everything that lives and has lived cries aloud: ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed.’ When the mother embraces the fiend who threw her child to the dogs, and all three cry aloud with tears, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ then, of course, the crown of knowledge will be reached and all will be made clear. But what pulls me up here is that I can’t accept that harmony. And while I am on earth, I make haste to take my own measures. You see, Alyosha, perhaps it really may happen that if I live to that moment, or rise again to see it, I, too, perhaps, may cry aloud with the rest, looking at the mother embracing the child’s torturer, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ but I don’t want to cry aloud then. While there is still time, I hasten to protect myself, and so I renounce the higher harmony altogether. It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to ‘dear, kind God’! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going to atone for them? Is it possible? By their being avenged? But what do I care for avenging them? What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother’s heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, what becomes of harmony? Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it.“