Gavin Matthews: We must find the right response to Sri Lanka Easter Sunday massacre

Security personnel inspect the interior of St. Sebastian's Church in Negombo a day after the church was hit in series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Security personnel inspect the interior of St. Sebastian's Church in Negombo a day after the church was hit in series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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As I write, funerals are taking place of the victims of the Sri Lankan Easter Sunday massacre. The official death-toll is still rising, while speculation as to the identity of those behind the atrocity fills the news. Massive planning was invested in murdering the innocent, some as they ate breakfast, most as they prayed in church.

The Christchurch mosque killings took place in a fellow ‘western democracy’ and so felt closer to home than this new tragedy. Nevertheless, for many in the church here, having stood alongside our Muslim friends and neighbours after Christchurch, we must now try to find a response to Sri Lanka.

Perhaps the best place from which to do that is around four aspects of the original Easter story.

The foundational idea of Easter is that Jesus was ‘given’ to the world. Behind the religious violence of his death, we are invited to believe that, “God so loved the world that he gave his son”, and that Jesus “laid down his life for his friends”. Our first instinct should then be to give to the victims of religious violence and persecution. The Christian charity works tirelessly for the freedom of religion and belief for people of all faiths and none. Giving to an organisation such as this might be our first response.

Then, on Good Friday, when Jesus was executed by the Roman soldiers, he famously cried out, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” – and this should frame our second response.

Jesus recognised that the foot-soldiers who were setting about his physical destruction were not the authors of his agonies, but were mere pawns in bigger schemes. Critically though, Jesus didn’t send his followers off to indiscriminately kill Roman citizens in response, but prayed for their salvation.

Today, offering Christian forgiveness does not mean that the state should not pursue justice through due process. However, it does mean that we cannot indulge in acts of revenge or hostility to anyone or any community, or propagate cycles of violence. While it would be grotesque to intrude on the grief of the afflicted to tell them how to process the raw pain of their loss, it is perhaps legitimate for us to recall those who have suffered in ways which have inspired humanity.

The first, of course, is Christ. Another, who followed after him, was Gordon Wilson. When his daughter Marie was killed by the IRA at Enniskillen in 1987, he offered forgiveness to her murderers. This, he said at the time, was because he was following Jesus and as a result had a profound influence on the ensuing peace process. This led to his appointment to the Irish Senate but it began with the example of Christ.

What makes any of that possible is the third aspect of the Easter story. Christians believe that Christ on the cross was bearing the sin of the world, or as the Bible more poetically puts it, “the punishment that brought us peace was upon him”.

This invokes the idea of a God of justice. The biblical notion of God’s wrath is often wrongly caricatured as being something used to scare people into belief. The Bible writers use it as a way of telling believers not to pursue revenge but to trust God that perfect justice will ultimately be done.

We shudder when we think of the victims of Christchurch or Sri Lanka; we should shudder more when we think of the authors of these evils standing before God to account for their actions. The idea of divine justice frees us from the quest to enact revenge, and can liberate us to seek the good of the ‘other’, always cognisant that our actions will likewise be subject to divine scrutiny.

The fourth aspect of the Easter story which frames our response, must of course be the resurrection of Christ. Christians believe that Jesus rose from the grave, and that consequently death is not the end and, that along with it, hate, sin and wickedness will not have the last word. The empty tomb of Jesus is, in Christian thought, God’s first decisive action in restoring his creation to Himself.

The funerals in Sri Lanka of the victims from St Anthony’s Church will be buried in the full expectation that they will rise again one day – just as Christ rose on the first Easter Day. In this sometimes ghastly world, hope and new life is still found in Jesus.

As we grieve for Sri Lanka’s Easter massacre, perhaps framing our response around the first Easter is a helpful way to proceed.

Gavin Matthews for Solas