Cross-posted at RehobothHaiti.com.
While visiting Haiti several years ago, on a sleepless night, I heard a sound that made my skin crawl — the sound of cruel laughter and jeering mingled with angry, accusatory shouts coming from beyond the wall around my parents’ house. The mob dispersed and the sound dissipated in less than ten minutes, but on the way into work the next morning, our groundskeeper found a young man’s body sprawled in the street. Someone had accused the young man of being a thief, a mob had gathered, and the young man had been dragged into the street and his throat had been slit. Rumors flew afterwards that the young man hadn’t even done anything wrong. He had simply crossed a set of vicious men who had set him up that night and made sure that he died.
This week, my thoughts have returned to that young man since his death, if the rumors were true, paralleled the death of Jesus in more ways than one. Like that young man, Jesus was a poor man from a fractious part of the world who had the misfortune of crossing men of power and influence in first-century Palestine, men who decided to turn him into a cautionary tale. Seized in the middle of the night, Jesus was beaten before he had even stood trial and testified against at his shambolic trial by false witnesses to give his inevitable execution a veneer of justice. He was then executed in a brutal manner and his body left in a public place until nightfall. It was the first-century Palestinian equivalent of a lynching. Three days later, however, God would raise him from the dead.
Given the opportunity to finish the story, how would you have done it? Out of all the possible ways the story could have gone from there, vengeance would seem to be the most likely ending. Had he had the opportunity to revisit his enemies, the young man whose throat was slit would probably have been tempted to exact vengeance similar to the manner in which he was killed. Perhaps he would have shocked his unassuming killers one by one and dragged them before the public, forcing them to confess their guilt in excruciating detail before executing them for their crimes.
When they first heard and began to believe that he had risen from the dead, that is probably exactly what Jesus’ enemies thought he would do to them. When Peter first announced the resurrection to them (Acts 2:14-40), Luke writes they were “cut to the heart,” asking one another, “Brothers, what shall we do?” What could they do? Jesus was alive, and they had killed him. Peter’s reply must have taken them completely by surprise. “Repent and be baptized,” he proclaimed, “in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit!” God was not angry at those who had wronged his Son. On the contrary, he had used that very sin to save them, offering them the opportunity to become his sons and daughters.
The concept of grace is one of Christianity’s unique contributions to the flow of world history. Its impact has been felt in every culture in which the Gospel has taken root. Philip Yancey recounts a poignant example of grace in post-apartheid South Africa at one of the hearings for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where people who had committed horrific abuses of power were offered immunity from prosecution on the condition that they confess their crimes to their victims before a tribunal:
At one hearing, a policeman named van de Broek recounted an incident when he and other officers shot an eighteen-year-old boy and burned the body, turning it on the fire like a piece of barbecue meat in order to destroy the evidence. Eight years later van de Broek returned to the same house and seized the boy’s father. The wife was forced to watch as policemen bound her husband on a woodpile, poured gasoline over his body, and ignited it. The courtroom grew hushed as the elderly woman who had lost first her son and then her husband was given a chance to respond.
“What do you want from Mr. van de Broek?” the judge asked. She said she wanted van de Broek to go to the place where they burned her husband’s body and gather up the dust so she could give him a decent burial. His head down, the policeman nodded agreement.
Then she added a further request, “Mr. van de Broek took all my family away from me, and I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to the ghetto and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him. And I would like Mr. van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him too. I would like to embrace him so he can know my forgiveness is real.”
Spontaneously, some in the courtroom began singing “Amazing Grace” as the elderly woman made her way to the witness stand, but van de Broek did not hear the hymn. He had fainted, overwhelmed.
Is there hope for a world in which a mother loses her son and then has to watch as her husband is murdered? And even if there is, how can the victims of such tragedies move forward without being overwhelmed by sorrow or overcome by hatred? God answered both questions by raising Jesus from the dead. “Easter opened up a crack in a universe winding down toward entropy and decay,” Yancey writes, “sealing the promise that someday God will enlarge the miracle of Easter to cosmic scale.” The Scripture tells us, however, that God chose to raise Jesus with his scars intact — Jesus is a wounded healer. The hope of Easter rests in being healed as Christ Himself was healed, and in choosing to become a source of healing to others just as Christ, in his refusal to return evil for evil, has become the “sun of righteousness, risen with healing in his wings” (Mal. 4:2).