Well, it just so happened that I found myself preaching in Westminster Abbey (of all places) on Friday morning this week. It came about through an extraordinary sequence of events and contacts – and entailed me speaking to the twice-weekly chapel service of Westminster School, which of course stands in the heart of the Abbey complex.
I had no idea what to give them – a hoard of 750 teenagers who undoubtedly felt that they had better things to be getting on with at 9am on the last day before half term. So I felt the need to shake it up a bit. A combination of DR Congo stats, the experiences of a good friend who’d been a refugee from the DRC and the atheist bus campaign jumbled into my head to produce this. I was allowed 750 words – and gave them around 765 in the end. I think I got away with that. All quite fun. I wasn’t going to put it on, but then came across this set of remarkable, chilling, inspiring photos of Congo in this week’s Time magazine. Click on the photo below, to get the whole sequence. And so i decided to post it after all…
So here is the spiel:
My guess is that many of you have travelled the world. And I’m sure you all you plan to do so in the future. Perhaps you’ve already planned your gap year. The exotic? the breathtaking? the historic? the world is your oyster! Which is a great thing – the experience of another culture can hugely affect how we understand our own.
But I bet Congo is not on your itinerary. It’s vast – roughly the size of Western Europe. But it’s in a terrible state. The Second Congo War started in 1998 and has been described as Africa’s World War. Since 1998:
- 5½ million people have died, nearly half of them children.
- 45,000 are still dying every day.
But that barely hits the headlines. You probably had no idea. But if 45,000 people were dying in Europe every day, we wouldn’t hear about anything else.
The horrors came home to me when, for a number of years, I taught theology in Uganda. One of my students was a Congolese man. Fred, (as I’ll call him), had been a bank manager in Kisangani, Congo’s second city. And he’d been doing fine. He lived with his wife and 4 daughters in a nice enough house – and he’d boast of his 5 cars – 2 that worked and 3 that didn’t.
But after years of dictatorship, the country imploded.Fred witnessed relatives killed in cold blood. So the family fled to Uganda. They eked out an existence – all 6 living in one room in Kampala, with only enough money for 1 meal every two days.
One day, Fred happened to walk past our college and took the plunge – he signed up to do a degree. I’ll never forget that afternoon in the library when he and I were the last ones in there. We started chatting about his experiences… and the tears silently poured down his cheeks. After a while, he looked me in the eye, and said:
Mark – on the bad days, only one thing keeps me going as a Christian: that is the truth that there is a God and that he will one day judge the world.
Well, I wasn’t expecting that. It shook me up -as it would most westerners. We don’t like talking about God much – and we certainly don’t like to think of him as judge. That’s medieval; it’s backward. What’s more – suffering makes people lose their Christian faith, doesn’t it? Well not for Fred – being Christian was the only thing to keep him going.
Now I’m sure you’ve talked about the Atheist buses adverts. And believe it or not, I’m a fan. They’re great. They get God on the agenda. But consider this. Can you imagine how they’d go down on buses in Kisangani or Kampala?
There’s probably no God – now stop worrying and enjoy your life.
Enjoy life? That’s not even an option! For countless people in our world, enjoying life doesn’t even come into it. Mere survival is all they can expect. No, you could only get away with this sort of bus thing in an affluent comfortable society like ours.
And that’s the problem – we in the west haven’t suffered, not really – and certainly not in the last 60 years or so. Which is a key reason why we don’t cry out for God’s justice. We think we’re fine without him.
But what if you are the victim of injustice? And people are – even in Britain. Human justice, even British justice, is flawed. Well, that would be a different matter. You need there to be a God. But more importantly, you need him to bring justice. You need him to do something. And if he did – that judgment would be good news!
But if there’s no God – if we live in a closed universe of atoms and chance, then suffering is not an issue. It can’t be. It is just the way of the world and we can’t complain about that. We can perhaps stop worrying for a while – we can even enjoy life for bit. But can we be so sure that life will be plain sailing, or that there is no God to hold the world to account?
Now of course, God the judge is hardly everything that Christianity is about. Far from it. The point is that in Jesus Christ, he offers the only possible protection from God’s judgment. I simply want to leave in your minds the possibility that actually, far from being a problem, God’s justice is good news – and essential for life to have meaning and significance. And that’s what kept Fred going.