Tuesday, June 16, 2015, at 4:45, my alarm went off. I rolled out of bed, grabbed my pack, and drove up the twisty, narrow road to Panoramic Point in Sequoia National Forest.
The song in my head was Here I am to worship; Here I am to bow down; Here I am to say that you’re my God. And you’re altogether Holy; altogether Worthy; altogether Wonderful to me. But not as sung by Michael W. Smith, as sung by Grace Covenant.
I had been reading Evolving in Monkey Town by Rachel Held Evans. It is a collection of essays about events that shaped Mrs. Evans perspective on God and religion. The previous night, I had gone to sleep after reading the story of Zarmina, a Muslim, who like Jesus, became a martyr for ecumenicalism. Mrs. Evans essay reminded me of my own similar change in perspective.
Zarmina lived in Afghanistan. She was 16 when her marriage was arranged. Her husband was an abusive-alcoholic who was raping their youngest daughter. She eventually killed him. She was arrested, tried, and convicted by the Taliban. Then, her eldest daughters were sold into sex-slavery.
Her execution, on November 16, 1999, took place in a soccer stadium, and it is captured by a grainy, surreptitious video that lives forever on youtube. Zarmina was expecting to be lashed. She had said her prayers in anticipation of the punishment. But instead, she was driven in the bed of a pick-up truck to the top of the goalie box, she was forced onto her knees, and a man walked up to her with an AK-47. With one shot to the head, she was executed. She slumped over, and her burka came up, revealing plain white tennis shoes on her feet.
It is Zarmina’s sneakers peeking out from underneath her burka that connect her to the author.
For Rachel Held Evans, as a young girl, this is a turning point. She can’t accept that Zarmina would be condemned in death after all that she had been through in life. After being forcibly married to an abusive-alcoholic and tried and executed by an oppressive regime, was Zarmina to spend eternity in hell because she didn’t confess Jesus as LORD (YHWH)? Rachel could not accept that. It broke her heart and changed her mind.
This turning toward ecumenicalism was similar for me, but the fulcrum that changed my fundamentalist-faith was Becky, a cheer-leader, a Catholic. And I was the one who condemned her. I had said, off-handedly to a friend that some people (me, myself, wondering if I was one of them) think that Catholics don’t have their beliefs quite right, and they might be going to hell. Word got around. Then, the next morning, Becky was having a whispered conversation with a friend. Just before class started, she stood up with tears in her eyes and pointed a question at me. “Do you really believe that I’m going to hell?” And a suppositional-theological statement I had made became all too real, tangible. I could only mumble an answer. Something like, “No. You don’t understand…” I was saved by the morning bell, calling the class to order. But that question left me spinning for a while. Honestly, I didn’t know what I thought. And it wasn’t until much later before I could settle on a solid “no.”
There was part of me that couldn’t figure out who was going to heaven and who was going to hell. And if I was right about me going to heaven, then didn’t that mean that a lot of other people were wrong and it was my job to save them? Gradually I started to realize it wasn’t up to me to figure out who was in and who was out. That decision was way above my pay-grade. My only job was to accept the grace offered to me through Jesus Christ. And then live fully, freely into that grace.
For some reason I can’t explain, I know St. Peter will call my name. Viva la Vida by Coldplay.
C. S. Lewis anchors me with this thought, “We do know that no person can be saved except through Christ. We do not know that only those who know Him can be saved by Him.”
Paul wrote to the Romans (chapter 8) with the same thought, 33-34 Who would dare to accuse us, whom God has chosen? The judge himself has declared us free from sin. Who is in a position to condemn? Only Christ, and Christ died for us, Christ rose for us, Christ reigns in power for us, Christ prays for us!”
On the plane home, I finished “Evolving in Monkey Town,” and I really liked it. It guided me, and it gave my mind and spirit paths to wander. It gave me questions to ponder. It reminded me of the journey I have been on, and it spurred me onward. It reminded me that God’s grace is great. God’s mercy exceeds our expectations, and sometimes it is so big that it pisses us off, like when God forgives and includes people that we have grudges against or don’t like.
When I started working on this post, I couldn’t remember how to spell Zarmina. So I googled it, and the link to the youtube video of her execution came up. So, I clicked through, even though I don’t usually go in for this sort of voyeurism.
The video is just so sad, so brutal, so poignant, and dirty. Men seem to wander around aimlessly as a dingy pick-up truck carries Zarmina to her fate. No one seems to notice her as she kneels there. She is just one woman among many who were executed that day for violating the rules of her society.
The video made a further impression on me. I wondered about the person who had done the filming. And I wondered about all those people wandering around and watching. What was the impact of Zarmina’s death on them?
“The awful dilemma of whether to look,” was a remark from a journalist on NPR. He was commenting on the immigrant tragedy unfolding in Europe. The Syrians are fleeing from ISIS into Greece and trying to get to Austria and Germany. What will we see when we look? How will we be changed? Because you can’t erase it once you’ve seen it, heard it, felt it.
And I was reminded of the impact of images by another story on NPR. A young Palestinian was radicalized by the video of a Palestinian woman having her hijab removed and then being shot by Israeli police. Not long after that, he picked up a knife from a vendor in Old Jerusalem and killed some Israelis who had been harassing him. Where it starts? Nobody knows. (We didn’t start the fire. We’re just the fuel it consumes and the air that it breathes.) And what is the difference between his reaction and mine? When I see someone killed, I think, I can’t be like the killer, passing judgment. But it helps that I am also not being oppressed, that I am among the privileged and powerful.
Can a person be so bad that Christ can’t save them? It reminds me of the trick question: Can God create a rock so big that God can’t lift it? The answer is neither yes nor no, you silly logic-bound human. God can create a rock, lift it (erode it, turn it into good earth to grow in), then make another rock, twice as big, and thus proceed to the end of time. And when God gets to the end of time, God might just make some more time. And then make some bigger rocks. God has already made the Sierra Nevada and planted Sequoias there. God made the Rocky Mountains and the Himalayas. How much bigger do rocks need to be?
Can a person be so bad that Christ can’t save them? I don’t think so.
I have begun to think that God does not ask for our orthodoxy. God does not ask us (third person plural) or me (first person singular) to believe more than that God loves us/me. God does not ask us to judge the religion of other people. God asks for our thanks and praise, thanks and praise alone.