‘…And put him in prison until the day of his death…’ (Jeremiah 52, 11)
Total depravity is the first of the so-called ‘five points of Calvinism’ as described at the Synod of Dort. They are usually referred to by the acronym TULIP. It is not a pleasant thought, the suggestion that we are just that, but the more we think about it, the more uncomfortable we will find ourselves to be…The reading from Jeremiah described the last days of the Kingdom of Judah before its conquest by the Babylonians. Zedekiah had been installed as a ‘puppet king’ by the invaders but after some years he rebelled and in so doing brought down upon himself, his people and his nation the full force of the Babylonian authorities, and we have described for us in graphic terms when he and his family were subjected to; horrific violence, almost beyond our comprehension. I say ‘almost’ because during these last 100 years we have witnessed, across the world, acts of appalling violence either on the part of individuals, - Ian Brady, Myra Hindley, Peter Sutcliffe, Fred & Rose West, Ian Huntley, John Warboys, so-called ‘grooming gangs’, even the likes of Rolf Harris, & Jimmy Saville, not to mention the local Priest, Minister, whoever - but also on behalf of governments – be they local, regional, national, be they motivated by ethnicity, politics, religion, whatever – such that the word ‘genocide’ is now used routinely, the phrase ‘ethnic cleansing’ has entered into our vocabulary – all of which has served to lay bare before us all the depths to which humankind can sink; just how depraved we can be. We are capable of the most despicable, the most disgusting behaviour: and even if we ourselves are not so engaged, we are not immune from the accusation of guilt by association, directly or indirectly, complicit by our silence, our never ending capacity to look the other way, our innate ability to justify anything and everything as being in our ‘national interest’, on the grounds that ‘if we didn’t somebody else would’, and so on…Essentially, anyone is capable, potentially, of acting in such a way; anyone and everyone, and if that is so, then we are bound to concede that each and everyone of us possesses the self-same capability. This, ‘total depravity’ – the realisation that the whole of humankind has the wherewithal whereby anyone of us could, given the circumstances, act accordingly. The phrase, ‘There but for the Grace of God’, is one we often refer to, usually without thinking; but in this context it is absolutely vital to an understanding of what is at the heart of the Christian Gospel. In essence, as Christians we are challenged to believe that however despicable, however disgusting, however depraved the behaviour and activities of those who are as we are, nevertheless, God and in particular the love of God, the grace filled love of God, the forgiveness laden love of God is greater than, goes deeper than, reaches farther than, is more powerful than any human excess. And of course, what we witness happening close to home and across the world tests that faith to the uttermost, but still it is the Gospel message – now more than ever do we have to realise that the Cross is the most relevant religious symbol there is – it is crucially important to any argument that there is a God and that by believing in God the world as it is can be transformed in a way that is otherwise beyond us. The passage we heard read earlier from the Letter to the Romans articulated for us Paul’s appreciation of the unique appeal that is represented for us all in the Cross of Christ. In Christ God has shared His love with friend, stranger and enemy alike…for all are alike to God. He has done all that can be done in order to persuade us that to love one another is the only way, and that such love, a love demonstrated in Christ, mediated in and through the Holy Spirit, that such love really can transform the world in and through the transformation of individual lives. The forgiveness of God is that which can bind together each and all of us…all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, all stand in need of God’s forgiveness, God’s forgiveness is for all, if dare we ask God to forgive us? But just because God holds out a hand in forgiveness does not mean that those who perpetrate such atrocities should escape the judgement of their peers, provided that is what it is…a just judgement; not focussed solely on revenge, or retribution, but rather a proper ‘holding to account’, apportioning blame as appropriate, identifying those responsibility and requiring them to be punished according to laws that are just and fair. But Paul demands we go further. Forgiveness can never be for its own sake; it is only effective if it brings about reconciliation. God’s ultimate desire is the reconciliation of all things, of each and everyone of us living together according to the peace of God – a peace not as the world understands it – and until then it is incumbent on the Christian Community to confront the evils of our day, to denounce the awful, sickening violence that is seemingly endemic in our society, and to demand of the authorities that they act to minimize its effects; protecting those who are most vulnerable, and ensuring as best we can that the victims get all the help and assistance they need to rebuild their shattered lives. It behoves us as Christians to engage with those in power, if only to at least ensure that we do all we can to avoid what might otherwise seem inevitable, a violent solution to disputes between the nations; and even when war is waged, not to be silent but to demand that the voice of the victims is heard. Paul’s injunction not to seek to overcome evil with evil, but rather to overcome evil with good is naïve, simplistic, other worldly, but it is the way of the Cross, and the way of the Cross is the only way.