John Greenleaf Whittier was hardly Jesus Christ but he can hardly be blamed for that—not even the blessed virgin Mary, Jesus’ mother, was Jesus Christ. There never has been nor will there be a human life as filled with all the graces of the Holy One as the life of the Lord Jesus. Still, there have been other lives that in great measure, each in their own way, have reflected some aspect of the life of Jesus as He reflected God. Whittier was such a person.
He was of Quaker background, poor, hard-working and on rocky Massachusetts soil that exhausted and finally took the life of John’s father. The son was little educated, characteristically unwell, longing to marry and enjoy a family of his own but rejected in marriage and unlucky in romance he remained celibate until his death at eighty-five, weary and having given all he could give.
He was a man of strong convictions, especially in the area of social justice and he became a friend of the noted abolitionist and editor, William Lloyd Garrison. Having missed happiness he found a cause and into that cause he threw all his mental and emotional energy, in a ceaseless fight until he could fight no more. In his closing years, having done what he could do and tired of being at war with the world and now recognizing that all humans are caught up in same struggle against the evil powers, he extended his sympathy to all of them. As he lay dying in a friend’s house with a few people around him among the other things he said he said this: “Give my love to the world.”
It simply isn’t possible nor would it be right to ignore the evil that men do. However complex human life is, surely there is something missing in us if nothing can make us angry! The sadness, poverty, loneliness, deprivation, injustice and oppression cry out for someone to take it all into account and deal with it.
Do we not at times long for some person or persons to rise up in the hell-holes of the world and put a stop to cruelty that’s celebrated, brutality that beggars description? Have we not seen the weak and helpless raped and ravaged, hurt and humiliated and spoke a curse on the powers that have been let loose in homes near us and nations away on the other side of the world?
If someone rose up in Somalia or North Korea or south Dallas [name the place yourself] and brought justice, peace and prosperity to those enslaved by brutal leaders and their militia or by unemployment or heartless landlords or husbands–would we not sing his or her praises? Would we not nominate them for the Nobel Peace Prize? Would we not look at one another and now know what we always sort of knew–that there are things that matter more to us than who won the Super Bowl, what baseball or basketball or soccer team made records? If some righteous, strong, wise, loving one rose up and put a stop to carnage and agony wouldn’t we love it? Don’t we sometimes and in a focused and sustained way long for, even pray for and would vote for such a person?
Whittier, just another human like the rest of us, came to see that the entire world is in the grasp of evil powers to which it is captive and that’s what led him to say: “Give my love to the world.”
And there was the young man on the cross; the young man who felt at a depth no other human has felt, as no other human understood. In his dying he saw his own people Israel, the blind being led by the blind, heading for a 70 AD ravine and beyond.
He saw the evil, was experiencing it at that very time; injustice, envy, fear, self-serving power-brokers, religious and political–all this he saw and said, “Father, they don’t know what they’re doing; forgive them.”
But they did know what they were doing and they meant to do it and there lay the evil of it all. And yet, he knew they didn’t know what they were doing; he knew they were creating a nightmare that they would end up living through, again and again and again.
On his way to that hill where the powerful ones hurried him to be got rid of, he said to sad and sobbing women, “Are you weeping for me? Save your tears for yourselves and your children–this is only the beginning. These are the good times and the truly bad times are ahead.” [Luke 23:27-31]
He had had his own crying time. There was that time when he sat on a hill looking down on the city when he sobbed his heart out, chest heaving, eyes streams and voice breaking, “Oh Jerusalem, if you only knew…” [Luke 19:41-44]
But he saw more than Israel in it’s tragic ignorance. From his exalted position he saw the history of the entire human family. That day he prayed not only for Israel–it was a prayer for the entire world. “Forgive them; they have no idea what they’re doing.”
What nation in its sinful ignorance has not created its own conscious nightmare? Glance at history! China, Russia, England, Europe, Ireland, America and South America–where has there not been civil war, ceaseless oppression of the vulnerable?
There were those who at the time said that WWI was “a war to end all wars.” But now, a hundred years later we see that Eric Bogle’s The Green Fields of France (You Tube) only echoes the truth that history forever shoves in our unbelieving faces. He has an imagined visitor speak to an imaginary [but real] nineteen year-old soldier, Willie McBride, who lies buried far from home; one of millions on both sides. The visitor to the graveyard has this to say as he finishes his talk with the boy:
Well Willie Mc Bride I can’t help wonder why
Do those that lie here know why did they die
And did they believe when they answered the call
Did they really believe that this war would end war
Well the sorrow the suffering the glory the pain
The killing the dying was all done in vain
For young Willy Mc Bride it all happened again
And again,and again,and again,and again
Christians see the cross of Christ [as part of a larger Story] as the most momentous event in human history and I understand–I really do–why many think that’s a scandalous thing to say. But we can’t help it, it’s where we stand and we believe with Christ that his death is sentence being passed on “the world” [John 12:31, NJV]. “The world”–a name for the sinful and insane re-structuring of reality without the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ–it’s the dynamic reality that enslaves and blinds the human family to the truth that true and full life is found only in relation to God.
It’s there that evil is exposed as it is nowhere else! [Can’t you see that that must be scandalous in light of the horrors of history; horrors that are taking place at this very moment in homes and cities and countries? This young man, dying two thousand years ago is in and at that relatively painless dying experience the supreme judgment on the world’s inexpressible cruelty and moral lunacy? Do you wonder why people roll their eyes and walk off disgusted and stupefied? Of course we help them to react this way because we so often give them the impression that it was the great physical suffering of Jesus that is the important thing. The truth is, His physical suffering was nothing compared with what multiplied millions have suffered and are suffering even now. The true message lies in who it is that suffers what He suffers and why He does it.
It was there on that public hanging-tree that Jesus said: “Give my love to the world!”
That’s the Church’s business!
The good news is this: the cross wasn’t the end of the Story! It wasn’t a sad, helpless young man they hanged there. He was sad beyond our knowing but he was anything but helpless if you believe what he himself said. Then God vindicated him by raising him from the dead and when he exposed “the world” for what it is and triumphed over the death-bringing satanic power that pervades that “world” he was giving humanity the assurance that all wrongs will be righted [Acts 17:31].
Think noble things of God!