I recently turned on the news and found myself confronted with another one of those stories that have become so common; my great fear is that we will actually get used to these stories. I am not going to go into detail; I'll simply say that when investigators found the remains of six-year-old Christopher Barrios in a garbage bag in a Georgia field, his uncle Carlos, speaking on behalf of the devastated family, told the truth: "[Christopher] wasn't trash, he was a good kid."
How four adults take a child who still loves Barney and bedtime stories and do what they did is stark evidence of the evil and sinful depravity that has become unfashionable to name in such theological terms. It is a brutal reminder of how much our world still needs a Savior. When they showed the faces of the three men and the woman alleged to have committed the atrocities, my mind flashed back to a scene from the 1972 movie Deliverance. In the film a group of Atlanta suburbanites camping in the Appalachian mountains are brutally attacked by a pair of filthy hillbillies—people remarkably reminiscent of those arrested for Christopher's death.
I do not recommend the film Deliverance for family viewing, but I do want to recall one relevant scene. The hillbillies have captured and tied up two of the campers. They have physically defiled one of them and are starting to defile another when the character played by Burt Reynolds comes onto the scene. Reynolds is carrying a massive compound hunting bow. In righteous rage, Reynolds nocks a thick hunting arrow onto the string, draws it back with a sinewy forearm, and lets it fly. The arrow rips through the air at searing speed and skewers the filthy attacker like the bug he is, killing him.
On some level, I am embarrassed to admit that I cheered that moment—and I probably would have done the same had Reynolds been there with his hunting bow when those four people on the news took Christopher Barrios out in that field in Georgia. There are times when homicide seems justified, because "[Christopher Barrios] wasn't trash, he was a good kid."
Trashing God's Son
In the Bible we read another story about what some other people did to someone else's son. The reporter at that time, a man named Luke, tells the story like this: "As they led [Christ] away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus." They had to find help for Christ. They had already violently ravaged and ripped his body to the point where he could hardly walk as they took him to the place where they planned to do even worse. Luke's report goes on:
A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him. Jesus turned and said to them, "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, 'Blessed are the barren women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!' Then "'they will say to the mountains, "Fall on us!" and to the hills, "Cover us!"'
Christ is quoting the prophets Isaiah and Hosea who spoke of a coming time when people with any sense at all will be so afraid of God's judgment on the wickedness of their world that they would wish they were childless or able to hide in a hole beneath the ground. Jesus asks, "If men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?" In other words, Jesus is saying: If people will commit atrocities like what you are now witnessing, imagine how things will burn when human culture has really grown dry. There may come a day when the unspeakable violation of little children could become regular news.
Luke's report continues: "Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, (the Aramaic word is "Golgotha") there they crucified him, along with [two] criminals—one on his right, the other on his left …. The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him."
Just as those who saw what was being done to Christopher Barrios apparently watched and sneered with contempt, the crowd that day was so wrong-headed—so wickedly stupid—that they said:
"He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One." The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, "If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself." One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!"
Asking for the arrow
They shouldn't have done this. They shouldn't have scorned and sneered at Jesus of all people—someone who had only lived to bless others. They shouldn't have tortured and tacked up Jesus to a cross. He was completely innocent, without blemish. They shouldn't have beaten, bloodied, and bagged him like they did. Christ wasn't trash. He wasn't just a good kid or even just a good man. He was God's own Son. He was Life, Love, and Light in flesh to offer help and hope.
Most of all, they should never have said what they did: "If you can, save yourself!" Unlike Christopher Barrios, Jesus could have saved himself. I tell you the story of Christopher Barrios because I want to fight the deadened sensibility we so often have about what happened at the Cross. I want us to feel the monstrous horror of the violation of innocence that is present in both stories. I want us to feel the cataclysmic injustice that happened in both Georgia and Jerusalem and cry out for justice.
But there is also a crucial difference between the story of Christopher and Christ. Unlike Christopher, Jesus could have saved himself. Christopher was a 60-pound kid against the 600 combined pounds of his tormentors. Jesus was the God of the universe against a handful of bugs. Jesus could have simply whispered, "Enough;" that is all that it would have taken for the mighty arm of divine justice to nock an arrow and let deliverance fly. He could have ended all his suffering and turned it into theirs. He could have righteously skewered every last one of his tormentors and every last one of those passive people who play some part in a world in which horrors like this happen. The angels would have probably cheered. If ever there was a moment when homicide was justified, it was at Calvary. What is so hard to grasp is that when Christ could have unleashed the bolt of judgment upon human beings, he chose instead to take the arrow—the nails, the spear, and all the pointed wickedness of this world—and absorb it in himself. Rather than utter the curse and condemnation so justified, Jesus spoke these startling words: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."
His body the bow, the arrow his heart
This is not a sermon about capital punishment. This is also not an argument for compassion and leniency toward those who murder children. This is a sermon about the heart of God that is so very hard to understand. There are moments in our lives where actual homicide may not be justified, but everything within us says some display of violent force is in order. Can you think of any moments in your own life when you've felt this way? Maybe someone has taken something from you, and you want to take it back with some display of outrage. Perhaps somebody has presumed upon your kindness or generosity, and you want to let them know in no uncertain terms that they've gone over the line. Maybe someone has done you wrong, and you have the goods on them. Maybe you've been verbally attacked, and you have plenty of ammo you could shell out in return. In these moments we are the ones who stand in the position of righteous power. We could vindicate ourselves. We could demand our rights. We could exercise our muscle. But when our sense of anger, justice, and power all come swirling together and want to let the arrow fly, we must remember the Cross.
The Scottish preacher, James Stewart, once marveled at the uncommon strategy of Jesus to overcome evil, saying: "The very triumphs of his foes … he used for their defeat. He compelled their dark achievements to subserve his ends, not theirs. They nailed him to the tree, not knowing that by that very act they were bringing the world to his feet. They gave him a cross, not guessing that he would make it a throne. They flung him outside the gates to die, not knowing that in that very moment they were lifting up all the gates of the universe to let the King come in. They thought to root out his doctrines, not understanding that they were implanting imperishably in the hearts of men the very name they intended to destroy. They thought they had God with his back to the wall, pinned and helpless and defeated; they did not know that it was God himself who had tracked them down. He did not conquer in spite of the dark mystery of evil. He conquered through it."
Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote: "Grace is the capacity to not only avoid doing evil where evil seems justified, but to actively reverse the cycle and counter with good." Don't get me wrong: there are times when failing to step in or speak assertively would be the essence of evil. When you find somebody abusing children, you act to stop it. But in the light of the Cross—in light of the choice that supreme strength and righteousness made there—it is worth asking ourselves this question: is there any place in my life right now where exercising the courageous grace of self-denial might actually prove more powerful than the momentary force of self-assertion? Is there any way I could win the battle by making my sacrifice the bow, the arrow my heart? When you choose the power of grace instead of the power of force, you are on the Cross Road. Though it may feel like you are dying, it leads to life.
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.