The deadly force that fell from the sky over Baghdad was entirely of this world. It was neither life-giving nor life-affirming. And however necessary the onslaught may have been, its effect was awful, not awe-inspiring.
But awe is something else. Awe is basically a religious term. It combines feelings of reverence with affection or even adoration. Awe is mostly a positive experience. It is part worship and part wonder. Awe is the awareness that comes when we find ourselves in the presence of a power that transcends this world. This power is primarily a creative force, a nurturing and loving force. Being in the presence of this life-affirming, life-giving force evokes in us a startling awareness of our fortunate place in the universe.
The deadly force that fell from the sky over Baghdad was entirely of this world. It was neither life-giving nor life-affirming. And however necessary the onslaught may have been, its effect was awful, not awe-inspiring. Whoever thought those bombs would inspire awe in the Iraqi people either grossly misunderstood the meaning of awe, or greatly overestimated the power of violence to evoke wonder.
In fact, overestimating what violence can accomplish is a real problem. Our culture regularly endows violence with a sort of sacred status. Walter Wink, in his important book Engaging the Powers, argues at length that Western culture is deeply committed to what he calls the “myth of redemptive violence.”
The basic idea is this: Violence, if applied appropriately and with the right motives, has the power to bring about redemption. Unfortunately, Wink argues, even though historical evidence seems to support this belief in the short term, in the long term violence is incapable of bringing an end to evil, for it is evil itself.
There is, of course, one notable exception to the redemptive power of violence. Christians believe that God revealed something essential about himself by means of an act of violence. However, the violence was not committed by God against his enemies, but was inflicted upon God by us. Christians believe that in an act of rash stupidity and selfishness we nailed God to a cross.
On Easter Sunday, Christians around the world will recall this shocking event in the life of God, and celebrate the truly awe-inspiring aftermath. According to the New Testament, after the shock of the cross, God demonstrated his life-affirming power by raising Jesus from the dead.
In this amazing show of redemptive power, biblical writers assert that God has defeated death. That’s a fairly awe-inspiring notion—the defeat of death. And it’s more than just an offer of life after death, though that is certainly part of it. Resurrection is also about the defeat of death in the midst of life.
In this—the original shock and awe campaign—death is defeated rather than inflicted. The hope of resurrection means we can be free from the grip of death. And in that freedom we can learn to be generous, kind and merciful. The defeat of death in the midst of life makes it possible for us to love our neighbor and our enemy, to share our bread with the hungry, and to forgive those who trespass against us.
Now that’s awe-inspiring.
James L. Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.