What Would Jesus...

Entry by: macdonald

20th December 2016
I remain silent when asked what I did there. It’s best to turn away, look to the wall, than face the torment of memory. But some fools, who know of my time in Syria, persist.
‘Did you kill anyone?’ they ask and the noises come, jumping at me from some dark recess; the whistle and thud of missiles; the terrified screaming of children, maimed for life. Perhaps my burden will lighten in time. For now, I seek solace in wine cups, reliving the horror, waiting for the clamour to settle. I also think of the days before, the days when I still had a choice. The day of my last conversation with the Abbot.
I had been summoned to his office. He skipped around his desk, took my arm and led me down the cool corridors of the monastery. Although it was nearly winter and the air cold, the cloister garden was bathed in sunlight. We halted at the Arab fountain.
‘I am grateful, Raymond, that our good Lord has seen fit to place you here for a time.’ He flapped his arms at two doves which had settled on the lip of the fountain and they fluttered off as he dipped his hands into the chilly water.
‘Thank you, my Lord Abbot,’ I replied, rubbing my temple, wondering what was coming next.
He set off again and I guessed whatever else he had to say would take exactly one circuit of the cloister. But for a time, we walked in pensive silence, the Abbot nodding to the other Brothers, strolling in the late morning sunshine. He stopped again near the northeast corner, peering up at the carving on the nearest column. Perhaps he had reached an age where his vision had dimmed, as he screwed up his eyes and stood on tiptoe to inspect it carefully. Satisfied with what he saw, he said:
‘Do you know this one, Raymond?’ I thought it unfair, at that moment, to be asked this. I knew the Abbey mosaics well, but the less colourful carvings on the cloister columns were unknown to me. I shook my head, but the Abbot didn’t object to my ignorance.
‘The Massacre of the Innocents, Raymond. Do you know the tale?’
‘When he learned a future King of the Jews had been born,’ I told him, ‘Herod ordered the execution of all male infants in Bethlehem.’ I pointed to the stone Herod, sitting on his throne issuing his notorious order.
‘Indeed, Raymond,’ said the Abbot, ‘He was a tyrant by then, quite mad, and many babies were cruelly murdered. Stepping around the column, we both studied the stone mothers wailing over a heap of little sculpted corpses.
‘Mary was warned the soldiers were coming and hid her son under a sage bush. Do you know the plant?’
I shook my head.
‘A herb; very robust. It grows in profusion in the Holy Land. The soldiers didn’t find baby Jesus.’ We continued our circuit of the cloister, the Abbot deep in thought. As we strolled back toward the Abbey, he asked:
‘Is ignoring the sixth commandment ever justified, Raymond?’
‘No, your Lordship,’ I said, holding his gaze. ‘It is absolute. “Thou shall not kill.”’
‘But Augustine teaches us that in certain circumstances, a just war to avenge injury perhaps, the killing of an enemy may be justified. Men are gathering near this place, preparing for a campaign of war.’
‘I have not read Augustine, my Lord Abbot, but killing innocent people is never justified in any circumstance.’
‘In war, Raymond, in the heat of battle, how does one identify the innocent from the enemy?’ I had no answer to this.
‘You will encounter Godless men, Raymond. They cry out “God wills it!” as they go to war, but you must ask your conscience if this assertion they are undertaking God’s will is correct. Are they not simply doing what they wish to do for their own reasons?’
‘Such reasoning could only be implanted in their minds by the devil, my Lord Abbot.’
‘Men have differing beliefs, differing motivations, Raymond. A few have a bellicose temperament; others desire adventure or personal glory; some kill for loot. It is my experience that men behave in this way, not because of a devilish influence, but because their mind lacks something. An education perhaps, the capability of unbiased reasoning, a conscience. It varies from man to man, but each lack one or more of these, I think.’ We had reached the cloister door.
‘I will avoid the company of such men, my Lord Abbot.’
‘Some of them even claim Jesus’ example on the Cross as an excuse for their behaviour. The Church offers them redemption of all sin for their endeavours.’ I planted my feet wide and tried to keep my voice steady. I could feel my pulse racing.
‘If I were with such men and tested in this way,’ I said, choosing my words carefully. ‘I would also follow Jesus for guidance, my Lord. I would ask myself what He would do in such a circumstance.’
‘You may be asked to examine your conscience on many occasions, Raymond. It is inevitable in the months ahead.’ The Abbot gave me no time to respond to this. I kissed his offered hand and he was gone.
But now I know. On the morning before the first battle in Syria our leaders addressed us.
‘This morning we will each confess our sins from the heart and ask God for His forgiveness. I remind you of the cross you wear. It is of wool or silk, sewn to your surcoats. The cross our Saviour carried to the place of his martyrdom was heavy and unforgiving. He endured His cross in the reality of His flesh, was fastened to His cross with nails of iron. May His example inspire you today as we march toward the place where His sacrifice took place. Together we will complete the sacred task we have set ourselves. As our saviour finished His own task in this Holy Land.’
So, the moment had come as the Abbot had predicted. And I had no answer. Could Jesus have done something that I could not? Perhaps, but he has been dead a thousand years. And now I smell the burned corpses, the blood; see through closed eyes the clouds of fat flies hovering, the faces of all the anguished mothers.
Surely it cannot take another thousand years for someone else to come forward with new ideas, new words which strike a chord in men’s’ hearts. Surely it cannot take another thousand years for the killing to stop.
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