“To be human is to live by sunlight and moonlight, with anxiety and delight, admitting limits and transcending them, falling down and rising up. To want a life with only half of these things in it is to want half a life, shutting the other half away where it will not interfere with one’s bright fantasies of the way things ought to be.” Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark
In the fading sun of last summer, Barbara Brown Taylor blew me away as I listened to her telling tales of walking in the dark. Where we are fearful of the darkness and what might lurk there, she offered us an invitation to take a step outside at night time and see what we might encounter.
A national week of mourning in Rwanda is marking 20 years since the start of a genocide in which nearly a million people were horrifically murdered in just 100 days. Kofi Annan has spoken of how the United Nations is ‘ashamed’ of its failure to prevent the mass killings. Soon after the genocide, Annan – who was then head of peacekeeping operations – said of the countries who could have offered support that “The sceptical did not offer, and the silent did not offer. What choice did we have?” While brutality raged, the watching world remained passive.
Even the memory of this genocide seems so terrible, that two decades later, the only way I feel I can protect my own sanity, is to keep my back turned. I want to avoid those haunting photos of young men waving machetes around like they are made of plastic. How can we possibly begin to engage with this kind of darkness? Yet surely those images in themselves should be enough to enrage us out of our apathy and fuel us to speak out about the fast-accelerating violence happening now in another small, little-known country, Central African Republic, or even the war destroying Syria?
We’re told to be in the light; to keep away from the darkness. But how can we really connect with the world if we stay inside in the warmth and protection of our own homes and churches? We can’t expect people to come to us like moths might do to a flame. Instead we are to take our little burning hearts and lights out into those dark nights, and see what we can find, acknowledging the privilege that this is. It might even be in prisons or hospitals, on council estates or old people’s homes; in refugee camps or war zones, that we find unexpected glimpses of light and beauty. It might seem scary; we may even get hurt, but if we don’t try, we’ll never discover the ‘stunning things’ that can be found in the dark, as Brown Taylor suggests.
Similarly, we can’t experience the full joy of Easter day without first dwelling on the dark events of the cross; that bloody, violent and raw afternoon. Jesus exposed in every physical, emotional and spiritual way; the crowd mocking him as a fraud and even his own father falling silent as he cried out to him. It’s no surprise the whole world was plunged into darkness and the sun eclipsed from view. We need to enter into this death, so engulfed in shame and vulnerability, to truly awaken to the life that is to be found within it.
Perhaps we need to enter into our own darkness, to acknowledge the shame we feel and allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Perhaps when we begin to acknowledge the darkness that lies within ourselves, we will be able to move closer to understanding the darkness in others and the potential that lies within us all for hatred and harm. Perhaps it will make us more compassionate towards those who have committed crimes we feel are unspeakable. Perhaps it is in our own darkness we will experience the true scandal of grace.
We can draw inspiration from the courage of many Rwandans to face up to their own darkness, as exhibited in this phenomenal and humbling set of photos of reconciliation between the perpetrators and victims of the genocide. From the most painful of places, forgiveness has been boldly given and as a result, hope is blossoming in a way I cannot even comprehend.
It is that so-called fraudster saviour hanging on a plank of wood, who becomes our shame for us. Outrageous as it is, when the sun comes up early on that Sunday morning, the scars which are still sore and the faces which are damp with tears, are all part of the story of mercy – where darkness and light meet.
If we seek fullness of life, our journey will need to be one of involvement and discovery, one where we engage with the darkness as much as (if not more than) the light; where much as we’d rather keep our backs turned, we burn with enough love to turn towards pain and extend the riches of that morning mercy to all we see.
(The picture above is Ntarama Church, Rwanda, where 5,000 people sheltered to take refuge from the genocide. They were later killed by grenades, machetes and rifles. Source: Wikimedia Commons)