Life is a gift. While surveying what often seems the bleakness of the current global landscape, one should try to remember that simple fact. After all, we haven’t actually earned anything of what we get the chance to experience here. The world teems with love, compassion and joy, and in an ultimate sense all of those good things are for free: we as individuals did not have to have experienced any of it. We have no true ownership of our breathing, of our own existence, of the reality that anything exists. Life itself is a gift.
But with the gift comes a responsibility—should we care to accept it—to be careful of how we and our fellow creatures are treating that same gift. That part can be a bit difficult.
When might the following words have been written?
The Meaning of this Hour
Emblazoned over the gates of the world in which we live is the escutcheon of the demons. The mark of Cain in the face of man has come to overshadow the likeness of God. There has never been so much guilt and distress, agony, and terror. At no time has the earth been so soaked with blood. Fellowmen turned out to be evil ghosts, monstrous and weird. Ashamed and dismayed, we ask: Who is responsible?
Look at today’s headlines. Here in the twenty-first century, we turn on our various electronic devices and see photos and read stories of human beings having their heads chopped off, mounted on spikes, and displayed to inspire terror and disgust beyond bearing. And it is not as some strange vestige of savagery that might soon be stamped out, but rather the manifestations of an ideology that is in ascendance. The numbers of those who incomprehensibly glory in this are burgeoning, and they cannily make use of the most modern technologies to boast of their acts. It may take only a medieval sword to do the deed, but an iPhone turns it into a global event, one that sympathizers can also enjoy. As much as we may wish otherwise, these things are not strange artifacts from an unspeakable past, but a horrible feature of the present day and the ever-pressing future.
Yet the words above come from a talk first given by Abraham Joshua Heschel in 1938, then again in 1943, and then published in a book in 1954. With due and solemn respect to the particularity of the Shoah, the remarkable thing is how easily applicable these words are to our own time. Maybe in some sense they are applicable to every time. But that can hardly ease anyone’s soul about the horrors of the present day. From Heschel on another occasion:
Our era marks the end of complacency. We all face the dilemma expressed by Moses: “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.” Religion’s task is to cultivate disgust for violence and lies, sensitivity to other people’s sufferings, the love of peace. God has a stake in the life of every man. He never exposes humanity to a challenge without giving humanity the power to face the challenge.
Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears are the same. We have a vision in common of Him in whose compassion all men’s prayers meet.
That God is compassionate, and that we should all pray for compassion: this ought to be a vision held in common by those who worship God, in whatever language, yet the increasing horrors of the present time are ones that turn this very notion inside out.
Sure—people have always fought over religion (and for every other reason) but now we see a philosophy that explicitly asserts that God himself delights in the mass murder of those who do not believe “correctly,” and this is one that is rampaging and growing in power and reach. It is in this way even weirder and more monstrous than the atheistic mass-murdering ideologies of the twentieth century.
And life itself to the followers of this ideology is not a gift; death is the gift, or the way of obtaining the strangely carnal gifts they believe are promised to them in paradise. It is a caricature of faith in a loving and just God. You wouldn’t think you could ever sell such an idea, and yet there seems to be no shortage of buyers.
There are no doubt many things we should do in the face of this. But I think that one of them is to always remember and lift up that vision “of Him in whose compassion all men’s prayers meet.” And another is to pray.