Don’t Hang Up Your Harps
By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps.
It is, in my view, scandalous how little note our media take of the persecution of Christians. In June of this year, Vatican spokesman Monsieur Silvano Tomassi said in a radio address to the United Nations Human Rights Council. "Credible research has reached the shocking conclusion that an estimate of more than 100,000 Christians are violently killed because of some relation to their faith every year." Other researchers place the number killed annually at over 150,000. Tomassi further noted that "Other Christians and other believers are subjected to forced displacement, to the destruction of their places of worship, to rape and to the abduction of their leaders.”
Additionally, several human rights groups claim such anti-Christian violence is on the rise in countries like Pakistan, Nigeria and Egypt. Jeff King, president of Persecution.org, said that "Two-hundred million Christians currently live under (threat of) persecution. It’s absolutely on the rise.”
“100,000 Christians are violently killed because of some relation to their faith every year”; in the last five years that means half a million people have been killed because of their identification with Jesus Christ. If some other religious group were being killed at this rate would our media not take note? Yet the silence on the killing of Christians is deafening. Is there a built-in prejudice with regard to Christians? It appear to me a reasonable question. “Our help comes from the Lord”, says the Psalmist—perhaps we shouldn’t expect that help would come readily from other places. (There is a great opportunity for Christians to infiltrate journalism and add their voice—an instance of being the salt and light of our Saviour’s calling.)
On February 19, 2013, the Government of Canada officially opened its Office of Religious Freedom, within Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada. This is a welcome development. In Canada’s view, freedom of religion or belief, including the ability to worship in peace and security, is a universal human right. Canada joins other governments having taken similar initiative with respect to freedom of religion—United Kingdom, USA, Germany and Norway.
1. It is one thing to talk of these things statistically—100,000 killed annually is a big number that shocks because of the scale. The truth comes home to us in a different way when we understand that these 100,000 people were killed one at a time. This is not to say that a number weren’t killed at the same event; it is to say it in a way that acknowledges the loss of each individual person. The impact, for example, on a particular family in the sudden loss of one of its members sends shock waves that impact many; an impact that shakes the broader community in which these persons lived their lives. Suppose that one of these killed was a school teacher; not only has a family lost an important part of their family and their livelihood impaired but a group of students and their families have lost a key person in their lives; other teachers have lost a colleague; a local church has lost the contribution of their colleague in Christ—on and on the impact of this loss is felt.
You could understand why a congregation of Christ’s people thus affected might not feel like singing or as the Psalmist put in his recollection of exile: “On the willows there we hung up our harps.”
Jeremiah’s book of Lamentations and Psalm 137 offer two perspectives on the same event; we see the life of God’s people Israel from two vantage points. In Laminations the vantage point is from the ruins of Jerusalem; in Psalms 137 the vantage point is exile in Babylon.
In 586 BC the Babylonian army invaded Judah, decimated its people and destroyed Jerusalem. The walls of Jerusalem were torn down, the temple was destroyed, riches were plundered, and people massacred. Of those who remained alive, the young and the capable were deported to Babylon. Many became slaves and the rest displaced to areas of a foreign country where survival was difficult. The purpose of deportation was to dispirit and subdue a people under new rulers. Then, as in some places in our world now, rape was used as a weapon of warfare to dominate, denigrate, diminish and demean a people.
The people who were left behind in the rubble and ruins of Jerusalem and its surrounding villages were the poor, the disenfranchised, the sick, the disabled and the elderly; a population so weak and weakened there could never be another rebellion against Babylon. And for good measure a detachment of the army occupied the area just to make sure Jerusalem’s walls were never rebuilt. Such leaders took full advantage of the weakened population basically turning them into their personal slaves.
Jeremiah was one of those left in the ruins, after all, what possible threat could a preacher everyone hated for prophesying Jerusalem’s fall be to Babylonian rule? Lamentations is written from the ruins; Psalm 137 recalls the life of those who went into of exile. Nobody felt like singing—“On the willows there we hung up our harps.” Their captors asked for a song—they knew of the great skill of Jerusalem’s musicians and song writers that had developed over five centuries of temple worship. But nobody felt like singing, and who would blame them for hanging up their harps.
Recalling those bitter days of exile—the days of harps set aside—the Psalmist confesses that they need to keep on playing and singing: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.” We read a similar sentiment confessed by Jeremiah in the midst of rubble and ruin: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” We could summarize the startling word of hope in the midst of apparent hopelessness this way, “Don’t hang up your harps! Don’t you hang up those harps!”
2. It is easy to sing praises to God when times are good, when the proverbial sun is shining on us, when life is “as it should be”. Or is it? The scripture contains counsel to God’s people that we be careful not to forget God in days of prosperity. “When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”. (Deuteronomy 8:12-14) Jesus uttered a similar word when he reminds his followers that “No one can serve two masters … you cannot serve God and wealth.” I wonder if, in some measure, the church’s decline in North America is because in our prosperity we have become distracted by self-satisfaction and pursuit of wealth.
We live at an interesting moment in history; some have described it as an in-between time. We live between the time when the church was part of the establishment and the time of church de-establishment. There was a time when Christianity was so dominant in Canada that we readily shared common values with our neighbours; we now live in a time when our Christian values are commonly out-of-step and, many times, at odds with the dominant culture. In August of this year Quebec’s Parti Québécois government leaked its plan to ban the wearing of all religious symbols in public institutions; a plan that is in keeping with what the party promised during last year’s election campaign, when Premier Pauline Marois said such measures were needed to preserve “our identity, our language, our institutions and our values.”
Not that long ago—during the 1960’s—The United Church of Canada was deeply entrenched as part of the establishment. The Moderator of the church was routinely consulted by Canada’s Prime Minister on social policy. No one within the church in those days would have dreamed that within 50 years so many of its congregations would no longer exist. In 1960 the number of congregations was just over 6000; in 2010 the number stood at 2223 pastoral charges and many more have closed since. The challenge for many in the various levels of church leadership is they live today out of the memory of days of strength as if they still exist; in my head I can remember the days of being able to run very fast and I can talk a good game as long as I don’t accept my grandson’s challenge to a race.
Many have ventured to offer reasons for this decline and some understanding of that can be helpful in knowing what to do now. But standing around musing about how the milk got spilled on the floor does not really help in mopping up the spill. The question is what we do now. The answer of our Psalm is don’t hang up your harps. We need to remain committed to singing the goodness of God; to gathering together to proclaim that in Jesus Christ we see that “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
I was having lunch a few weeks ago with Andrew Santos the youth minister at the St Justin Martyr Catholic Church in Unionville. We were discussing the possibility of an exciting project; to hold an ecumenical way of the cross walk through Unionville next Palm Sunday. In the course of our discussion we were talking of this decline in church life. Andrew has a degree in journalism and had worked in media; putting on his journalist hat he asked me—what gives you hope. The answer popped immediately from heart to mind to mouth—because the church belongs to Jesus Christ and he has promised to build it. We must not hang up our harps.
Don’t hang up your harps; there are many discouragements and disappointments in life that broadside us. Hanging up our harps becomes a metaphor for losing hope. It is in these moments of difficulty that we need to sing of the Saviour’s love—it is the salve we need to heal the hurting soul. It is a salve that spills over into many other areas of life to sustain hope when nothing else will. A gospel song I sang growing up puts it this way: “When darkness veils his lovely face, I rest on his unchanging graced; when all around my soul gives way, he then is all my hope and stay.”
2012 marked the 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan, one of the very first affirmations of religious freedom. Emperor Constantine bestowed freedom of practise to all religions and no longer forced Christians to have to venerate the emperor as a god. In the year 312, Christians numbered no more than five percent of the total population of the Roman Empire; and Christians were the catalyst for this monumental change. Don’t hang up your harps!