Vale of Tears

When Grief and Deception engulf Nations



When Grief and Deception engulf Nations

Our capacity for self-delusion is boundless.
John Steinbeck

Although King Henry VIII considered himself a Christian, he passed edicts that ran entirely counter to God’s law, spreading great grief and even terror in the process. By dissolving the monasteries and confiscating their assets, he left the poor with nowhere to go. Advisers who did not agree with him likewise risked being put to death. This was the fate of John Fisher, who had once been close to the king. When the time came for Fisher’s sentence to be carried out, he made his way to the scaffold in his best clothes.

“This is my wedding day,” he explained, “and I ought to dress as if for a holiday.” Carrying his New Testament, he was led to the execution platform. There he prayed, “Lord, grant that I may find some word of comfort so that I may glorify You in my last hour.” The first words he saw as He opened the Scriptures were these: “Now this is eternal life; that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent” (John 17:3). “That will do,” he said. “Here’s learning enough to last me to my life’s end.” Within minutes, he was dead.

We live in a day when we, like John Fisher, must take a stand, because God’s laws are being systematically set aside. May the Lord strengthen us for this task, not because we believe that we can ever set up an earthly Utopia before the Lord returns but because it is important to let people know Who the Lord really is.

As a society we are excessively at the mercy of our passions. That is why, on a purely emotional level, the shock of Princess Diana’s tragic death unleashed an unparalleled wave of mourning throughout the United Kingdom. In the early stages, at least, this flood tide of grief served as an unwitting focus for many people’s own unresolved hurts and losses.

More ambiguously, hordes of people flocked to visit the small town of Soham in Suffolk, where Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman were so brutally murdered. What was it that motivated these “grief tourists?” Was it just morbid curiosity – or were they in some way attempting to find resolution for some unresolved grief in their own heart?

Most of these visitors did nothing to help the community to pull together in the aftermath – unlike in Hungerford, which has recovered well, despite the intense media attention, from the dreadful day twenty years ago when Michael Ryan shot sixteen people dead with an automatic rifle. Many American institutions have had to face similar challenges following the spate of shooting incidents on college campuses.

If we are prepared to work towards forgiving even such intense wickedness, there is less likelihood of offences being prolonged, and the temptation to resort to seeking revenge is sharply reduced. But whilst special grace is often given to those most immediately affected, it is often from the ranks of colleagues and bystanders that the slow-burning flames of resentment are fanned. In worst case scenarios this leads to the onset of full-blown vendettas. In rather less dramatic ways, this is a risk we all face when we hear negative comments about others. This is how one friend summarised Jesus’ important teaching on the subject:

Forgive your enemies and pray for those who persecute you – and that includes those of you who are looking on. Be careful to let go of the offences and not allow them to lodge deep down in your heart!8

The question of how nations recover from the grip that grief and deception impose on them in is a crucial one to grapple with. Consider, for example, the devastated German people, who found themselves obliged to embark on a grief process at a national level for the second time in thirty years in the aftermath of their defeat at the end of the Second World War. The myth of Aryan supremacy had been exposed, but what was to take its place? Not another Hitler, as happened after their humiliating defeat in 1918, but, in the case of East Germany, another totalitarian regime, this time in communist uniform.

Many Germans preferred to sidestep entirely the issue of who had started the war and to perpetuate the blame game. They argued angrily that the damage done to German cities through Allied air attacks was morally as indefensible as anything their nation had done to the Jews.

The weight of historical opinion remains divided about the value, let alone the legitimacy of the Allied attacks that killed so many civilians, but there is no such ambiguity about the concentration camps. Gradually, as people woke up to the shocking realisation of just how far their beloved Führer had misled them, it was like the heart wrenching shock that cult members experience when they finally recognize the enormity of the deception that they are caught up in.

Psychologically, it is profoundly disturbing to see how quickly a nation can come to accept fundamental injustices and pathological depravity. Robert Jay Lifton studied the actions of the Nazi doctors during World War II, and concluded that many of these perpetrators of evil conditioned themselves with surprising ease to living a double life – each part acting “independently” from the other. One moment a cultured man is playing classical music; the next he is sadistically torturing a prisoner.9

Does this not parallel those cases we hear about from time to time, when an apparently ordinary (and sometimes overtly religious person) perpetrates some immense evil? Ever since Robert Louis Stevenson’s pioneering descriptions in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde of the complicated processes by which apparently mutually contradictory tendencies can exist side by side within one person, such people have tended to plead various forms of mental instability when finally cornered or brought to court.

At this point, most perpetrators play up the extent to which they themselves have suffered. Their emphasis is almost always along the lines that “this would not have happened had I not been treated the way I was,” rather than, “I have done something seriously wrong.” Keen though they may be to absolve themselves, the fact remains that most people with multiple personalities make a more or less conscious decision at some point to “switch over” to their “dark side,” even if, in extreme cases, they lose track somewhat of their actions once they have made this switch.

Such egocentricity lies at the heart of the “shadow archetype” which Jung considered to be resident in us all. This corresponds perhaps to the sinful nature that Paul inveighs against in Romans chapter seven, but whose existence most of us are surprisingly loathe to admit to, where rage and envy, covetousness and greed lurk. Those who are willing to change often need setting free from the “power source” of distorted ideas or doctrines that the cult or ideal has superimposed on them.

Returning to the German example, many in the nation were by no means heart-convinced Nazis. All, however, needed both grace and deprogramming to recover from the ordeal of the Nationalist Socialist years.

It is a tribute to how seriously Germany has sought to face shameful episodes from its past that it now has the fastest growing Jewish community in Europe.10 The work of Trauerarbeit (“Grief-work”) in post war Germany has been complicated, however, by the continued activities of various pro-Nazi sympathisers, but overall, Germany must surely rank with South Africa as the most comprehensive example in history of a nation doing its best to face its past.

If the best way forward is for nations to confront their wrong actions and to extend forgiveness, then the South African “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” is a splendid model. Using Desmond Tutu’s book, No Future Without Forgiveness as a model, it set out as a serious attempt to face the immense grief that the apartheid system unleashed.

More than 21,000 testimonies of abuse and cruelty were heard, often in the presence of their perpetrators. Over 1,300 people received a full amnesty in return for their frank and full confession of the ordeals that they subjected their victims to. May the Commission’s motto, “The truth shall set us free”11 prove prophetic at this critical time in South Africa’s history, when crime rates are so alarmingly high.

Unlike South Africa, Serbia has shown considerable reluctance to face up to atrocities committed against Kosovar Albanians. Serbia’s default mechanism has been to peddle the line that they are victims rather than perpetrators. This not only holds them back from acknowledging their guilt, but has proved a serious obstacle to it regaining its proper place among the nations.

There are many complex issues to consider here, not least whether it is right or even possible to repent of sins that previous generations committed. I believe that God does hear prayers along such lines, and that leads some of us along the path of such “identificational repentance.” We can readily discern the need for it.12

None of us can be sure that we are untainted by the prevailing attitudes in our society, unless we specifically seek God for Him to set us free of them. Many converts in China, for instance, have absorbed a guilt-filled ethos which doubtless has its origins way back in history, but which has witnessed many unpleasant recent manifestations.

During the intense suffering of the Maoist revolutionary years, for example, village meetings were characterized by the “naming and shaming” of individuals for their faults and failings. These new Christians are prone to feel ashamed at their lack of spiritual fruit – though, by western standards, many of them are leading people to Christ in truly staggering numbers.

As an infinitely more self-confident generation emerges in China, it is vital to pray that the Lord raises up His children to exercise influence in high places, lest the new-found infatuation with Mammon leads the soul of the nation still further astray than communist propaganda had done.

To avoid possible misunderstanding, let me make it clear that this is in no way to imply that our own nation is in any way “better”. Those who understand spiritual cultures and atmospheres would probably say the reverse. Quite apart from the legacy of national pride and economic exploitation that continue to take such a toll, do not our media moguls have their own equally destructive ways of shaming people and ruining their reputations?

Our sinfulness may lie deeper beneath the surface hidden than in some societies but that does not make it any the less serious in God’s sight.13

These are entirely relevant issues to pray and ponder as great swathes of humanity swallow the lies that the forces of Antichrist are sowing.14 May more and more see through these false values, and reject the false standards that are being proposed to them.

I have recently completed a teaching series on the seven letters to the seven churches in Revelation. These, like the rest of the book of Revelation, are powerful messages from God’s heart to remain true to Him at times when the temptation to compromise is particularly strong.15

At the same time, I find myself asking difficult questions about western values. Can it ever be right to oppose terror with torture? How will future generations of Americans, let alone non-Americans, regard the “water boarding” torture techniques recently practised on Middle Eastern suspects?

All this has major implications for us as we confess the many ways in which we fail to honour Christ from day to day, as individuals and as a Church, as well as in the life of the nation. Many have come to recognise our need to offer specific prayers and acts of forgiveness for the many ways in which we (the British people) mismanaged and abused so many in the far-flung Empire that the Lord trusted to us rule. Those who are not British will doubtless be able to call to mind comparable examples from their own nation’s history.

Reflect and Pray

The Lord’s verdict against Sodom was that it was “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned” (Ezekiel 16:49).

Does this not epitomise our guilt in the West today? Having so long disregarded the Lord Jesus Himself, it was inevitable that we should espouse self-centred philosophies that every year become more brazenly anti-Christian.

The message of both Biblical and subsequent history remains as clear as ever: God hears the heart cry of those who care enough to mourn – and who are prepared to work towards facing these issues head-on. There are many promising signs, not least the increasing coming together of intercessors, evangelists and those involved in social action to work towards making the Lord again known in our land.

Lord, we long for Your name to be honoured in our land!

Forgive us that we have pushed You
to one side,
as if you were an inconvenience in Your own world.

Forgive us our pride and self-satisfaction,
and lead us into richer better expressions
of our faith
as individuals, families, communities
and nations,
seeking more to serve and honour others
than to impose our own conformities.


8 The quote is used by permission, but the author prefers to maintain his anonymity.
9 Lifton, R. (1986) The Nazi Doctors. Basic Books. New York
10 The numbers increased substantially during the 1990’s as a result of large numbers fleeing the crumbling Soviet Union.
11 See Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa. ‘The Truth shall set you free.’
12 I was struck recently by a less than obvious example of the need for this. Many Poles, in despair and indignation at the appalling suffering inflicted on them by both Russians and Germans, themselves carried out many atrocities. Is that legacy now being reflected in the high levels of violence that are currently affecting certain Polish cities? Or is it just an unrelated coincidence that fascist skinhead gangs are on the rise? As we pray for this vicious cycle of sowing and reaping that has dominated Poland’s past to come to an end, may more and more of the Lord’s redemptive gift be released through this broadly God-fearing nation.
13 Of particular concern at the moment is our immigration system. We have allowed in many who have no love for our nation, but we are also guilty of having sent many away who desperately needed a safe haven, and who now face an uncertain and even perilous fate.
14 2 Thessalonians 2:5-12

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