Easter Services in Sri Lanka Shattered by Bombs; Many Casualties
The Wired Word for the Week of April 28, 2019
IN THE NEWS
More than 300 people in Sri Lanka were killed and some 500 injured on Easter Sunday when three churches, packed with worshipers, and three luxury hotels in the midst of the busy breakfast time, were bombed in near-simultaneous attacks. Later in the day, there were smaller explosions at a housing complex and a guest house, with victims there adding to the death count. Additional bombs and bomb-making material continues to be found.
The church bombings were carried out during Easter services in Negombo, Batticaloa and Colombo. The hotels bombed were all in Colombo. According to reports on Monday morning, all seven attacks were carried out by suicide bombers who are thought to be Sri Lankan nationals. Sri Lankan authorities said the suicide bombers belonged to National Thowheed Jama'ath, a little-known local militant radical Islamist group with suspected foreign links and assistance. On Tuesday, ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks, but provided no evidence to prove the claim.
The population of Sri Lanka is about 70.2 percent Buddhist (mainly Sinhalese-speaking), 12.6 percent Hindu, 9.7 percent Muslim (mainly Tamil-speaking), and 7.4 percent Christian. Although religious freedom is guaranteed, Buddhism has special privileges in the Sri Lanka constitution. Christians come from both Tamil- and Sinhalese-speaking groups. The Muslim population is mainly Sufi, with the great majority opposed to the Thowheed Jama'ath movement.
Also on Tuesday, Ruwan Wijewardene, the state minister of defense, said the attacks were in retaliation for the March 15 killing of Muslims in two mosque attacks by a gunman in Christchurch, New Zealand, but Wijewardene did not say where that claim came from. He also said another local group, Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim, was involved with the bombings along with National Thowheed Jama'ath. So far, 40 arrests have been made of individuals believed to be connected to the bombings.
Reports say that more than two weeks ago, a police official warned of a threat to churches, but the authorities failed to act on the information.
The churches attacked included the Catholic Shrine of St. Anthony in Kotahena, Colombo, the Catholic Church of St. Sebastian in Negombo and the Zion Church in Batticaloa, a Protestant congregation. After the bombing at St. Sebastian, Father Danushka Fernando said, "We cannot explain this. This was supposed to be the Mass of the children, so lots of women and children were present."
Another priest in the courtyard said he was struggling to contain himself. "This is insanity. As leaders we must ask people to love one another," he added, declining to give his name. "But speaking as a person, I am angry."
Given the time difference, the attacks in Sri Lanka were in the news by the time of Easter services in the UK, where the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, spoke of them in his sermon that morning. The archbishop said he had spoken to the bishop of Colombo, Dhiloraj Canagasabey, in the aftermath of the attacks to express his condolences and assure him of his prayers.
Welby shared some of his conversation with the bishop: "Bishop Dhiloraj had been in the midst of his Easter Eucharist; he was just beginning the Prayer of Consecration when the police arrived and said, 'You must come with us, they are about to come and kill you.'"
But Dhiloraj refused to move until he had finished the Prayer of Consecration in his packed cathedral. Welby said, "I quote his exact words to me: 'If God gives me permission to live, I shall live. If he gives me permission to die, I shall die.'" The archbishop concluded his sermon by appealing to Christians to put their hope in the Resurrection to get them through uncertainty and be witnesses of this hope to others.
"In our country we will see our future through forgiveness, reconciliation, hope, and overcoming these stories of fear and betrayal," Welby said. "But Christians must show how to live resurrection life; that the rest of the world may see above all in forgiving one another and loving one another, making visible what is unseen; but witness begins with the individual meeting the risen Christ."
The Easter bombings are the first major terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka since 2009, when that country's civil war ended. The country had been making strides since then, with tourism growing. Many fear these attacks will set back the progress.
More on this story can be found at these links:
Pointing a Finger at a Terrorist Group in the Aftermath of the Sri Lanka Blasts. The New York Times
Sri Lanka Authorities Were Warned Two Weeks Before Attacks, Says Minister. The Guardian
'Will to Power' Behind Sri Lanka Church Bombings, Says Archbishop of Canterbury. Christian Today
THE BIG QUESTIONS
1. Why doesn't God always protect the faithful from harm? Or does God do so, and it is our understanding of "harm" that is lacking?
2.What does it mean to you that our lives are “in God's hands?”
3. What is your response to Archbishop Welby's comment, "In our country we will see our future through forgiveness, reconciliation, hope, and overcoming these stories of fear and betrayal, but Christians must show how to live resurrection life; that the rest of the world may see above all in forgiving one another and loving one another, making visible what is unseen; but witness begins with the individual meeting the risen Christ."?
CONFRONTING THE NEWS WITH SCRIPTURE AND HOPE
Here are some Bible verses to guide your discussion:
Ah Lord GOD! It is you who made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you. (For context, read 32:16-20.)
1 John 4:8
… God is love. (For context, read 4:7-12.)
1 Thessalonians 5:21-22
... hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil. (For context, read 5:12-22.)
Here's the concept of theodicy in Bible verses. Think of an equilateral triangle, with the substance of Jeremiah 32:17 (God is all powerful) at one point of the triangle, the substance of 1 John 4:8 (God is love or God is good) at another point and the substance of 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 (evil is real) at the third point. How can all three things be true? If God is all good and all powerful, how can evil exist? If God is all good and evil is real, how can God be all powerful? If God is all powerful and evil is real, how can God be all good?
Some people see an even further complication by adding verses such as Isaiah 46:9-10 -- "... I am God, and there is no one like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, 'My purpose shall stand, and I will fulfill my intention'" -- which declares that God is also omniscient, and therefore knows ahead of time what terrible things are going to happen, and that his purposes and intentions will be fulfilled. But how can this be if evil is real?
Some people have tried to resolve this problem by concluding that while God is good, evil is real because God is not all powerful (that was essentially the conclusion of Rabbi Harold Kushner in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Likewise, emeritus professor of theology Kenneth Cauthen, at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School said, "I propose that we must limit the power of God in order to preserve the goodness of God. … I believe that the reason that God does not prevent or overcome some evil is that God cannot.")
But that conclusion doesn't feel right to most Christians.
Questions: How does the reality of bad things happening to faithful people affect your faith? How does it affect your outlook? How does it affect your daily life? Your image of God?
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (For context, read 55:1-13.)
Here God provides a reminder that we not only see but a small part of "the big picture," but that we may have a faulty understanding of right and wrong, of good and bad. What we, with our finite and secular focus, see as something causing harm to individuals, God, from the perspective of eternity, might know to be providing a better outcome for those involved.
The context for these verses stresses God's forgiveness, love, and provision of good for those who seek God, urging the wicked to forsake evil. The endpoint is joy and peace.
Questions: What are some ways following a tragedy by which you have or could have reminded yourself that God has a different, wider and more knowledgeable perspective? Does that seem to be theodicy, defending the goodness of God, despite the existence of evil? Or is it a greater expression of trust in God? Or something else, and if so, what?
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. (For context, read 46:1-11.)
Here is a biblical affirmation that even if an unthinkable catastrophe happens, God is still our refuge and "a very present help in trouble."
Questions: Is it appropriate to talk about God's presence when terrible events inflict great harm on human beings? Why or why not?
In what ways have you found this verse to be true in great troubles you have faced?