Ajith Fernando, a theologian in Colombo, is teaching director of Youth for Christ, Sri Lanka, and author of Discipling in a Multicultural World (Crossway 2019). Following the brutal bombings on Easter Sunday across the nation of Sri Lanka, which killed at least 320 people, he declares that God gives Christians the freedom to leave the revenge cycle and instead love and bless Muslims. Responsibility for the bombings has been claimed by ISIS.
By Ajith Fernando — Originally published in Christianity Today
I was not at church in Colombo on Easter Sunday morning, as I was sick and had stayed home. Then text messages began to come about a bombing, then several bombings, in my home town and in two other towns. One was only a few miles from my home.
Ten years after our protracted war had ended, I realized that Sri Lanka, my dear nation, was again confronting severe violent attacks. I had preached several times in one of the targeted churches, Zion Church in Batticaloa. The sister of one of my colleagues was at the service, and was seriously injured. She is still battling for her life. The death toll has risen to over 320. Unbelievable.
Whenever tragedy hits a nation, Christians need to ask how to think biblically in response to the situation. As Christianity is a body religion, it is best that groups of Christians meet and discuss a common response to the challenges. We cannot delay our response. There are both immediate responses and more long-term responses to heal the wounds of our people.
I have thought of at least six necessary responses from Christians to what has happened:
1 Lament Loss
Christians must join the nation in lamenting and mourning over our losses. Protestants have been somewhat lacking in espousing a theology of groaning (Rom. 8:23) that opens the door to lament (though that seems to be changing). The Old Testament has many instances of elaborate mourning customs, and that is found in the New Testament too. The church responded to Stephen’s death with a “great lamentation over him” (Acts 8:2; also see 9:39). Each country has its cultural ways of lament, and we must look for practices to adopt which harmonise with Christianity. In addition to Easter time, April is New Year in Sri Lanka and most Christians have cancelled their usual festivities because of what has happened.
2 Condemn evil
The Bible is loaded with condemnation over the wrong that takes place in a nation, and the ministries of the prophets are a good example of this. Where possible and appropriate, we need to strongly condemn—with no reserve—the barbaric acts that have happened. Like the prophets, we may also need to denounce the failure of our national leaders to take appropriate steps to protect the people in response to intelligence reports.
3 Alleviate suffering
Part of the Christian answer to the problem of evil is action to alleviate suffering, as people made in the image of a God who works. The Bible is loaded with advice to care for those who are wounded and vulnerable. We must look for opportunities to help. Some of these are more formal projects done in an organized manner by groups—Christian or general community efforts. Others are personal responses. As representatives of the God of all comfort, we can seek to comfort those who are hurting (2 Cor. 1:3-4). I was able to pray with my Hindu neighbour when he came home on Sunday and told me that his sister and her husband and daughter had died in one of the blasts. Visiting people in the hospital, donating blood, transporting the needy, providing meals, keeping people in our homes—these should be standard Christian practices which become part of the Christian lifestyle.
4 Leave vengeance to the Lord
In our hearts we must apply the principle of God’s “holy-love” as we think through the situation. The Bible is clear that our holy God punishes wrong. The reason we are to “never avenge [ourselves]” is because we “leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom. 12:19). When wrong is done, something in us says, “That deserves to be punished.” That is a biblical sentiment. God has given government officials the authority to be agents of his wrath by punishing wrongdoers (Rom. 13:3–4). We must let justice take its course. But even if it doesn’t take place on earth, we know that it will at the final judgement.
The doctrine of judgement on earth and at the end of time is one of the factors influencing our response to the evil that occurs on earth. God gives us the freedom to take our hands off the revenge cycle. Instead we are told to do what we can do: We are to love our enemies and bless them (Rom. 12:17–21). Without a doctrine of judgement, we would be too bitter to forgive and show love to those who hurt us. Freed from bitterness, we can be agents of healing and reconciliation. This is especially true in a situation like Sri Lanka’s attacks which are being touted as revenge for the Christchurch mosque attacks. We can choose to stop the downward spiral of revenge where violence begets violence and huge destruction results.
Revenge is often considered the honourable response to harm in Sri Lankan culture. It comes out of the correct notion that sin must be punished, but misapplied to personal revenge. We must teach our people that personal revenge does not solve problems. We leave it to the state and to God to handle that. That is a hard lesson for our people to learn. But I believe that when it springs from the doctrine of God, there is a convincing base for people to latch onto. How important to teach these aspects of God’s nature to Christians before tragedy strikes!
5 Don’t bear false witness
The Bible is severe in its condemnation of false accusation and harming the innocent. Racial, ethnic, and religious prejudice often comes from lumping large numbers of people alongside a few radical members of the group they belong to. I do not want to be naïve about the plans of some Muslim groups to control the world and use violence to achieve that end. But in Sri Lanka, for centuries we have lived harmoniously with Muslims. I often feel that my Muslim neighbours are better neighbours to me than I am to them. If we lump all Muslims under the category of terrorist sympathisers, we do many of them a huge injustice which is abhorrent to God. Such attitudes could isolate them to the point of pushing them to find refuge among radicals. It is no secret that violence against Muslims encourages radicalism. We must conscientiously do all we can to prevent that from happening.
Besides, we look at Muslims through the lens of the cross—with gospel-influenced eyes. They desperately need to hear the good news of salvation by the God who loves them. How can they hear that from us if we do not befriend them? We must extend the hand of friendship to the Muslims among us. If we see that they are vulnerable to attack, we must do all we can to help, reassure, and protect them.
While it may seem foolish to spend time praying during a crisis when there is so much to do, this is the most powerful thing God’s people can do in a national crisis (1 Kings 19). We need to mobilise individual and corporate prayer among Christians. Leaders must take the lead in calling for prayer. Christians in Sri Lanka often lose hope when they are faced with wave after wave of bad news. But we don’t pray with a defeatist attitude. We know that God is building his kingdom culminating in the return of Christ, and that our actions are building blocks in this process.
Holy-love will win in the end! Amen. Come, Lord Jesus (Rev. 22:20).