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Speaking about the ‘Unspeakable’

Monday, 4 August 2014  | Douglas Hynd

Tony Abbott’s comments in his initial response to the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 caught my attention and have been rattling around in mind ever since. The death of 300 civilians was, he said, “an unspeakable evil”. 

The grammatical paradox, of course, is that he was actually speaking the ‘unspeakable’ when he spoke about the situation of families, friends and communities facing the shattering news of a death that was unexpected and horrifying in its character. Linking it with the term “evil” is also not without its difficulties and paradoxes. Christian theologians as distinguished as Augustine have struggled to characterize evil in ways that remain consistent with their understanding of God’s character—particularly as understood through the incarnation—and the idea of the goodness of creation. 

The difficulty is that Christians must find ways of accurately give an account of what has happened, ‘unspeakable’ or not; what is at best a careless and reckless taking of life in the midst of war on the ground in Ukraine. We also need to contribute to public conversation about how we should act in response to this. Our response and counsel must be shaped by our discipleship. Beyond being present with those who mourn and ‘grieving with those who grieve’, Christians have a responsibility to try to achieve some clarity in discerning how to truthfully describe and morally assess these deaths. 

Perhaps it is best to start with the fact that 300 lives have been taken, at best, carelessly and recklessly, a mistaken and ill-informed act in the fog of war; or worse, perhaps cruelly and wantonly in the hope of advancing a political cause or crusade. At the point of writing this, there is no publically available evidence to make any clear judgment on that. But we can start with this reality: that human lives have been taken in the context of a civil war, lives which Christians hold to be a gift of deep value and that are under the protection of the command not to kill. 

If this act of taking human life (whose detailed circumstances are currently hidden under the fog of war) is to be labeled an ‘unspeakable evil’, then there is a substantial number of ‘unspeakable evils’ currently manifest across the globe that should by that same paradox be spoken of loudly and insistently in recognition of their situation and value as children of God. As I write, I am listening to reports of warfare in Gaza in which at least 400 civilians have been killed in the past two weeks. Need I mention Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, the tribal areas of Pakistan, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo where women and children bear the brunt of warfare, whether the weapons are high-tech or low-tech? Who will speak for these victims of ‘unspeakable evil’? The rhetorical use of this phrase seems inconsistent if we apply it only to the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 and not to these other events. It can function, if used unreflectively, to give this case a singular moral status. On the other hand, it seems somehow excessive or repetitive if we apply it to every case of war, civil war and political conflict.  

Perhaps that’s the point of our reluctance. It may suggest a wider pattern of warfare that we tend to ignore. Perhaps there is an evil in our world today which is ‘unspeakable’ because we will not speak of it. Those with economic and political power shape the circumstances in which weapons are sold and used. Ideologies are purveyed that lead to the belief that war is the only guaranteed way to lasting peace and the achievement of national destiny. Christians must give voice to alternatives that do not find utterance in public policy and public discourse. 

How we can engage with our tradition to find words and imagine possibilities beyond those that deeply inform the assumptions of mass media conversation? As the Jewish theologian Peter Ochs puts it, we must re-read Scripture out of the depths of our distress. At such a moment as this, it might seem obvious for Christians of a radical tradition to return to the teachings and the life of Jesus. My sense is that it might be helpful to move to a moment in the Hebrew Scriptures that is rawer, where the ‘unspeakable evil’ of taking human life is recounted. Cain has murdered his brother Abel and certainly does not wish to speak of it when confronted by God. In a situation in which the victim’s blood cries out from the earth—crying out for remembering, for the truth to be known and justice to be done—a curious thing happens. God does not insist on taking Cain’s life. Instead, God sentences Cain to a nomadic life, a wanderer without a safe home. Further, God places a mark on Cain to act as a warning against anyone taking vengeance against him. There is a clear judgment here against the taking of human life but one that at the same time stops short the cycle of violence and ‘unspeakable evil’. The mark of Cain was a sign of judgment against the one who had taken human life but it was also a marker of protection for his life. It was a warning for all to avoid being pulled down further and further into the spiral of violence whether to expiate anguish over loss or to express the desire for vengeance on behalf of the innocent.



Mike Nelson
August 6, 2014, 4:02PM
Can the mark of Cain be imposed on a nation - perhaps by the processes of sanctions and shunning? Might that be the process for the righting of wrongs, the over-turning of evil, and the restoration of justice? Your point about breaking the cycle of violence and evil and resisting the pull of the downward spiral is cogent and is biblically and theologically coherent

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