Words of life on tools of death

Published May 1, 1999

"’Happy Easter’ graffiti"

HAPPY EASTER is a greeting that we Western Christians have used already this year, and that Orthodox Christians share later in the year. (In fact, we could still be using it because Easter is not just a day; it’s a season of 40 days, just as Lent has 40 days). I prefer the greeting that our newer liturgies have recovered from ancient sources, the greeting Orthodox people still use beginning with the sentence “Christ is risen” and then the response “He is risen indeed.” But “Happy Easter” is the greeting of our culture. I recently read of an astonishing use for that familiar greeting. At the end of March, on the night of the first bombardment of Yugoslavia, someone in an RAF bomber unit on an airfield in Italy scrawled “Happy Easter” on one of the bombs as it was being loaded. I am old enough to remember photographs of the messages to Hitler that were painted onto bombs destined for Germany during the Second World War, so I recognize the instinct to send a message this way, even one which the recipient will never read. But “Happy Easter?” For many Christians, the combination of “Happy Easter” and a bomb is outrageous. The symbolism of words of life on an instrument of death is offensive. A disinterested observer of the scene might say, “Well, for most people Easter is just a long weekend like others in the year. The bombing happened around Easter, but if it had happened at another time you could write ?Happy Labour Day’ or ?Happy Victoria Day,’ so why the fuss?” At the same time, I read an interview with an airman who, when he was asked about his feelings about the damage the bombardment might do to civilians, replied that he never thought about it. He was not there to kill anyone, simply to release bombs. But others consider these possibilities. There is now a euphemism for the unintended damage bombs might cause as well as the damage that is intended. We call it “collateral” damage. Whenever we feel the need for euphemisms (“downsizing” for firing) it is a sure sign that we are guilty about something. The person who wrote Happy Easter on his first bomb was not into euphemisms. Those words are only spoken to human beings, not to buildings. He was sending a message to a person. And in an ironic way that he could never understand, he was on to something. There is no Easter without suffering, without Good Friday. Easter always lies on the far side of suffering, and very often suffering deliberately inflicted by others, as was the case with Jesus. The happiness of Easter is really only known to those who have also known the desolation of Good Friday. The words Happy Easter really only belong to those who have some experience of suffering, of God’s purposes within that suffering, of God’s capacity to transform that suffering into experiences that reveal true life in ways we had never anticipated. In the mouth of people who have the power to inflict pain on others, even if they genuinely believe the pain is being inflicted in a good cause, the words simply rub salt into already terrible wounds. They are like the crown of thorns forced on Jesus, a gratuitous additional pain to someone who was already at your mercy. The only good news in this story is that blasphemous words on a bomb have the same fate as the bomb. They are never seen again. Archbishop Michael Peers is Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.


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