“Father Forgive”

In November 1940 the full fury of Hitler’s Luftwaffe fell on Coventry, England.

The first wave of bombers dropped thousands of incendiary bombs, putting the city to flame. Later came the heavy ordnance. After a night of death and terror, the people of Coventry awoke to a devastation so horrific, “Coventry” would become a byword for Nazi power.

The medieval cathedral was not spared, its roof collapsing into rubble, its windows melting, its relics burned. Behind the altar of rubble, a priest would later inscribe the words, “Father Forgive.” The words, of course, belong to Jesus who said, while dying on the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”

At first glance, the words seem naive. After all, the Luftwaffe knew exactly what it was doing. Coventry was home to the factories which built the Merlin engine, the power behind the RAF’s plucky Spitfire fighter. The aim was sure: destroy the factories, demoralise the people. When the RAF unleashed its own fury on Dresden and other German cities, the aim was similar, the devastation worse.

Humans willingly and knowingly commit all manner of evil. It seems to me that at the root of this is an ignorance of our true nature. There is a sobering yet oft-ignored corollary to King Benjamin’s belief that when we serve others, we serve God. Surely if that is true, the opposite is likewise: when we commit evil against Man, we commit evil against God.

“For if you do it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, you do it unto me.” We would not knowingly hate, abuse, cheat, or lust after God. And yet we do it all the time. Father, forgive us indeed.

**********

The rebuilt cathedral is now a monument to peace and reconciliation. Some pictures:

St. Michael defeats the Devil

Sept_2008_statue_of_st_michael_and_the_devil_-_coventry_cathedral_14d061

Statue of Reconciliation

Sept_2008_uk_coventry_statue-of-reconcilliation

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Sort of gives an added layer of meaning to one of my favorite Christmas carols, Coventry Carol, which is already the darkest of a genre that’s not really supposed to be dark.

  2. when we commit evil against Man, we commit evil against God.

    Unfortunately I reckon we often feel we are on God’s errand.

    The Bomber Command termed its destruction of Hamburg Operation Gomorrah.

  3. The bombing of Coventry was called Operation Moonlight Sonata.

  4. This is beautiful, Ronan.

  5. Operation Moonlight Sonata.

    On Beethoven’s errand?

    Speaking of being on God’s, the Prussian/German army had a long tradition of wearing “God with Us” on their belt buckles.

  6. This is beautiful, Ronan. Plus I have always liked that image of Michael (can’t remember if it was you who first introduced it to me or I’ve seen it elsewhere).

  7. The lady at the cathedral said that the upturned spear suggests that Michael did not gleefully fight his brother.

  8. Mephibosheth says:

    I heard a story about a statue of Christ which was destroyed during a bombing raid during WWII. The statue was able to be restored except for the hands, and instead of crafting new hands for it someone made a sign that read “He Has No Hands But Ours.” Some versions of the story put the location in Coventry, others place it in France, but I’ve never seen a source for it and have no idea if it’s even true, or if there are multiple no-hands Christuses. Anyone know more?

  9. I served my mission in the England Coventry Mission and in Coventry itself. Spent a lot of time at the Cathederal and attended Christmas midnight mass there. I always loved the fact that they left the shell of the old cathederal standing – it serves as a great reminder. Far more than any modern monument could do.

    And for the more immature among us, you have to see the statue of the devil from the stairs.

  10. Mephi:
    Coventry has many legends. That’s not one of them.

    TStevens:
    I went with a group of 60 boys. Say no more.

  11. Herbert Howells wrote a hauntingly beautiful composition for the dedication of the new cathedral called “Coventry Antiphon.” Worth a listen if you can get a good recording of it.

    My house shall be called an house of prayer for all people.

    The glory of this latter house
    shall be greater than that of the former
    saith the Lord of hosts; and in
    this place will I give peace,
    saith the Lord of hosts.

    My house shall be called an house of prayer for all people.

  12. Mephibosheth says:

    Ronan,

    Good to know. Thanks.

  13. It is a sad fact of mortality that such horrors play the crucial role of testifying of good. (At the risk of paraphrasing Lehi…) If we didn’t see the affects of evil, we probably could never understand the depths of good.

  14. Thanks, Ronan.

    I know a woman who was a six year old girl in a Stuttgart bomb shelter when her hair turned entirely white in less than a night.

    My mother is also from Stuttgart. She had to spend weeks in the hospital with a broken leg in traction, which meant that she was the only person to remain behind when her ward evacuated into the bomb shelter.

    The nurses would open the windows so that the glass would not shatter and lead everyone into the basement. The five year old would have to wait for the end of the raid by herself.

    Stuttgart is in the tight Neckar valley. My mother could see the anti aircraft guns’ muzzles on top of her family’s apartment building and prayed: God, if we have to die, please, let us die together. I don’t want to remain behind by myself.

    May be, one of the best novels on the subject is by nobel price winner Heinrich Böll: Billiards at Half Past Nine. Böll, who was a Catholic activist, captures the loss of the survivors.

  15. It is a sad fact of mortality that such horrors play the crucial role of testifying of good. (At the risk of paraphrasing Lehi…) If we didn’t see the affects of evil, we probably could never understand the depths of good.

    That’s a feeble excuse. Someone has to suffer and die so that somebody else can appreciate goodness?
    That’s too cynical for me.
    It’s also arrogant. I wouldn’t want anybody to suffer and die to train my sensibility. I am not that important.

  16. The Right Trousers says:

    #15: Not just training your sensibility, but your morality as well. I’ve been thinking fairly deeply about this tonight for reasons unrelated to this post.

    When mulling theodicy, we too often dehumanize the people who are doing the hurting. I think part of what Ronan is getting at is that it’s not just those inhuman Nazis who are doing it. We’re doing it too.

    Sometimes the people we’re closest to are being hurt, and often we’re the ones causing it. Sometimes the people we’re closest to are the ones causing it, and often we’re the ones being hurt. Sometimes people we love hurt each other and there’s nothing we can do about it.

    It would all be rather pointless if not for a gift unique to our species: the capacity to realize when we’re hurting others. With that, the power to hurt and destroy becomes a chance to change. Everyone gets that chance, even the worst of us. This might sound strange and even morbid, but when I realized this, I found myself grateful for the opportunity to hurt the people I’ve hurt, realize that I’d done it, and be motivated to change. I was grateful too that most of them still love me, tolerate me, or have at least forgotten. I also hope to not begrudge others this chance when they hurt *me*, and be a little more forgiving.

  17. Great and sobering post Ronan

  18. I would agree with you, Right Trousers, that the choices of the survivors can give meaning to the suffering of the victims. At least, we are taking responsibility for our actions. But since our choices cannot undo the suffering, they can neither absolve us nor god.

    I also agree with you that we are all capable of evil. In her famous observations about the Eichmann trial, Hannah Arendt refers to it as the banality of evil.

    The perpetrators are not monsters but human beings. There is something of Eichmann in all of us.

    I suppose that one could make a freedom argument in defense of God. However, there is a broad consensus among the defenders of freedom, better known but routinely maligned as liberals, that a person’s liberty ends when it begins to intrude on the liberty on another (John Stuart Mill, wasn’t it?).

    If liberty or free agency were the concern then god would be wrong to permit the killing of innocents to preserve the liberty of the murderers.

    Unlike the Communist mass murders, fairly base attitudes motivated the bombing of open cities: fear, revenge, desperation, servility and, may be, a mistaken logic of self-defense. But that does not make the perpetrators any less human.

    We have not quite sunk that low but at a time where we have permitted our own government to torture people and engage into a dehumanizing majoritarianism, we have no standing to deny the humanity of our forebears.

    With respect to god, Christianity, at least, can claim that its god became a mortal to suffer with us. That is a powerful cosmogony . . .

    but not one that Mormonism is comfortable with.

    PS: Listening to Richard Bushman’s Mormon Stories interview, by the way, I had the impression that he appears to be unaware of the banality of evil. He invokes the goodness of his parents to defend himself against the criticism of Mormonism by his Harvard peers and professors. That was a bizarre argument, especially, for a history professor.

  19. With respect to god, Christianity, at least, can claim that its god became a mortal to suffer with us. That is a powerful cosmogony . . .

    but not one that Mormonism is comfortable with.

    How so? As a Mormon, and one who more or less believes in the empathy theory of the atonement, why exactly should I be uncomfortable?

  20. Not you, Ronan, but it is a fairly common theme among the rank and file as well as some of the brethren that our Christ is not the crucified but the resurrected Christ.

    In my opinion, the triumphalist view of Christ surrenders the very best of Christianity.

  21. Cuz Mormons aren’t Christians Ronan, remember?

  22. “our Christ is not the crucified but the resurrected Christ.”

    I understand why people say this, because the lesson is that Christ has overcome all for us — but the crucifixion left scars forever with him, which he invites us to come and witness. I would think that remembering the resurrection but forgetting the crucifixion is as erroneous as remembering the crucifixion but forgetting the resurrection.

  23. it is a fairly common theme among the rank and file as well as some of the brethren that our Christ is not the crucified but the resurrected Christ.

    Hellmut, my friend, I simply do not agree with this. I think there is a fair balance between the two Christs in LDS discourse. “Behold the condescension of God!”

  24. I doubt there are any Mormons or Mormon General Authorities that deny or ignore the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Those Mormons only exist in the imagination of creedal Christians.

  25. I appreciate your concern, John, but I did not say deny. The term I actually used was deemphasize.

  26. I should say, there aren’t any Mormons (that I know of) who deny, ignore, forget, or even particularly de-emphasize the crucifixion, unless choosing not to use Constantine’s cross as the symbol to represent us means forgetting about or de-emphasizing the crucifixion. However, I agree that most Mormon discussions of the crucifixion also include discussion of the portion of the Atonement that was wrought in Gethsemane, as well as at least a nod, sometimes much more than that, to the Resurrection as the culminating event of the Atonement.

    I suppose the question would be whether creedal Christians are de-emphasizing the totality of the Atonement by over-emphasizing the crucifixion. Perhaps an underlying unease with such over-emphasis contributes to Mormons’ aversion to marching in columns under the crucifix or the cross.

  27. Unfortunately, I cannot speak for creedal Christians, John.

  28. I agree with this talk, at least, it’s topic.

  29. Perhaps fortunately!

  30. (fortunately for you, that is, not them!)

  31. The Right Trousers says:

    My working thesis depends on agency, but agency itself is not sufficient. I can easily imagine a “sandbox” mortality, where we are free to choose our actions but simply don’t have the ability to hurt anyone, whether from active restraint (by God) or as an emergent property of existence.

    It’s the power to harm that is critical. We are absolutely intended to hurt each other. (We often call this “sin,” but I want to avoid that word’s connotation of offense against God so as to focus on offense against others.) In this view, God’s general policy of non-interference is only partially by respect for our agency. Having shared some of his power with us, He waits patiently for us to realize that we’re hurting others and want to change.

    In our theology, those who overcome will share in the full glory and power of God. It would be the very apex of irresponsibility to give that gift to a host of immature souls who have never experienced the sting of realizing that they’ve caused someone pain. Ideally, they’d have experienced it enough to know they’ll never do it again.

  32. I can easily imagine a “sandbox” mortality, where we are free to choose our actions but simply don’t have the ability to hurt anyone, whether from active restraint (by God) or as an emergent property of existence.

    The big question with regards to a Mormon theodicy or questions of agency is why God didn’t create a benign Matrix to test us rather than this earth. (Unless it turns out all you guys are computer programs)

  33. Not to pile on, but piling on:

    “With respect to god, Christianity, at least, can claim that its god became a mortal to suffer with us. That is a powerful cosmogony . . .

    but not one that Mormonism is comfortable with.”

    Hellmut, to put this as bluntly as I can, your statement above is totally incomprehensible to me and not consistent with your defense of it.

    First, every single Mormon I have ever met in my life would agree totally and without reservation with your first statement – and would be absolutely mystified by your conclusion. Every, single one of them is “comfortable with” the idea that “god became a mortal to suffer with us”. It’s not even a question for them.

    Second, Mormonism only “de-emphasizes” the crucifixion in that we don’t focus on it exclusively and don’t wear crosses; we add the Garden of Gethsemane as an equal (if not transcendent) part of His suffering. Iow, we say that his crucifixion was critical, but it would have meant much less without His suffering in the garden. Technically, he could have died in any number of ways and still have been resurrected and saved us from physical death; there is no other way he could have saved us from he effects of sin and spiritual death, and that salvation is every bit as important as salvation from physical death.

    Do you disagree with that?

    Also, such a juxtaposition of “Christianity” versus “Mormonism” is more than a little jarring. You do realize how it sounds, right?

  34. #32 – or that, in the big picture, this really is a “benign Matrix” compared to the alternatives. I’m not smart enough to figure out a better alternative, and I have no idea what is going to occur in the here-after. I’m fine dealing with the existence I’m living.

  35. Re: #16 (Late, but perhaps it’s time to change the subject anyway)

    There may have been Nazis in the Luftwaffe’s aircraft over Coventry that night, but the fact that the Nazis controlled the government does not make Nazis of every man of the Wehrmacht, the Luftwaffe or the Kriegsmarine, any more than our current President’s being a Republican makes all members of the U.S. armed forces Republicans.

  36. there aren’t any Mormons (that I know of)…

    every single Mormon I have ever met in my life…

    Sigh.

  37. Ronan,

    This reminded me of the rebuilding of Dresden’s Frauenkirche a few years back, and the same feeling of reconciliation it has brought there. What’s touching to me is that in this article it mentions that the city of Coventry donated a golden cross and orb for the church, and the UK donated over a million Euros for its restoration.

  38. Peter, seriously, do you know any Mormon who wouldn’t agree with the statement? If so, I understand your sigh. However, my statement is true, as I have never met one.

    There are almost no statements where that would be true, but that is one of them. Now, I haven’t met you, and I haven’t met all Mormons, so there probably are “cultural, agnostic Mormons” and “Mormon atheists” who are not comfortable with it, but that certainly doesn’t fit the obvious intent of Hellmut’s statement.

    Oh, and Hellmut was 100% incorrect in his comment #25. He said he never said “deny” – that the word he used was “de-emphasize”. He didn’t use that word in any of his comments – except the one (#25) that claimed he used it.

    Sorry, for that folks. I won’t pursue it further.

    *Sigh*

  39. Don’t worry about piling on, Ray. I kind of corrected myself citing a Presiding Bishop’s talk about god’s condescension (28).

    I also apologize for creating the impression that I am juxtaposing Christianity and Mormonism. That was not my intention. However, I do believe that Mormonism, as it is currently practiced, does a poor job of taking advantage of the theological implications of god’s suffering.

    May be, I have taken it too far but one of the standard explanations to the absence of crosses in Mormon chapels is the claim that our Christ is the Christ of the resurrection rather than the Christ of the crucifixion.

    That may not be doctrine but it is revealing for what I have experienced as widespread phenomenon among both American and German Saints.

    I am not a big fan of Roman Catholicism but they are leveraging the power of the suffering god to the max because unlike her Protestant counterparts the Roman Catholic Church has never bought into the nonsense of enlightenment optimism.

    For better or worse, the enlightenment tradition is much more pronounced in Mormonism. We like optimism. We shirk pessimism. In that respect, we are a very American religion.

  40. Thanks, Hellmut. I wondered about the advisability of my comment, but went ahead and wrote it anyway. I have to admit that reading the talk made the original comment more confusing to me, so my reaction came from a bit of a confused situation.

    I do agree we emphasize the resurrection and the Garden of Gethsemane more than the cross; I just think we do it because the Garden for us is the center of His suffering. That’s why it seemed odd to say that Mormonism doesn’t have a place for a suffering God. It’s just that we emphasize one part of His suffering, while other churches often emphasize a different part.

    Anyway, thanks again for the clarification – and the charitable response.

  41. One of my favorite passages of the Book of Mormon, that is cited frequently, relates to the Ray-Hellmut discussion: Alma 7:11-13:

    11 And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.
    12 And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.
    13 Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance; and now behold, this is the testimony which is in me.

  42. Thanks, Hellmut. I wondered about the advisability of my comment, but went ahead and wrote it anyway. I have to admit that reading the talk made the original comment more confusing to me, so my reaction came from a bit of a confused situation.

    Don’t worry, Ray. That’s my fault, not yours. Under the weight of logic and evidence, my argument changed during the discussion, which I did not make as clear as I needed to.

  43. Not sure who the we is, you refer to, Hellmut; but the formulation I have heard is that we believe in the living Christ, not the dying Christ, which is true. Being no fan of penal substitutionary atonement theory, I’m happy to forsake things that lead to it. However, as Ronan mentioned, Mormons are in a unique place in Christianity to be able to leverage their unique scriptures in support of the various empathy theories of atonement, that do a great job of dealing with suffering – better than the Catholic salvifici dolores, I believe.

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