Writing about Easter in early March, while the clock ticks toward an invasion of Iraq, poses challenging questions. One of them, provocatively stated, is "What is the significance of the resurrection for Saddam Hussein?" To ask this is not to engage in silly theological games. It is pressed on us by our fundamental belief that the resurrection of Jesus Christ has real consequences for our world. As the newly enthroned Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, puts it in his book, "Resurrection" (recently published by The Pilgrim Press), "to believe in the risen Jesus is to trust that the generative power of God is active in the human world; that it can be experienced as transformation and recreation and empowerment in the present; and that the availability and relevance extends to every human situation."
This statement itself calls into question one common response, namely, that Easter means nothing to or for Saddam because he does not believe in Jesus. But to leave it at that is to suggest that Easter's relevance is determined by human response alone, a domestication of God akin to the notion that it was the disciples' faith that "believed" Jesus back to life, something clearly rejected by the biblical texts. And what about Saddam's victims? The innocent people of Iraq, oppressed by Saddam's cruelty, starved by international sanctions, and threatened by invaders' or liberators' weapons are, for the most part, not Christian either. It may feel acceptable to place a non-Christian oppressor outside the bounds of Easter's power, but are victims to be consigned to the same destiny simply because they have never heard the Gospel, or having heard, have chosen not to believe?
This leads us to consider whether Saddam's own evil acts have placed him beyond the generative power of God. The invasions of Kuwait and Iran, the destruction of the Kurds, the torture of political opponents, the readiness to expose thousands to clouds of gas and plumes of anthrax build a case for unrelieved judgment we find hard to dispel. Yet only the truly naive assume that the world is neatly divided between the innocent and the evil, that evil's axis can be conveniently drawn across distant shores, or that you and I are not complicit in the world's woe in deep and profound ways. It is true that while all are guilty, all are not equally responsible for the violence and disorder of creation. To say that God's judgment may be universal is not to suggest that it is uniform. But is there a line of behavior one crosses that is beyond the reach of redemption? If so, how can "the availability and relevance" of the resurrection "extend to every human situation?" And who are we to presume where that line may be drawn?
The ancient creed confesses that the crucified, dead, and buried Christ "descended into Hell." This peculiar phrase suggests, at the very least, that Easter has universal significance, that no one is unaffected by its dual word of judgment and grace. We who have been baptized into Jesus are joined in a particular understanding of both our complicity with the cross and our companionship with the risen Christ. But we dare not claim that all others share only in that complicity, cut off forever from that companionship, or that Saddam and others like him have no share in the destiny in store for us in the presence of the One who is both our judge and our redeemer. The simple dualisms and superficial theology that try to simplify our complex world have their allure. But on them, as on all else, as the hymn puts it, "The judgment of the cross falls steady, clear and sure."
The Rev. John H. Thomas is General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ and one of the UCC's five-member Collegium of Officers.