Of the many tragedies our world has suffered in 2015, the death of over 700 pilgrims at the annual Hajj in Saudi Arabia must be one of the most pitiful. The idea of hundreds of devout worshippers, having saved their hard-earned money to pay for this once-in-a-lifetime event, being crushed to death at a time which should have been at the pinnacle of their religious faith journey, is a true tragedy.
Along with the death of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean this summer, and the desperate experience of those affected by the Ebola outbreak in recent years in west Africa, the Hajj calamity is a human tragedy on a grand scale.
With tragedies come recriminations. Reports suggest that some Hajj pilgrims are blaming the Saudi police and authorities for the stampede in Mina. Saudi spokesmen, meanwhile, are reported as blaming African pilgrims for not following instructions. Iran is blaming the Saudi Royal Family.
When faced with a tragedy in his own lifetime, the mainstream view confronting Jesus of Nazareth appeared to be that the victims themselves were to blame for what happened. Jesus responded to this popular assumption by analysing the self-righteous motives of his contemporaries who were not directly affected by the tragedy, and turned their complacency upon themselves by warning them of their own impending doom.
Although fewer in number, the victims of the Siloam rower collapse were also the objects of criticism by the self-righteous of Jesus' day. The world-view of the critics is not difficult to detect: a high view of God's sovereignty, meaning that all that happens does so ultimately by the permissive or directive will of God, and a covenant theology which saw unfaithfulness to God resulting in judgement, combined to interpret the death of these 18 as the result of their morally dubious state.
Victim blaming today seeps through much of the analysis of contemporary human tragedies. It is implicit in the European Union's decision in 2014 to not support Italy's Mare Nostrum operation, rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean. The claim was that such a humanitarian initiative would act as a "pull factor" in emboldening migrants to board unseaworthy vessels and attempt the perilous crossing from the north African coat to Italy or Malta. Victim blaming was present in the Sun newspaper's coverage of the Hillsborough tragedy - an editorial decision for which it has publicly apologised.
The focus of Jesus' few words on this Siloam tragedy is not on explaining "the problem of evil" in abstract, philosophical terms. Nor does he align himself with those who cast aspersions upon the victims. Instead, he turns the tables and points to those of us who would pass judgement:
"Unless you repent, you too will all perish."
It is highly unlikely that the words of Jesus were intended to predict further tower collapses or similar calamities. Rather, his focus is on something much worse.
To "perish", in its New Testament usage , often means to come under the judgement of God - in this age and the one to come. The apostle Paul, for instance, is quite willing to distinguish between "those who are perishing" and "us who are being saved." (1 Corinthians 1:19) and elsewhere describes those who "perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved." (2 Thessalonians 2:10)
Evidently, the Son of God saw it as imperative that people "repent" of sinful patterns of thought, attitude and action. This theme of repentance is present, implicitly or explicitly, throughout the gospels and other New Testament writings.
The tragedies of the Hajj, of tsunamis and of plagues are not to become opportunities for hard-hearted self-righteousness, but occasions to express sorrow and sympathy with the victims, their families and their communities. They also provide a stark opportunity to examine ourselves by asking some uncomfortable questions: have I repented? Am I to perish?
For those who embark on such a process of self-examination, the words of the gospel truly come as good news:
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