The Sydney siege - three things we learnt

Around the world there has been shock this week at the events which took place in Martin Place in the centre of Sydney. The siege, which ultimately led to the death of a gunman and two hostages, has left plenty of questions on the lips of Australians, who still think of their country as a relatively peaceful place, free of the nasty events seen so often around the world. But it also provided a few answers.

One thing you have to say about moments of huge national grief: you learn what your country’s world view is. Although we each have unique qualities, when we react as a nation, we do so in a remarkable show of solidarity. And the evidence is surprising.

1. The world believes in evil
Most people don’t need convincing that there is such a thing as evil. What intrigues me is how easily we highlight it, when there is a tragedy unfolding, without ever stopping to clarify exactly what is meant by ‘evil’. For evil to be so self-evident, there must surely be a standard of righteousness by which it is judged.

Western democracies (and Australia is most definitely one despite its easterly location!) have fallen victim to a moral relativism which has steadily become the centre of our world view. It’s quite difficult to say what is right or wrong anymore, such is the advancement of moral change.

But when a gunman takes hostages and threatens to kill them, everybody (Christian, Muslim and atheist alike) denounces his actions as evil. That is a good thing, for that they are. But on what basis do we say they are evil?

The answer lies in our worldview. For the average Australian, something becomes evil when it steps way beyond the bounds of an agreed moral value. That value is a secular, subjective, democratic value. When entire counties become evil, other countries denounce them and we have a war. But when individuals become evil, it has a uniting effect on the populace.

2. The world wants to pray
The most common response to the breaking news out of Sydney this week was, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the hostages.” If you have succumbed to Twitter, scroll through the most common hashtags on the event you will see. People who don’t normally pray to anyone or anything started praying. Why?

Does anyone stop to ask who these people were praying to? Prayer, by most Australian standards, is not a cool thing to do. It’s blows holes in your masculinity and has people questioning your sanity. There is probably a psychological term for people who pray and think someone actually hears them.

But this week, people everywhere prayed, or at least, said they were praying as though that was the most appropriate response to the situation. To whom were they praying?

Is this not an indication that the basic Australian worldview is not that there is no God at all, but that there is probably a higher existence somewhere out there whose role is to step in and make wrongs right at times like this? Think of a heavenly policeman: he doesn’t do anything when times are good except patrol around in the background, keeping an eye on things. But when there is “evil”, he is expected to step in like a superhero and sort it out. And when he doesn’t, we ask, “How can there be a god?”

That the world turns to prayer in moments of utter helplessness may not say much about our general theological depth of understanding, but it is a clue to the human psyche. The idea of calling out to God in despair is hard-wired into us.

3. Governments are there to control evil
Christians and atheists can both rest easy that their governments know what to do at times like this. There have been Christians, it must be admitted, who have not understood the appropriate separation of roles between church and state, but there can be no disagreement today that one of the roles we expect our governments to undertake is protecting its citizens from evil.

I could argue that a whole lot more could be done in this area, but agreeing on definitions of evil become problematic (e.g. is pollution of the environment evil? Many would say so. What about gambling? Or smoking?)

When, however, we are confronted by an agreed evil, we expect the state to intercede for us and show an appropriate use of deadly force to control it. As soon as that gunman took hostages, you knew it was not going to end well and we trusted that cool heads with weapons drawn would respond in large measure to a criminal with his weapon drawn.

We don’t really want everybody grabbing their guns and going to the crime scene to have a go at ending it (at least, not in Australia!). We want people who are properly trained & scrutinised for the right mental strength to follow express orders and deal with the situation according to a strict protocol. That’s why we have governments.

Christians acknowledge that this is the domain of the state. The church never takes up arms in order to win converts or ‘Christianize’ their country, but individuals (Christian or otherwise) do under the auspices of their governments.

Only Jesus controls sin
Although countries like Australia think they have a pretty good grip on the whole concept of good and evil, the Bible presents another view altogether. Instead of “evil” being a radical behaviour out of step with normal society, the Bible says evil is the manifestation of sin and that puts us all in the frame.

“Sin” is rebellion against God’s rule and his law, so even the process of coming up with our own moral code in society is an evidence of the problem.

Jesus taught that if you had ever hated someone, your sin was on an equal scale to murder because both came from the heart and were in rebellion to God’s law. “Evil” is not just the actions of a madman, but the thoughts of every regular person who has ever harboured a sin, such as revenge. That’s a problem because if Jesus is right about this, then we will all be judged like the man who took those hostages in Sydney.

The gospel of Jesus announces to the world that the penalty for our sin has been taken by the Son of God. The Father in heaven is fully satisfied by this transaction. All those who come to saving faith in him do not need to fear the day they will stand face to face with their creator. But those who harden their hearts (yes, even those who pray during national emergencies) face his judgement for, whilst they might have acknowledged evil, they did not acknowledge sin.

But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Romans 6:17-18)