On his way to Good Friday, Jesus is lingering in Mosul this week to comfort the dead. Mosul of course was the site of horrific fighting and extensive war crimes in the aftermath of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Today it is a shell of its former self. And now video footage has surfaced in which representatives of ISIS, the Islamic State, are shown taking hammers to history itself and to its memory.
The gruesome footage shows members of ISIS in the City Museum taking hammers to a winged-bull Assyrian protective deity dating back to the 7th century BC. A spokesperson for ISIS explains:
These ruins that are behind me, they are idols and statues that people in the past used to worship instead of Allah. . . . The so-called Assyrians and Akkadians and others looked to gods for war, agriculture and rain to whom they offered sacrifices. . . . The Prophet Mohammed took down idols with his bare hands when he went into Mecca. We were ordered by our prophet to take down idols and destroy them, and the companions of the prophet did this after this time, when they conquered countries.
Apparently the spokesperson for ISIS never considered that the Holy Prophet might have been referring to idols that actually oppress and harm God’s people, not historical museum artifacts in which no one any longer believes. But no one is crediting ISIS with theological sophistication. And if the dead are remembered only so long as evidence of their lives persists among us, then perhaps destroying the artifacts relegates the ancient Assyrians to that outer darkness where everything, including memory itself, is forgotten.
(The mission to destroy memory is an act of profound hostility toward and denial of God. It naively believes that there is a place where God is not, when transparently “If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, thou art there” (Psalm 139.8). Which may explain why Jesus descended into Sheol and why this week he is in Mosul, to comfort those whose memory these theologically naive members of ISIS mistakenly feel they have snuffed out.)
But surely Jesus is dividing his time between these long dead and more recent victims of irreligious extremism, such as the Bangladeshi-American Avijit Roy, a blogger hacked to death by radical Islamists for his outspoken atheist views. Jesus of course reserves special sympathy for atheists since it was with this epithet — ἄθεος — that both the Roman Empire and first century religious officials labeled Jesus’ earliest followers. They applied the label both for Christians’ refusal to honor the Roman pantheon (in whose name Rome’s imperial army conquered the world) and their outlandish belief that God himself had died resisting both religious and secular domination. Wherever we find similar-hearted men and women, such as Avijit Roy, suffering for their resistance to domination by gods and empires, we can be assured that Jesus is not far off.
And is Jesus not also with the extremists themselves, urging them to drop their hammers and swords, comforting them for their many losses? Assuredly, as he makes his way to Good Friday, Jesus is with them as well.