A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Good Friday 2 April by Revd Dr Sam Wells.
Readings of address: Luke 23:34
Aziz BineBine was a cadet in the Moroccan army who, to his surprise, found himself in 1971 caught up in a military coup attempting to overthrow King Hassan. Despite having no knowledge of the plot, and having fired no shot, he was arrested. Aziz’ father was a courtier to the king. The king called him the next day and said, ‘What do you think of what your son has done?’ Aziz’ father said, ‘This is no son of mine.’
Some months later, shortly after his conviction, Aziz left his cell for his daily exercise, when he stopped in his tracks and simply said, ‘I surrender unconditionally.’ Many years later, reflecting on that moment, he said, ‘It changed everything. Not just the sentence; everything became relative. Nothing mattered anymore: whether it was ten years in jail, or 20; whether it was life or death. It no longer mattered.’ In 1973 Aziz was transferred to solitary confinement in the notorious Tazmamart prison in the Atlas Mountains. His cell was two by three metres with a toilet inside, and it was always dark. He was to remain there for 18 years. He was given 5 litres of water a day, some dry bread, and some broth with starchy vegetables. He and his fellow prisoners had no clothes, no water to wash. They were locked in their cells 24 hours a day. Gradually all Aziz’ senses ceased to function, except one: his hearing. He could hear the birds, and learned from them when it was raining, or when the guards were coming. He could also hear his fellow prisoners. They sang songs, and recited the Qur’an. Some died. Mysteriously an owl would come and give a particular hoot, an hour before each death. They never discovered how the owl knew. Aziz could only live by letting go of everything that was not in his cell – his past, his family. If he lapsed into depression he would die. A ruptured gall bladder led to excruciating pain and bouts of paralysis for months on end.
Why was such terrible punishment exacted on an innocent man? No one knows. Commentators speculate that King Hassan was furious at a betrayal from within, and sought both to enact revenge and to deter any other plots. Finally Aziz’ ordeal came to an end. When the Cold War finished, America started to put pressure on its allies to ease oppression in their own countries. Aziz returned to his family, a crooked, stooping, emaciated figure, who slept curled on the floor like a dog. Soon he held his mother in her last breath of life. After that, Aziz said to his brother, ‘Take me to see our father.’ His brother said – ‘But he’s a coward. He’s not your father. He betrayed you – and all of us. One word from him and you could have avoided 18 years in hell.’ Aziz insisted. When they met, Aziz kissed his father’s hand. They sat and talked about everything and nothing: and at the end, Aziz gave his father a hug. He said, ‘I understand completely how, in your position, you had to act as you did.’ They fell into each other’s arms and cried like children. And Aziz’ brother realised he had to make peace with his father as well.
When the former hostage John McCarthy interviewed Aziz, he asked the question, ‘Did you ever doubt the existence of God?’ Aziz replied, ‘Never. On that first day I had surrendered to God unconditionally. And that meant that during those 18 years at Tazmamart, I never asked God to set me free. I never asked God to shorten my suffering. I was concerned that, if I asked for anything, my devotion to God would become selfish. I was worshiping God, not in order to obtain anything for myself, or regain my freedom. It was love of God for his own sake. And that’s still how I understand my faith today.’ John McCarthy summed up the conversation by saying, ‘Aziz’ story was filled with abject horror. Yet I came a way with my heart filled with joy.’ (Heart and Soul, BBC World Service https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/w3ct2bh0)
In this first of Jesus’ seven words from the cross, our eyes are inevitably drawn to the complex and heavily laden word, ‘forgive.’ But Aziz’ story encourages us to look in two other places for the meaning of this utterance. The first is, ‘Father.’ Jesus is uttering a prayer to his father. There are people among us, doubtless people here and with us online today, who know what it means to undergo suffering, betrayal, damage, and harm that’s almost impossible to forgive. Impossible because the one inflicting the hurt intended it, has never repented, did it a thousand times, changed one’s life immeasurably and irreparably, and/or seems to have no comprehension of the pain visited. Sometimes people get very angry at the very mention of forgiveness, because it sounds like something they can’t do, and it would be wrong to ask them to do, not least because it seems to undermine the depth of what they’ve been through. But look: Jesus doesn’t say ‘I forgive you.’ He says, ‘Father, forgive them.’ How can he forgive, when he’s being mercilessly slaughtered? He’s saying, ‘Father, you’ve got to do the forgiving, because I can’t.’ It’s easy to miss the fact that he’s not actually doing the forgiving himself. That tells us a lot about forgiveness. It’s sometimes beyond us – for now, for a long time, maybe even for our whole lifetime. In such cases, we might share Jesus’ prayer: ‘Father, I need you to do this for me. I can’t do it myself.’
The other word that clarifies the meaning of this saying is ‘they.’ ‘They do not know what they are doing.’ On the cross Jesus is confronted by three kinds of people: the people, the leaders, and the soldiers. There’s also the others crucified beside him. And there’s the ones who culpably aren’t there – the disciples, who’d betrayed, denied, and fled. What Luke’s doing is giving us a comprehensive account of human failure – as if it were a painting where everyone’s expressions were frozen in time. Some actively sought Jesus’ death; some went along with it; some were under orders or threats; some watched; some ran away; some mocked. It’s the full range of human reaction: no one escapes. All of them are part of the word ‘they.’ In different ways, none of them knew what they were doing.
And we are part of that same ‘they.’ The gospel is a process by which we’re drawn from participation in that culpable ‘they’ into participation in Jesus’ prayer, ‘Father…’ Later in Luke’s story we discover it can be done. When Stephen is stoned in Acts chapter 7, he says, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ He joins Jesus’ prayer to the Father. The story of Aziz BineBine shows it can be done today, even in the ghastliest circumstances imaginable. On Good Friday, we realise we’re part of that ‘they.’ But we also discover we can join Jesus’ prayer, which starts, ‘Father…’