Sorrow and Sighing Will Flee Away

Trigger warning: rape, war crimes

The stories are hard to hear.

My colleague, a missionary to Bosnia who has served for nearly eight years in country, detailed some of the atrocities committed against the Bosnian Muslims during the war that shook the country at the end of the 20th century.

The soldiers regularly used rape as a weapon. In fact, one nearby town (I’m currently in northwest Bosnia) is home to a hotel that was used as a rape-house. The screams could be heard for blocks.

After the rape was over, the soldiers would then use a knife to carve a cross into the woman’s flesh.

They would also trap Muslim men and do the same.

Such horrific acts were championed by Orthodox Christian religious leaders who told the soldiers they were growing closer to God the more they killed their Muslim countrymen.

I don’t know how to wrap my head around such evil. Neither do the Bosnians. The psychological cost of the war is unquantifiable.

It is especially difficult to understand how people who claim to follow Jesus (“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God”) and Paul (“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink”) could do such horrific things in the name of ethnicity and religion.

This was a war built upon nationalistic identity and religious fervor. It is remarkable how that cocktail led to the deaths of 100,000 people (80% Bosniak Muslims), the rape of 12,000-20,000 women (almost all Bosniak Muslims), and the displacement of 2.2 million people.

It was a war during which the cross was twisted into a weapon of terror with which to elevate one ethnic group over another.

This isn’t the first time.

In the 15th century it is reported that the Portuguese would brand African slaves with the cross as a sign of ownership. Soon they converted the brand into the letter “G”, but it is also said that a second cross would be branded onto the slave after they were baptized (ordinarily this was a forcible baptism).

And during the Protestant Reformation, Anabaptists were branded with a cross on their forehead if they refused to recant their heresy and rejoin the Roman Catholic Church.

Historical remembrances like these bring to mind Paul’s description of human sinfulness: we become inventors of evil things.

How do we respond when we learn that the church has perpetrated crimes like these, especially crimes that have happened during our lifetimes?

How do we reconcile the church’s mission of spreading the life-giving Gospel of Christ’s Kingdom with the devastating perversion of that mission into war?

I don’t know.

I really don’t.

I’ve been wrestling with it since I arrived in Bosnia and began to hear the stories.

But I do know that what happened here in Bosnia was not the will of God. It was not done at his command but in rebellion against the God of love.

So now Christians – true believers in the person and way of Christ – are left to try and share the true Gospel with those who have been poisoned against it. Such atrocities are not easily forgiven and are never forgotten.

Missionaries are trying to do Kingdom work in this scarred land. They labor on in hope that God can take a barren land, even one made barren by war and atrocity, and bring it back to life.

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.

“Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.’

“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirst ground springs of water; in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

“And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it. It shall belong to those who walk on the way; even if they are fools, they shall not go astray.

“No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” (Isaiah 35)

The promise of Isaiah is for all believers, whether Israelite exiles, the American faithful, the Bosnian Church. It is a promise that one day the evil of this world with all its weapons and sufferings will be defeated once and for all.

It is a promise that even in a country like Bosnia, hope is possible. God has not given up, even after his name was taken in vain.

This is good news for the Bosnian people and for those workers God has placed here to spread seed and reap a harvest.

It is also good news for you and me. Many of us cringe at the ways unfaithful Christian witness has damaged the reputation of the Church and Christ in the lives of our friends and family members. I would wager many of us have heard from loved ones that they cannot believe in Jesus because of the perversion of him they see perpetrated by some Christians.

But strengthen your weak hands and make firm your feeble knees! There is hope for that loved one yet. For, as François Fénelon said, “[God’s] mercy takes pleasure in overcoming our unworthiness.”

God takes pleasure in showing mercy and transforming barren hearts into wellsprings of life!

So with strengthened hands and firm knees I will continue to pray for Bosnia and for those family members and friends in my life that I would too easily give up on. God is not giving up. God delights in saving people from their sin and freeing them from bondage to darkness that they might dwell in the light of the Kingdom.

Yes, one day, sorrow and sighing will flee away. Praise be to God.

Marcos Ortega

Marcos Ortega (MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) is an Assistant Pastor at Goodwill Church (Evangelical Presbyterian Church) and lives in the Hudson River Valley in New York with his wife and two daughters.

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