The Geography of Evil

A sermon preached on Good Friday 2014, Church of St. Paul and the Redeemer, Chicago

Every year on the evening between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, the Episcopal cathedral in New York sponsors an all-night reading of Dante’s Inferno, all thirty-four exciting and horrific cantos. The timing is grimly appropriate. The action of the entire Divine Comedy begins on Maundy Thursday of the year 1300. Dante the pilgrim makes his way down through the many circles of hell, and then climbs the seven story mountain of purgatory, and then—like a human rocket ship—is catapulted into the heavenly spheres of the Paradiso, all in the scope of an Easter weekend.

Graves srebrenica bosnia and herzegovina
New graves for victims of the Srebrenica genocide credit: Paul Katzenberger

I expect that by this time, the readers in the Cathedral will have concluded the last canto of the Inferno. It is a shocking canto, perhaps more shocking to the 14th century reader than it is to us, as it begins with a blasphemous parody of one of the most beautiful Latin hymns of Holy Week. As Dante approaches the deepest center of hell, his guide, the Roman poet Virgil, warns him in a mix of Latin and Italian:

Vexilla regis prodeunt inferni verso di noi,/ pero dinanzi mira,

which, roughly translated, means “The regal banners of the inferno are flying in front of us, so keep your eyes peeled and your powder warm.” So somehow Virgil, a pagan who died in the first century, knows the words of the opening verse of one of the greatest seventh century hymns in honor of the Cross, a hymn still sung in monasteries and sanctuaries throughout the world on days like this.

Vexilla Regis prodeunt;

Fulget Crucis mysterium,

Quo carne carnis conditor

Suspense est patibulo


Abroad the regal banners fly,

now shines the Cross’s mystery:

upon it life did Death endure,

and yet by death did life procure.

Vexilla regis prodeunt—The banners of the king go forth. Virgil has the wit to add, “the banners of the king—of hell”—because he and his protégé have now reached the very pit of the Inferno, where no fires burn, where everywhere is ice. It’s a place where the banners of the king of hell in truth proceed nowhere at all. They are in fact not banners that Virgil points to, but ghosts, shades, “ombre”—the shades of those who had committed the worst sin that Dante could imagine—the sin of betrayal. And at the very epicenter of the inverted cone of hell as Dante imagines it is Lucifer, the Great Betrayer, the fallen angel of light, emperor of this woeful realm. He stands there waist deep in ice, frozen, immobile. No romantic hero he, but a kind of death machine, with one head and three faces—demonic parody of the Trinity. His body is the color of decay, as ugly now as it once was beautiful. His six eyes weep tears and bloody foam, and each of his three mouths chews the living corpses of one of the three men whom Dante regarded as the three greatest of traitors. Cassius and Brutus, assassins of Julius Caesar, each squirms in one of Lucifer’s two outer mouths. The center mouth chews Judas Iscariot. Judas’ head and upper body are hidden from view inside that horrible mouth, his legs outside kicking and trembling in the icy winds—winds kicked up by the six batlike wings of the fallen seraph who forever holds him captive.

To imagine such things, to describe the geography of evil as Dante describes the topography of the Inferno, would turn your soul to ice:

How frozen and faint I then became, ask it not, reader, because all words would fail. Io no mori’ e non rimasi vivo: I did not die and I did not remain alive; now think for yourself, if you have any wit, what I became, deprived alike of death and life.

Io no mori’ e non rimasi vivo. “I did not die and I did not remain alive.”

On this Good Friday, seven hundred years later, how would you or I imagine the geography of evil?

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of both the Bosnian war and the Rwandan genocide. In spring of 1996 a reporter named Mike O’Connor gained access to a field outside the Bosnian town of Srebrenica. A lot has happened since 1996, but you still might remember the disastrous story of that sad town. During the ugly, bloody wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, the UN had tried to protect Srebrenica as a “safe town,” a place where people could escape from the so-called ethnic cleansing by which Christian Serbs were trying to wipe out Muslim Bosnians from the area. The UN policy was a disaster. UN forces did almost nothing to stop the slaughter—they more or less looked on in horror, like bystanders at Golgotha. An international war crimes tribunal had determined that anywhere from 3,000 to 8,000 Muslim men had been driven from their homes and executed in this field by Christian Serb militia. The Times ran a photograph of the site. It looked terribly ordinary, nothing like a Golgotha. The land was flat, plain, with a small copse of trees visible in the background. But reports that had trickled in from survivors said that the landscape had recently been altered. You could see in the photograph that the ground was broken and rutted in spots, as if it had been dug up, moved and replaced by heavy equipment. The Times reporter describes the scene with an eye for detail that is almost as vivid as Dante’s, who knew something about killing grounds:

Clinging to chunks of dirt, some piled in mounds three feet high, are pieces of sod and delicate yellow flowers growing at unnatural angles, suggesting that the dirt was broken and piled up after it was covered by new spring plants….Near the larger field was a pile of what first appeared to be rubbish, but tangled among the bits of garbage were strips of multicolored cloth, about three feet long. These matched the published descriptions of blindfolds that survivors say were put on the victims by the killing squads. Also in the pile were berets like those frequently used by older Muslim men. On one beret was a set of Muslim prayer beads, and near them was a cane nicely carved from a tree branch.

Clearly, there had been bodies buried there, and someone had ordered them moved—covering the evidence of this deepest crime by digging it up. The whole story has a Dantesque ring to it. Even the names of the commanders involved have an allegorical resonance. Here in the killing field, where hate-filled Christians betrayed and murdered terrorized Muslims, the spokesman for the war crimes investigation bore the name of Christian Chartier, a name that translates into English as Christian the Mapmaker, as if he had been assigned to map the geography of evil. And the colonel in command of the American forces who were patrolling the area was named, of all things, John Baptiste. As they say, you can’t make this kind of thing up. It would all be high comedy if it weren’t so horrific. The headline to the Times story said it all: “Disturbed Dirt in Bosnia Refuels Talk of Graves.”

Io no mori’ e non rimasi vivo. “I did not die and I did not remain alive.” Is that how Christian Chartier felt, when he dug up the killing field in Srebrenica? Is that how any of us felt in the aftermath of 9/11 in Washington or New York, or when we first saw those photos from Abu Graib, or first heard the easy talk of torture or rendition that continues to bedevil and poison our public discourse? No wonder we try to suppress such things, to take refuge in church talk, or to fixate on the latest breakthrough from Apple.

But Dante knew there was no easy escape from such evil, just as today, in this liturgy, there is no easy escape from Golgotha. As Dante tells it, Dante in hell grasps the neck of Virgil his guide, climbs up on his back, and the two together clamber down the ice to the deepest pit, clamber down the very haunches of Satan embedded there. Virgil grasps one tuft of hair after another, scrambling down the demonic ladder in the shifting space between the icy wall and the clammy skin of Lucifer, climbing down, down—and then, it happens. The world turns upside down—they have reached the very center of the earth, and climbing down now means climbing up—up and away from the center of evil, up and away toward the light of day just barely visible now as they pull away from the Ground Zero of treachery and betrayal.

Our own escape this day is less dramatic. We must do what Christian Chartier did—poke the rod into the soil, then raise it up to the nose, smell the fading odor of decomposition, and face our own complicity in the slaughter. We must learn to break the silences, uncover the graves, to map the geography of hell, and to help ourselves and others to endure this arduous passage of justice and repentance for which there is no way out but through.

What this Good Friday tells us is that we are not alone. Our new day begins here, on the way to the cross. Later in this service, some us will leave our seats, or watch others do so, and come forward past this altar to embrace the cross. It will be as if we have died but are not dead, as if we did not die but did not remain alive. We acknowledge today that this cross is not a thing of beauty. Let no one tell us otherwise. It is the cruelest tool of torture and execution the Romans could devise. It has also been the cruelest tool of Christians, who use it as a weapon in the crusades against their enemies—whether against Muslims in Bosnia or elsewhere in Europe, or against Tutsis in Rwanda, or against Jews in pogroms through the centuries—Jews for whom this very day and this very service have through the centuries constituted a day of terror, murder and blood.

Yet it is on this cross that Christ died with and for all who have been betrayed, tortured, murdered: Christ the Redeemer is Christ the betrayed.

When you approach this cross today, you declare that you are no longer a bystander, no longer apathetic or detached or cynical or somehow above or outside the fray.

When you approach this cross, you can do as Dante did. You can put your arms around the neck of your Savior and climb this cross, step by step, climb directly into the heart of loss, because
Dante knew, as all Christians knew, that it is at the heart of loss that our salvation can yet be found.

Good Friday allows no spectator sports. God has acted. As Jesus once said, we must take up his cross and follow. If you have felt betrayed in your life, then on this cross you will discover God’s solidarity with you in bearing this betrayal, you will discover God as a fellow sufferer, as a God of compassion in the word’s truest sense. If you yourself have betrayed others, or betrayed yourself—if you have wronged your brother or your sister, if you have lapsed into personal despair or cynicism or apathy or gossip, if you cannot forgive yourself for being yourself, or forgive God for creating you—then at this cross with Christ you will plumb the depths of God’s forgiveness: the power of God’s willingness to take you back, to embrace you with outstretched arms, if only you will turn around and see.

Io non mori’ e non rimasi vivo. I did not die and I did not remain alive. Embrace this cross on which you will not die, because God has died for you. Embrace this cross for which you no longer need to live as you are, because Christ now lives in you.

In the words of the ancient Good Friday hymn:

O Cross, our one reliance, hail!

still may thy power with us avail,

to save us sinners from our sin,

God’s righteousness for all to win.

About the author: Jaime