God the Stranger

I “know” less and less of what I thought I knew. The world has driven me into the unknowing silence out of which James A. Whyte spoke at the funeral in Lockerbie, Scotland in 1989.

During his term as Moderator of the Church of Scotland, The Right Rev. Dr. Professor James A. Whyte , still grieving the death of his wife, was called upon to lead the memorial service after Pan Am Flight 103 was blown out of the sky over Lockerbie. Among the most quoted parts of the sermon is this excerpt:

“That such carnage of the young and of the innocent should have been willed by men in cold and calculated evil, is horror upon horror. What is our response to that?

The desire, the determination, that those who did this should be detected and, if possible, brought to justice, is natural and is right. The uncovering of the truth will not be easy, and evidence that would stand up in a court of law may be hard to obtain.

Justice is one thing. But already one hears in the media the word ‘retaliation’. As far as I know, no responsible politician has used that word, and I hope none ever will, except to disown it. For that way lies the endless cycle of violence upon violence, horror upon horror. And we may be tempted, indeed urged by some, to flex our muscles in response, to show that we are men. To show that we are what? To show that we are prepared to let more young and more innocent die, to let more rescue workers labour in more wreckage to find the grisly proof, not of our virility, but of our inhumanity. That is what retaliation means.”

For James Whyte God is often silent. We are called to enter the space of God’s silence, the silence of the cross, the confusion and horror of the suffering of God at the hands of a world filled with man-made gods: security, freedom, nationalism, religion, muscle, revenge and self-righteousness, cultural supremacy. In the Jesus of the cross, Whyte’s eyes saw not only a naked man but God’s nakedness – a naked God stripped of all power, his arms roped to a cross-beam paradoxically spread wide to embrace the whole world of human suffering and folly.

James Whyte took time out of his busy life in 1991 to act as a conversation partner and mentor for an American pastor whose congregation had granted its pastor a sabbatical leave in St. Andrews. They met twice weekly for two months in his flat over tea and scones, the young American absorbed in the vexations of Christian claims to Christ’s uniqueness and universality, on the one hand, and religious pluralism, on the other, the good Right Rev. Dr. Professor listening attentively, maintaining a poignant silence that respected his mentee’s process. When the pastor left Scotland, he asked his mentor for a copy of prayers James Whyte had offered during worship at the Hope Park Church in St. Andrews. Each of the prayers was as thing of beauty. Each began with a quotation from the Book of Psalms.

James Whyte’s spirituality echoes that of an old Hasidic Rabbi (Barukh of Medzebozh [1757-1811]) reflecting on Psalm 119.

“I live as an alien in the land;
do not hide your commandments from me”
– Psalm 119:19

Rabbi Barukh of Medzebozh said of this psalm:

“The one who life drives into exile and who comes to an alien land has nothing in common with the people there and has no one to talk to. But if a second stranger appears, even though that person may come from quite a different place, the two can confide in each other. And had they not both been strangers, they would never have known such a close relationship. That is what the psalmist means: ‘You, even as I, are a sojourner on earth and have no abiding place for your glory. So do not withdraw from me, but reveal your commandments, that I may become your friend.”
– Martin Buber, <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Tales-Hasidim-Early-Masters-Later/dp/0805209956(

” title=”Link to information on Tales of the Hassidim”>Tales of Hassidim – the Early Masters.

Thanks you, James Whyte, good and faithful servant and friend of God the Stranger. RIP.

4 thoughts on “God the Stranger

    • Hi, Emily, hope all is well with you and the family out there in the East. Thank you for reading this and for your comment. He was a very special man. Merry Christmas to you, Joe, and those three beautiful children.

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  1. Seems to me after reading this, that retribution and vengeance are quite synonymous…and therefore the verse in the Bible that says “Vengeance is mine saith the Lord; I shall repay.” means it is not our choice to make or do..

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    • Karin, Yes, retribution is the act of vengeance, the urge to “get even” or worse. I think what the verse is about is keeping retribution out of human hands. It is a divine prerogative, not a human one. In other words, “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” snatches the right of vengeance from our talons. It does not mean that God is vengeful or that God will repay. I think! But, as I said at the beginning of this piece, “I ‘know’ less and less of what I used think I knew.”

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