It is the rare moment for me when I am uncertain about sharing my thoughts (those who know me well know that I live to have an opinion about things). But I have struggled over these last twenty-four hours about whether or not to write what follows. At first, I started to add it only to my private journal. And then I decided to write it where at least a few stout souls might see it. I do not intend what follows as a political commentary; for me, it is a simple answer to a question of faith that I was asked yesterday. I only write these words because over these past days I have come to believe them for my own self.
There are many great moments during a week at seminary, many little “ah-ha’s”, many moments when tangled strands of thought become smooth, when circuit connections are made and the electricity flows unimpeded. And one of those great moments many weeks is that time when we gather in small groups for spiritual formation, each Tuesday morning at 8:15 a.m. I know, the hour is early, but the work of formation starts early in our community. Yesterday, like so many other people gathered in coffee shops and churches and offices, we discussed together the events of the previous day in Boston. There was a lot of talk about how we as people training for church leadership of various kinds might handle the faith and the human issues surrounding such an event…how would we take care of ourselves, how would we care for those in our charge. We talked of emergency plans and how to deal with our own grief, reaching out to see who might need help.
And then we got to the hard topic — what does the church have to say to the world about these kind of events? Not just the “how do bad things happen to good people” question, but the harder questions of what does it really mean when the President makes a speech and promises justice for those who were killed and wounded.
What do we as the church do in that moment? Where do we stand? Do we wrap ourselves in that American Christian identity that inspired so much action in the 20th century and now again in the 21st? To whom does vengeance belong? How can the church be part of an act of human revenge?
There were good answers in the group and some disagreement. Some pointed out that we have long-embedded beliefs about violence and revenge in this society, all of us. And that we as “the church” need to take a long term view to change minds. We cannot wait until an event happens; if we are not working each and every day towards the Kingdom of God here on earth, a Kingdom where love reigns and diversity is so the norm of life that we no longer need the word diversity, we are not doing the job we are called to perform, we are not living the life we are meant to live, we are not being the disciples we are meant to be.
Fast forward my day by a few hours and put me in the car, driving in Washington DC traffic snarled beyond belief by “heightened security measures” on the 14th St. Bridge. Now I am alone, listening to the political experts arguing over the definition of the words “act of terror” on the radio and agreeing that, yes, the events in Boston must be classified as such no matter who created those bombs or what their personal or political agenda might be.
And suddenly, the answer to the question of the morning, “What should be our response to these events as people of faith” became clear. Well, not immediately clear…but more clear.
The images in my mind’s eye as I listened to those experts argue were simply this: I was again standing in the cathedral in Nuremberg, looking at the pictures of the devastation created by the bombing of Nuremberg during World War II; I was in the rebuilt Frauenkirche in Dresden, looking at the pictures of the destruction created by the fire bombing of Dresden.
Yes, I know — the standard definition of an “act of terror” is one committed by a non-governmental group or individual. Yes, I know that there is such a thing as international law that supposedly governs the behavior of governments at war. That definition is not good enough for me as a Christian. Do you honestly think that a German family huddled in a bomb shelter in Dresden on that fateful night really cared where the bomb that destroyed everything above them came from or whether or not it was properly sanctioned by international law? What about the mother and her children in Iraq on the night we decided to unleash “shock and awe,” or the Israeli family huddled in their bomb shelter as their city is sprinkled with rockets from the Palestinian territory, or the family celebrating a wedding in Afghanistan who see their festivities and some of their lives brought to an end by the arrival of a silent, deadly drone attack?
I think of these things and I realize that the only possible Christian response comes so clearly through the words of Confession in the Book of Common Prayer:
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. In fact, we have thought ourselves to be more important than our neighbors; our comfort, our security, our homeland, our children. And we have done all of that in Your Name. And so, the real response to all of this violence, to all of this killing, is to remember that we are not better or more important or more precious than the person who placed that bomb, for whatever reason.
Because we have failed to stop the dropping of bombs.
Because we have failed to welcome the stranger.
Because we have failed to feed the hungry.
Because we have failed to say no to the violence.
I have failed. I’m willing to admit it. I have left so much undone. I have allowed violence to be done in my name.
We are neither victors nor victims. We, like all the rest of the humans on this planet, are violent and more willing to fight than love.
As leaders of the church, maybe the very first step is to admit all of this, and then we must do all that we can to change that. We must remember that terror is terror, and our hands as a people are not clean. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. And then, and only then, might there be a time when we can look back and say, “Remember when things like that day in Boston used to happen all the time?”