Thursday, April 26, 2007

Forgive But Not Forget

“Not again,” were the thoughts and whispers uttered by so many on Monday, April 16th after finding out about the rampage shooting at Virginia Tech. A student who was described as “strange,” and a “loner” by roommates carried out his vengeful plan of hate and violence, killing 32 others before turning the gun on himself. By now the story is old news and many have moved on to the next media story. But for 33 families who lost a loved one that day, the Virginia Tech campus, and so many others connected to this tragedy, life has changed. The grieving process has begun, but the questions and pain will remain for many years to come.
While responses have varied, the notion of ‘not again’ speaks to our growing realization that violence on school campuses is not going away. According to the website, “infoplease,” which lists “A Time Line of Recent World Wide School Shootings,” ( over 15 school shootings have occurred within the last two years alone, and 46 since 1996. More than 50 people in the US have been shot and killed in school-related violence in the last two years. As we continue to mourn and process this latest shooting at Virginia Tech, we cannot help asking tough questions of ourselves, our society, our laws and our God.
We question school security policies, gun control, mental health laws, and new measures to protect ourselves and our children wherever we go. Out of our grief, fear, anger and pain, we look for some one or some thing to blame that can be fixed, so that this cannot happen ever again. We want someone else to take responsibility for something that could not be predicted or controlled. And since we cannot punish the shooter, we question God as well, asking how a loving God could let this happen.
Feeling the emotions of grief, sadness, fear, anger, and confusion are normal and good when we express and deal with them in the appropriate ways. All of us get angry at times, but reacting from a place of anger (regardless of what action we take-yelling, hitting, fighting, throwing things) makes us no better than those who would pick up a weapon and do harm.
For Christians the bar of behavior has been raised high. Ephesians 4:26 says, “do not let the sun go down on your anger” and “put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger” (4:31) in order to forgive as Christ has forgiven. We are instructed to deal with our anger swiftly so that it does not “consume” and “devour” us (Hosea 11:6). After the shooting in Pennsylvania last October in an Amish school, the country was shocked by the swiftness of the Amish community’s response of forgiveness for the shooter. Maybe that is exactly the Christian response because it may be the only way to prevent the anger and fear and pain from destroying us too.
The Gospel of John recounts a story about a woman accused of adultery that was brought to the temple by the Pharisees in their attempt to trap Jesus in heresy. They confront Jesus with the woman saying that the Mosaic (or Jewish) law states that punishment for an adulteress is death by stoning. We can imagine the angry, tense scene. But Jesus does not react out of fear or anger. He calmly bends down, writing in the sand, saying only, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).
Who among us has never been angry? Never sinned? Who among us can judge one another and God? Jesus’ response in the midst of anger and potential violence is one of compassion and love. Even as he was being crucified on the cross he asked God to forgive his persecutors. While we cannot claim to be Jesus on this earth, we must claim his ways in order to be his disciples. “The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (1 John 4:21). That means that if we claim to be Christian, we must also love and forgive those who use violence.
Because children and youth are the targets and victims of school violence we must affirm that their fears and all of their reactions are real and important. Part of our task as adults is to love them and comfort them through their fears, helping them then understand that even though there is no place that will ever be completely safe we cannot live in fear. Living means taking risks and being exposed to bad things. Our only real security rests in God, and our belief that God will be with us, take care of us and love us no matter what. Giving in to fear or refusing to forgive means that we do not yet trust God enough to handle it.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Violence at Virginia Tech

Such violent and tragic acts are impossible to understand. And finding anything sacred amid the confusion seems difficult right now.

Yet, consider what our first impulse pray for the students and their families, the faculty, staff and everyone involved. In our prayers we invite God to help us make sense of the incomprehensible and to be with those who grieve. The act of prayer is sacred.

In the coming days as the stories of countless students and families are told, watch for how God has been and is at work. The stories, coincidences, and testimonials are part of the fabric of sacred beliefs.

It is normal to question, "Why would God allow this?" And each of us must seek understanding from our faith traditions. But at some point along the faith journey we must also ask, "Why would we allow this?" The moment we realize and accept that we are all connected as humans beings and we are all of sacred worth to God, is a transformational and holy moment.
That's the first step. I'll write about next steps in a future post.

May you find comfort through prayer this week, and may you dwell in the sacred as you struggle with the secular.



Saturday, April 14, 2007

Not my idea of an Easter Sermon

A friend sent me the article below from the NY Times. My comments follow.

April 7, 2007
Guest Columnist
An Easter Sermon
Jesus knew viral marketing.
In the Gospel of Mark, the disciple John complains that nondisciples are selling bootlegged copies of Jesus' miraculous powers. "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us."
Jesus tells John to quit obsessing about the intellectual property and to focus on getting the brand out. "Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me." Jesus adds, "Whoever is not against us is for us."
Fast-forward two millennia. Weeks after 9/11, George Bush says roughly the opposite. His famous "You're either with us or against us" means that those who don't follow his lead will be considered enemies. The rest is history. Today, Jesus has more than a billion devoted followers. Mr. Bush has ... well, fewer than that.
The religious left — yes, there is such a thing — complains that Mr. Bush ignores the Bible's moral injunctions. But leave morality aside. If he could just match the Bible's strategic savvy, that would make a world of difference.
Consider a teaching of Jesus that seems on its surface devoid of strategic import. "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."
Christians often cast this verse as innovative, a sharp break from Jesus' Jewish tradition. But the same idea can be found in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), and here it is clear that the point of the kindness is to thwart the enemy: "If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads."
Coals of fire? As the editors of the New Oxford Annotated Bible explain, submitting to this treatment was an Egyptian ritual that "demonstrated contrition." (And how!) "The sense here seems to be that undeserved kindness awakens the remorse and hence conversion of the enemies."
Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't. It's unlikely that sending Osama bin Laden a Hallmark card would induce paroxysms of self-doubt. Still, there are other ways that reining in hatred can hurt your enemy's cause.
Suppose, for example, you were nurturing a nascent religious movement in the Roman Empire, and your antagonists welcomed excuses to harass you. Suppose, that is, you were the Apostle Paul. When Paul preaches kindness to enemies, he uses not the formulation found in the Gospels, but the one from the Hebrew Bible, complete with the coals of fire.
Of course, Mr. Bush is more in the shoes of the Roman emperor than of Paul. America isn't a small but growing religious movement. It's a great power threatened by a small but growing religious movement — radical Islam. But the logic can work both ways. Great powers, by mindlessly indulging retributive impulses, can give fuel to small but growing religious movements. If you want to deprive jihadists of ammunition, make it hard for them to persuade others to hate us.
Right after Paul espouses kindness to enemies, he adds: "Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good." Sounds like naïve moralizing until you look at those Abu Ghraib photos that have become Al Qaeda recruiting posters.
The key distinction is between man and meme. Yes, a great power can always kill and torment enemies, and, yes, there will always be times when that makes sense. Still, when you're dealing with terrorists, it's their memes — their ideas, their attitudes — that are Public Enemy No. 1. Jihadists are hosts for the virus of hatred, and the object of the game is to keep the virus from finding new hosts.
The Internet is fertile ground for memes, and jihadists are good at getting the brand out. One of the few things Osama bin Laden has in common with the Jesus of the Gospels is belief in the power of viral marketing.
The ultimate in viral marketing was Jesus' ultimate sacrifice. Deemed a threat to the social order, he was crucified under Roman auspices. But the Romans forgot one thing: If you face a small but growing movement that threatens the imperial order, you shouldn't attack the men in ways that help the memes.
Mr. Bush says his favorite philosopher is Jesus. One way to show it would be to spend less time repeat- ing the mistake of the Romans and more time heeding the wisdom of Christ.

Okay, so it's some pretty watered down theology, but the best point of the piece is:
If you want to deprive jihadists of ammunition, make it hard for them to persuade others to hate us.

Bush did not create the climate of hatred toward Americans…we all did that all by ourselves in the last 200 years. Certainly, the President has done nothing to help our image, and has done much to promulgate the stereotypes.
And for a country that takes such pride in free, democratic elections we seem to have a disconnect between that ideal and the reality that money and political connections drive campaigns and candidates. Don't forget that Bush was elected (not once but twice) in our system of elections. "We the people" put him into power (even though we may argue that point, that is how others see us).

And really, if you are going to quote Scriptures about kindness and love for enemies, then isn't that article the wrong approach/attitude to take with regard to Bush? Does "practice what you preach" sound familiar?
Hopefully I'm not the only one who sees some hypocrisy there.

Rather than bashing Bush for not being more like Jesus, how about being Jesus-like to Bush? It starts with each of us in our own hearts and homes. Attacking the other guy for "attacking the other guy" makes no sense even though it is popular. We would all do better to live by Jesus teachings, especially about pointing out the speck in someone else's eye while ignoring the log in our own. Why not begin a campaign of prayer for Bush? Or a call to accountability through support, solutions, and modeling the Judeo-Christian values that we are so quick to spout about (but have a hard time living)?