This past Friday evening, George Takei was preparing for a performance of his musical which opened on Broadway a few days ago, a very personal story of the terrible price George and his family paid for being of Japanese ancestry and living in America during World War II.
On hearing of the attacks in Paris, Mr. Takei wrote: “…I’m writing this backstage at Allegiance, my heart heavy with the news from Paris, aching for the victims and their families and friends.
My friend Aziz Abu Sarah, who, like George, spends his life urging peace and building bridges to span the gaps separating people around the world, and whose family has also paid a very heavy price through years of terror and oppression, had this to say: “Two days of ongoing terrible news… From Beirut to Paris, bombs, murder and dozens of victims. Its another heartbreaking day.”
My lifelong “older brother” in spirit, Ahmed, said this in his email to my parents yesterday morning: “We are all distressed as Paris has become our home .… I am flying there on Friday unless the borders are closed. France has been openly at war with Islamists for a number of years and terrorist attacks were expected. But they can never be predicted or controlled. I expect life in France will change following the latest carnage.”
Ahmed’s wife, Lena, who is in Paris at the moment, posted this on Facebook yesterday: “Tears this morning. With a very heavy heart I start the day.”
All of these people have labored their whole lives to bring peace and justice into this world. They’ve all worked diligently against poverty, oppression, despair and injustice. They have all taken firm and often costly stands against the dehumanization of “The Other” that lies at the heart of these attacks. Some of them are hurt and despairing, as you heard. But I think I can give voice to what lies in all of their hearts by quoting this from Mr. Takei’s message:
“There no doubt will be those who look upon immigrants and refugees as the enemy as a result of these attacks, because they look like those who perpetrated these attacks, just as peaceful Japanese Americans were viewed as the enemy after Pearl Harbor. But we must resist the urge to categorize and dehumanize, for it is that very impulse that fueled the insanity and violence perpetrated this evening.”
Now. let’s skip back 1400 years, to a time when England was a collection of little Kingdoms, almost 300 years before they would be united under King Alfred the Great and his heirs.
It is a dark and violent time. Human sacrifice is not unknown. Wars raged across the landscape, plagues and famines were common. Each of the little kingdoms consisted of small towns and villages surrounded by little farms, connected by the crumbling remnants of ancient Roman roads.
In that time, Christian missionaries had been wandering throughout the land for about half a century, going from one isolated settlement to another, bringing the Word of God to the people. This morning’s reading from Bede’s History is the most vibrant and colorful record we have of one of these evangelism efforts.
It is very clear that those who listened to Paulinus’s teachings were not concerned with comfort or redemption in this world. What they wanted is some assurance that their life was not futile, doomed to a dark and empty end. They wanted a reason to be hopeful, a reason to not despair.
We see this in the words of one of the King Edwin’s chief men, who said “Our life upon earth, O king, seems to me to be like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the hall where we sit to eat in winter: Fire blazes in the hearth and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging outside. The sparrow, flies in one door and immediately out at another. While within the hall, it is safe from the wintry tempest; but after a short time of warmth in the hall, it vanishes from our sight, passing out into the wintry storm again. So too our lives appear for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all. Therefore, if this new doctrine tells us something more certain, it deserves to be followed.”
This man was concerned with what comes after this life, not what happens in it.
Coifi, Edwin’s High Priest, was already filled with despair. His faith promised that serving the gods well would be rewarded in this life; but, his devotion had not been answered. In his own eyes, his status as High Priest, a position of great power and influence, meant nothing. It was all a fraud.
Once he heard Paulinus’s words, Coifi eagerly volunteered to violate sacred custom by taking up weapons, and mounting on a stallion. He rode to his own temple and threw a spear into it, desecrating it; then burned all of the idols, the temple, and everything associated with it.
So, what does this all have to do with the attacks in Paris and Beirut, and with the many other horrors and atrocities we’ve witnessed in recent months?
This can be answered in our reading from Mark, where Jesus tells his disciples, in his last day of ministry, that no worldly component of their faith would endure – all of the temple’s stones would be thrown down, not one left upon another; and earthquakes, wars and plagues would destroy everything they knew. In another scripture from today’s lectionary, which we have not read this morning, the author of the Book of Hebrews wrote that “Christ has offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins … he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified … I will remember their sins and lawless deeds no more. Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.”
In times of great loss and hurt, assuring folks that God’s grace will redeem the pain – eventually – is hardly adequate. Assuring people that God is with them, even in these darkest of times, rings hollow when it is your child who was executed by a gunman in Paris, or when it is your family who died in a bombing in Beirut, or when you are recovering from being stabbed in Jerusalem, or shot at a church prayer meeting in Charleston, SC.
The author of Hebrews says there is but a single sacrifice for all sins for all time – not one for us who are already sanctified, and then a different one later on for those terrorists who repent. All of us – terrorist and victim alike – are part of the same family of God; our omnipotent and omnipresent God who sees past, present and future as one. With such a God, only one sacrifice is needed.
George Takei asks us to not dehumanize or categorize others in our rush to inflict justice upon those whom we think are guilty. He points out that it is exactly that sort of thinking that creates such tragedies in the first place, whether in Paris, or Beirut, or Jerusalem, or Roseberg OR, or Charleston SC.
In light of such terrible events, how do we respond? All of those whom I quoted at the start of this message are despairing, at least for the moment, as are we. We all know brutal attacks such as this will happen again – and we must acknowledge that we as a nation are guilty of engaging in similar brutality ourselves – usually in the name of “security.” Such things will not end any time soon.
Jesus’ words in Mark confirm that no matter how much effort we devote to security, no matter how powerful and grand our faith or military or societal institutions become, they will all eventually fail. In other words, trying to perfect this world in our own strength is futile, as those ancient Anglo Saxons knew all too well. So we, like they, see only despair in our future.
It is in our nature to reject those who are different; to marginalize those who threaten “the established order”. We may be justified in condemning those who hurt us, but are we seeing them as God sees them? Will punishing them heal the deep chasms of pain and hurt that separate us one from another, or which cause us to see whole nations of people as terrorists because of the sins of a few?
Given all this pain in which our lives are mired, how can we love others as God loves them, and as God loves us?
Let us be clear: there is no magic wand that will make everything in this life better. God is not going to come down and make it as if we – meaning all of us – never made all of the mistakes (and good decisions) we’ve made that have gotten us to this point. We cannot escape responsibility for what we’ve done to each other, or to God’s Creation.
The command to love our neighbor means acknowledging this, and so embracing compassion for ourselves and others as a way of life. It means conscientiously making room for “The Other” – for those who are different from us. We can begin by opening our minds and our hearts to what they have to say. “Loving our neighbor” drives us to encourage dialog.
By tearing down our own physical and spiritual walls – walls that Jesus warns us will eventually crumble or be destroyed anyway, we demonstrate to our neighbors that it is safe to come out from behind the similar walls they’ve built to protect themselves. We must clearly show that the Love of God within us drives us to love all of God’s children; and that means loving those who hurt us, too. [In fact, as a member of my congregation pointed out, in Luke 10:25-37, Jesus’ statement of the two great Commandments is immediately followed by the story of the Good Samaritan, which is a story that is very much about loving ones’ enemies: we are therefore commanded to love our enemies.]
It is too late and too much for us to reach out to those who have committed the barbaric attacks in Paris, but it is not too late or too much to think of reaching out to their families and communities – which themselves are in great pain – reaching out to them without judgment or condemnation.
Explicitly making room for “The Other” means we will be proactive, not reactive, in sharing God’s love. And, when Jesus said “Love your Neighbor,” he did not limit that command with any qualifications as to whom we should love.
The reason God will not fix the world for us is that we have been explicitly tasked with building the Kingdom of God here, ourselves. We are the Body of Christ, still present and active in the Creator’s world, as we have always been, and will always be. Therefore, it is our task to continue the mission of Christ here in this world. We are called not to succeed, but merely to do our best: to not give up, even when the times are dark. There will always be those who are hurting and will hurt others, no matter how hard we try to prevent them from being agents of pain.
Our God knows this, which is why we are promised Grace and reminded that God’s promises are far better than those of any human being. We do what we can, we will love as best we can, even if we can love only a little, or from a distance, through our pain if necessary. God has promised to do the rest, and will give us hope no matter how much we despair.
Love always requires relationship, and relationship requires communication and respect, which in turn means we must demonstrate that we are open to being changed by our relationships-with (and our love-for) The Other.
This does not mean we should unilaterally open ourselves up for more terrorism. That’s just stupidity. But it does mean that we need to remember that those who afflict terror upon us are hurting and misguided human beings, just as we are. We need to ask ourselves what will heal the pain we all share. Will retaliating do it? Not likely. Portraying anyone as less than human, even if they’ve done the same to us, and like we did to George Takei and his family, or like many have done to the Jews, or which some Jews are doing to Palestinians, and as whites have done to blacks for centuries, only prolongs and strengthens the hate. It does not bring peace.
Instead, we must acknowledge their pain while not forgetting our own, we must find ways to bridge the gap, to seek healing together, and to remember that we are all children of the same loving, grieving God.
Life is all too brief. We are born out of the unknown and to the unknown we will return. Our faith tells us that God will love and care for us once we pass beyond this life. All we are called to do is to make life as warm and welcoming as we can while that Sparrow flits through the hall, before it returns to the stormy and cold darkness beyond.
It seems fitting to close this message with the words Mr. Takei used to close his own message on Friday evening: “Tonight, hold your loved ones, and pray or wish for peace, not only from guns and bombs, but from hatred and fear. If it is our freedom and joy they seek to destroy, give them not that victory. Against the forces of darkness and terror, love and compassion shall always prevail.”
Copyright (c) 2015, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)