There are many questions that one asks -- and should seek answers for -- regarding the political ramifications of the Boston Marathon Explosions, ranging from public safety to civil rights. There is a time and place to ask the political questions. For today, however, I want to take some time to probe some of the religious questions that are lingering in the days and weeks after the Boston Marathon Explosion.
I am mindful of the fact that many of us are still in process of grief, and for some of us there are loved ones recovering from injuries still in the hospital. Yet one of the lessons of our religious traditions is that the ease is already provided inside the hardship, that the remedy is inside the pain, and a healing inside the wound.
Taking comfort from that promise, I invite us to sit with a few questions: What are we as people as faith to do in and after the Boston Marathon explosions? This is not so much the question of where is God or where was God, but rather the question of where are we, where do we stand, with whom do we stand, for what do we stand?
Needless to say, those questions presuppose the fundamental question of who we are. How wide is our circle of "We"? What does "we" mean where the illusion of separatedness in this world is shattered for better and worse, and "over there" and "over here" are blended into one planet?
In the very midst of the explosions, we saw that atrocity and beauty, evil and goodness, were all present on full display on that day. We have all seen the horrific images of explosion and resulting carnage. We have all also seen courageous human beings -- truly heroes, if that word has any meaning -- police forces, and first responders, ran not away but toward the explosions to save someone, anyone and everyone that they could. We are reminded of the poem attributed to Rumi:
A dragon attacked an innocent soul.
Everyone ran away,
except for one man who ran to the dragon.
He found his victim wounded and alive, yet puzzled
who asked his savior:
"Why did you come when everyone else ran away?"
The man said: "I came,
because I heard you cry."
These are the real human beings. These are the ones who have figured out what it means to live as God created us to live: to love and serve others, to put others before our own selves.
In Boston, we saw these real human beings: people who rushed toward the injured and the wounded, with no one pausing to ask whether the injured were U.S. citizens or undocumented immigrants, rich or poor, Fox News watchers or NPR listeners, Republican or Democrat, Muslim or Jew, Christian or atheist. We saw real human beings make the courageous decision not to be compassionate by proxy, but to reach out in direct action and compassion towards anyone and everyone they came across.
There was an immediate demand for compassion. The goodness of so many human beings was on display: That divine response which precedes thought, and taps into that something in us which is more luminous than cost/benefit analysis or partisan politics or petty self-interest. That gives me hope. These real human beings confirm my faith in humanity, knowing that even as a few of us human beings are capable of violence, many more of us are inclined towards compassion.
As the event of that Monday confirms my faith in humanity in the very midst of explosion and brutality, much of what I have seen after that concerns and deeply saddens me. It concerns me because of what I have seen as our tendency to focus on the evil rather than seek the good. I don't mean that in the sense of belittling the manhunt to apprehend the suspects, rather in the sense of the obsessed, pre-mature, and speculative national conversation about the two suspected brothers and their motivations. Nor am I even talking about the hateful and zealous conversations from certain media sources that talk about putting Muslim women in prison simply because they choose to cover their hair. Nor yet am I focusing on the egregious conversations about rolling back immigration, nor even the prejudiced comments of elected congressmen who openly advocate racially profiling Muslims not on the basis of what they have done but on the basis of collective guilt. No, I simply mean that we have speculated and focused too much on two suspects that a week ago almost no one had heard about. In the process, we have moved away from the beautiful life and teachings of the victims and the first responders, including the precocious wisdom of the 8-year-old victim Martin Richard: "No More Hurting People. Peace." Our national conversation so far has been drawn more to speculation about violence than to the certainty of good and beauty.
That loving and compassionate self-sacrifice that we saw among so many of the First Responders, civilians and the police force is none other than the very presence of God. In the Christian and the Islamic tradition there is a reminder that God is with the broken-hearted. God is with the suffering and the marginalized. For us today, God is not an entity, this "person" somehow on high, floating on high, beyond the pearly gates. Rather, God is the very manifestation of self-less compassion, of courageous concern with one's fellow human beings. God is the very principle, the "Force," that connects us to every sentient being even as it compels us to a dangerous kind of loving unselfishness. So as to where was God in Boston, we know where to find God: in the sacrifice, in the compassion, in the service, in the reaching out toward the wounded and the suffering.
As to where is God after Boston, that question still has to be answered. And we are the authors of that answer. Part of that challenge is to figure out who the "we" are, and how willing we are to locate ourselves as part of a global network of humanity. Here one has to answer in truth, in compassion and in humility. The world that we have created and participated in is a world that lives with violence as a daily reality. We saw that violence in Boston, in inner-city Chicago, in the unregulated explosion in the Texas factory, in the collapse of the Bangladesh factory, in the drone attacks on Yemen and Afghanistan, in the ongoing occupation in Palestine, in sectarian violence in Pakistan and Iraq, in the ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, and in the ongoing massacre in Syria.
When we listen to the grievances of Muslims worldwide, both the majority who are simply in anguish and the small minority who resort to violence, time and again they identify the same causes. They cite and recite the atrocities of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American drone attacks, and one-sided U.S. support for Israel. Fortunately, we are starting to see more honest grappling with these realities that Muslims have been talking about for years. Recent comments from Tom Brokaw and Glenn Greewald are but two such honest admissions. Here we too must speak, and we must speak with compassion and with truth. And yet we must speak.
Those who have an understanding of the Islamic tradition are already aware of the fact the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad categorically prohibit infliction of violence upon civilian populations. The Prophet himself forbade the killing of non-combatants, of women, of the elderly, of priests and rabbis, of cutting down trees and of poisoning water wells. So my point here is far from justifying the actions of terrorists who come from Muslim background. As I have said previously, these Muslim individuals and groups who utilize violence seek to legitimize their actions through religious action. However, to depict them as embodying the essence of Islam (as Islamophobic forces routinely do) is precisely to grant them the very legitimacy that they crave. They neither possess nor deserve this legitimacy.
However, we cannot simply stop at pointing out the lack of legitimacy in these attacks. We are also called to address the legitimate underlying grievances. There is an important distinction between justification and causation. We, in this case meaning Americans of all backgrounds including Muslims, have to understand that while there is no moral basis on the basis of which atrocities like the Boston Marathon explosion can ever be justified, actions that our government has taken and continues to undertake on a daily basis are complicit in this violence. Our actions abroad are a key factor in causation of these grievances.
Paraphrasing Dr. King's objection to the Vietnam War in the Riverside Church speech, we can never again raise our voice against the violence in Boston without also speaking out against the "greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government." In Boston all of us saw the wanton disregard for human life, and we condemned it. Now is the time for us to confront the violence that the United States (and our allies) inflict on Muslims every day in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Iraq, in Yemen, in Somalia, in Palestine and elsewhere. If the taking of human life is wrong in Boston (and it is), it is wrong everywhere and anywhere, for all of us are caught up in this network of mutuality. All of us are created by the same loving God. Every life is sacred, no matter the soil under its feet or the flag over its head.
People all over the world, and many people inside this country now, see the United States' militarism as reflecting an arrogant military-industrial complex that inflicts violence upon thousands of human beings, primarily Muslims. The usage of drones in Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan serves as a ready recruiting tool for radicalization. As the Yemeni man whose village was droned by the United States said to the U.S. Senate this week: This one American drone attack was more beneficial to al Qaeda in terms of recruiting than years of propaganda had been. Indeed, one need not be a radical to state that these drones, unchecked and uncontested, dropping death sentences from the sky on unsuspecting people is not right. The United States killing more than 100,000 people in Iraq is not right. Driving over a million people to become stateless refugees in Iraq is not right. Occupying other people's land is not right. These actions of the United States humiliate people all over this world, and betray our own lofty principles.
There is a difference between justifying terrorist attacks, and understanding the role that our own government has played in causing grievances that lead to these attacks. There is a difference between explaining terrorist attacks away, and understanding that we as a country have committed actions that create resentment among millions of people in this world. We have become, and have been for a while, not a Republic but an Empire. We spend more on our military than the next 12 countries combined, and we have military bases in more than 100 other countries. No other country in the world behaves this way, and no other country in the world gives itself the right to unilaterally bomb other citizens to death. No one in America would stand for it if China or Russia or another country did that to us, and yet we do precisely that to so many countries every day. It is wrong, it is immoral, and it is past time that we say so and say so clearly.
The United States' actions abroad are a root cause of radicalization. Every Muslim organization in America has condemned the Boston atrocities as they condemned the attacks of 9/11. But it is time for us to move beyond the "we hate and condemn" demand that we put before American Muslims and also ask the question of why the United States government inflicts an even greater violence on civilians worldwide that we rightly condemn in terrorist attacks? If targeting civilian populations is an act of terror, what does that make the United States when we again and again kill civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan?
These are not just political questions; they are also moral, ethical, and religious ones. The answers we provide to them will say a great deal about the health and sanity of our Union, and the compassion of our bond with the rest of humanity. So in light of that concern, let us return to that key question:
Who are "we"?
How do we make sure that the "we" that we seek is not merely Boston, and not merely the United States, but nothing short of the human community? Are we willing to acknowledge that the suffering in Boston is related to the suffering of the victims of American drone attacks, because the humanity in Boston is related to the humanity of those who die under American drones? Are we ready to admit that the shootings in inner-city Chicago is as unacceptable and morally repugnant as the catastrophic devastation of Syria?
Are we were able to expand our circle of concern to encompass the whole of humanity? How far does our love, our care, our compassion extend?
If the circle of our concern encompasses only one individual, it is ego-ism.
If the circle of our concern encompasses only one family, it is nepotism.
If the circle of our concern embraces only one people, it is tribalism.
If the circle of our compassion stops at our national borders, it is selfish nationalism.
If the source of all compassion and all love is none other than the All-Compassionate and All-Loving God, then compassion and love cannot but in return encompass all of that same God's creatures.
Dr. King taught us:
"If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.
No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone, and as long as we try, the more we are going to have war in this world."
[Martin Luther King, "A Christmas Sermon On Peace", Dec. 24, 1967]
What if we saw that the God of Martin Richard and Krystle Campbell and Lu Lingzi and Sean Collier is also the God of the Yemeni and Afghani and Pakistani and Palestinian and Israeli and Iraqi and Iranian children? Are we willing to see beyond the "national loyalties" to acknowledge what has been true all along: that all of their lives are equally precious, and that any attack on any of God's children is an attack on all of us because our humanity is shared?
In woundedness, we can either recoil and strike back, or stretch outward and be healed. We either circle inward and turn on our own to define ever more restrictive definitions of who is "authentically" an American, or we can stretch outwards till we embrace the whole of humanity.
We can respond in vengeance, setting out on the dangerous path which confuses justice and legal accountability with revenge, or we can respond in humility and love, stating that we too have been guilty of wrong-doing to others around the world, that we identify with their grief and suffering as so many now identify with our grief and suffering now.
We are going to redeem ourselves by the way we respond.
We are a wounded nation that responded to the attack with heroism and bravery. On what path do we set out now? Will it be a path of vengeance and revenge, turning against our own Muslim citizens and again at Muslim citizens of Iraq, Afghanistan, maybe Iran? Or do we respond in humility and love, stating that we yearn to be responsible citizens of this shared planet, not an overlord.
The great Persian Muslim poet Rumi has a beautiful line:
The Wound is Where the Light Enters You.
There is a Wound in America's soul. Many of us in this country are now feeling wounded. May it be that we choose a response that is not going to be one of vengeance, that morally weak response which confuses justice with the desire to inflict equal if not greater harm on others. May it be a courageous decision to say that our woundedness is going to be a source of blessing, and where the light enters us. That would be a redemptive response to woundedness.
The choice is ours: Will we inflict wounds on others, or will we open ourselves up for healing, so that the Light can enter us?
That choice is ours. The path that we embark upon will reveal a great deal about who "we" are, and not the values we preach, but the values that we live by.
May it be blessed, God-willing.
May it be Light.
May it be healing.
May every wound be healed.
May every valley be exalted,
and every mountain and hill be made low
May the crooked be made straight,
and the rough places plain.
May every wound be healed,
And the Empire and the victimized come together as brothers and sisters, as real human beings.