Rev. Davidson Bidwell-Waite
In the name of God, in whom we trust.
Looking forward a couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking about the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 that we will remember in our service Sunday after next, and about the film I will be showing here on the Friday evening before. It’s called Long Night’s Journey Into Day and it’s a documentary about the work of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Truth & Reconciliation Commission of South Africa.
The two are linked in my mind because they both represent a response to anger, dehumanization and vilification. For Al Qaeda, western civilization and the US in particular are oppressors, controlling the world economically and imposing our decadent culture on them through the Medusa of the media with its many channels of influence. In South Africa, the Apartheid system imposed oppressive segregation on every aspect of life. Value was determined by the whiteness of one’s skin, the culture was white-centric and opportunities to enjoy the countries’ vast wealth were very limited for non-whites.
By the way, I still remember, from my childhood in the South, segregated bathrooms and drinking fountains and busses and theaters and restaurants, and I also have fond memories of my black nanny.
In Apartheid South Africa, coloreds (those of mixed race) and blacks, being denied a place at the table, grew increasingly angry and as a result vilified whites as oppressors. Similarly, I have seen a number of documentaries in which young Muslims at university feel disrespected by the West and excluded from a place at the world’s table. Especially in the countries where there is a western military presence or their government is manipulated either by our government or our corporations for “US interests”, there is anger; we are seen as oppressors; and there is vilification.
The inevitable result of this dynamic is dehumanization – a state where one no longer sees the unique human in the other but rather sees a generalized position. When fear is added to the mix, we see only a threat and a stereotype. Large groups of people become “terrorists” or “infidels” or simply “collateral damage.”
So, with all that in mind, as I read the Lectionary for this Sunday, a verse from Paul’s Letter to the Romans that we heard earlier really jumped out at me. The phrase was “hate what is evil”. How many of us think “evil”, when we think about the men who flew those planes full of terrified, innocent passengers into buildings filled with other equally terrified and innocent people. It’s hard for me to visualize the 8 children who were on a field trip onboard American Flight 77 that slammed into the Pentagon without thinking vengeful thoughts. “Hate what is evil”.
Long Night’s Journey Into Day opens with the story of Amy Biehl, the pretty, blond Fullbright scholar from Stanford, who was an anti-apartheid activist doing graduate work at the University of the Western Cape. Amy had driven a friend home to the township of Gugguletu outside Cape Town when a black mob pelted her car with stones and smashed its windows while shouting racial epithets. Amy was struck in the head with a brick, then dragged from her car and surrounded by a mob who stoned and stabbed her to death while she begged for her life.
Again, Paul exhorts: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” Paul – are you serious?
Four of Amy Biehl's murderers were convicted for her killing. However, in 1998, all were pardoned by South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And Linda and Peter Biehl, Amy's parents, supported the release of the killers. There was grace at work.
This segment of the film is about the road that Peter and Linda traveled from anger and pain and vilification to a place of such deep compassion and trust in God that they were able to see the human being who had done this heinous act, and to reconcile with him.
The families whose stories are told in Long Night’s Journey Into Day were subjected to callous acts of brutality, not in single acts like 9/11, but in persistent, bone-grinding acts of violence and degradation that increased as their angry counter-response increased. It was a vicious cycle, yet after the Apartheid government fell, they were brought to a place, through the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where they could see the underlying humanity in the perpetrators; where they could be released from the anger and pain that had shackled them and deprived them of the enjoyment of life; where they could – as they say in South Africa – “regain their humanity”.
Again, Paul writes “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.”
In the aftermath of 9/11, The Most Reverend Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote a monograph entitled “Writing in the Dust” as a meditation on how we and the world might react to the terrorist acts. His image was that of Jesus writing in the dust after confronting the crowd who wanted to stone a woman for adultery. – “Let he who has no sin be the first to cast the stone.”
Rowan Williams writes: “The day after, there was a phone call from Wales, from one of the news programs, and I faced a dilemma. The caller started speaking in Welsh, which I understand without difficulty, but don’t always find it easy to use in an unscripted and possibly rather complex discussion. I had to decide: if I answered in Welsh, the conversation would go on in Welsh, and I had some misgiving about coping with it.
I am spoken to: I have some choices about how to answer.
It seemed a telling metaphor at the time. Violence is a communication, after all, of hatred, fear, or contempt, and I have to decide about the language I am going to use to respond. If I decide to answer in the same terms, that is how the conversation will continue.
How many times have we heard someone say: ‘It’s the only language they understand’ to defend a violent reaction to violent acts?”
The Archbishop was advocating for a pause to discern; to listen for the voice of God; to create a void which the Holy Spirit might fill. Instead, 26 days later we began the aerial bombardment of Afghanistan and the following year we invaded Iraq. 10 years later, our children under high school age cannot remember a world in which we were not at war. For the past decade, we have been driving ourselves ever deeper into debt seeking to make ourselves secure, and yet security seems evermore elusive. And today we will honor 60 more young soldiers who forfeited their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq in the belief that they were working for a safer and better world.
Again, Paul writes “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;” and “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
At the end of the trial of Amy’s murderers, Peter Beihl shook the murderers' hands, stating that; “The most important vehicle of reconciliation is open and honest dialogue…we are here to reconcile a human life which was taken without an opportunity for dialogue. When we are finished with this process, we must move forward… with linked arms.” I hope you will come on Friday the 9th to learn about and discuss this amazing and life-affirming process.
Nora Gallagher, in her article “Forgiveness” on the work of the Truth & Reocnciliation Commission quotes a psychologist who worked with the TRC saying: “when you forgive a person, you restore that person to his or her humanity. This is done because the forgiving person understands that he or she could have committed the same crime. You understand you could have done it yourself.
Not all those who were granted amnesty received forgiveness, but all parties agreed to reconcile, meaning that they agreed to engage with the other moving forward, without hostility, emotional violence or resentment; to set aside any stereotypes they may have imposed on them; to listen with openness; and to continue to tell the truth.
One of the commentaries describes the theme of Paul’s Letter to the Romans in this way: “The tempering of violence and revenge in hostile human relationships is less an act of human love, than it is the fruit of a trust that has learned to rely on God’s impartial love for all.”
How many wars have been fought in the belief that “God is on our side”. Obviously, God cannot be not on both sides, and with doubt is not on either side. This goes for individual relationships as well.
Again, Paul writes: "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." No, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Sadly, I do not have any suggestions about how we should do this with Al Qaeda, but one place to start opening ourselves to the possibilities the Holy Spirit might present is to do some introspection…not only about our government and specifically things done in our name , but also the corporations who, for so much of the world, are the face and voice America. Whether or not we agree with them , we are held accountable for their acts. I suggest that you measure them – our government and our corporations, many of whom are our employers, against the admittedly high standard Paul sets out in this passage from Romans.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord. If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
In the name of God, who shows no partiality. Amen
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