Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Planting Good Seed in a Time of Terror

Scripture for the third Sunday of Easter includes Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 116: 1-3, 10-17; I Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35

I find this Gospel story from the road to Emmaus deeply satisfying.

To start with, it presents Jesus Christ as our companion in pilgrimage. We’re always on our way somewhere, and so is he. There will be times when he comes near us and journeys with us. We may or may not notice him, recognize him. He may or may not help us recognize him: he may play us on the line the way he did those two disciples. They were hooked in dialogue with him, but he kept on feeding them all the line they needed to swim in great figure eights under his boat until, exhausted, they’re landed and he pulls out of their pitiable mouths the sharp hook of their grief and frees them.

I know, I just turned that into a fish story. You don’t have to hear it that way to find it satisfying.

But it’s that disconnect between the disciples and their familiar teacher that’s so fascinating, isn’t it? He draws near to them, but he sees no spark of awareness in their eyes, which are glassed-over by pain and loss. Is he unrecognizable because of his three days of torture, assassination, and harrowing of hell? Could be, though Luke doesn ‘t invite us to go there.

Quite simply, Jesus calls them out of their tomb by a most superficial question, “What are you talking about?”

Then comes the delicious moment when they answer, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who doesn’t know?”

“Know what?” he plays along.

Then comes the part that later must have caused these two to slap their foreheads: they lay it all out to him, what he has just gone through, and along the way they drop a few clues about their own short-sightedness. They call him a prophet, not the highest opinion of him in the circle of their peers (Peter, early on, knew that he was the Messiah, the anointed one of God). They tuck in their own disappointment (“But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” in other words the Messiah) as if he had somehow flunked the test. And their report of astonishment at the announcement by the women that his tomb was empty reveals how little these men had been paying attention to the promise of God, that justice and lovingkindness will prevail on earth as in heaven.

So, in perfect segue, Jesus upbraids them. “You seem to think that God has failed, that because you are in pain and grief, this suffering of the Messiah should never have happened. How foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe the deep truth of the prophets! Salvation comes in the shadow of judgment. First the Messiah takes on the full freight of human flesh, including suffering and death; then, having crossed through those perils, he is able to lead the human race into his own freedom. You’d rather have it some other way, would you? Like, God aiming the turret gun of his tank right at the imperial throne and blasting the powers of oppression to smithereens? That is so old, so lame, don’t you see that? These three dark days show God suffering with you, for you, to build in you a power that will leave human violence in the dust, the power of spirit and truth transcendent over terror and all that terror teaches.”

This Gospel could help us consider the recurring headline of this past week, America’s finding and killing Osama bin Laden. I’m not sure I can explain why, but I find these two disciples good companions as I try to make sense of what has happened. Maybe it’s because their story brings into focus a powerful history of suffering that can be told in different ways, from very different points of view, and on that road to Emmaus those viewpoints are brought into dialogue. And much to the point, that dialogue reveals two distinctly opposite understandings of power. Our Lord Jesus facilitates this dialogue and enters it fully. So must we.

You could say that the disciples enroute to Emmaus represent everyman and his instincts. You could also rightly say that they were representatives of the Church in its very first generation. In a sense, Luke the Gospel writer operates somewhat like a journalist, thrusting a microphone to the mouths of these men on the street.

Had a reporter done that to me last week, as happened doubtless to countless religious representatives around the world, with the question, “How do you respond to the killing of Bin Laden?”, I think I might have said—and still will say—that I am torn between the requirement of justice, satisfied that it finally caught up with this mass murderer, and on the very terms which he himself required by his outlaw way of daring us to find him. And, on the other hand, tearing apart that satisfaction is my certainty that if this midnight raid fulfills any holy scripture, it is that they who live by the sword will die by the sword.

Painfully, I have to apply that to us as well as to Osama bin Laden. When I do, I recognize that by spilling his blood we have forged one more link in the ancient chain of retribution, and that chain, now heavier by one more (and universally known) act of violence, weighs down the whole human race in bondage to the power of the iron fist. A verse of our psalm today echoes eerily when cast in the present tense, “ The cords of death entangle us; the grip of the grave takes hold of us; we come to grief and sorrow” as violence begets violence.

In a more perfect scenario, Bin Laden would have been captured, and perhaps killed nonetheless, by operatives of a Muslim nation, not by armed Americans; and with that, the ancient chain could have had its last link snapped apart, the otherwise endless dynamics of blame snuffed out, and the glory of martyrdom denied this man of violence. But we know too well that the Pakistani army would have no part in that dream scenario. Quite to the opposite, they appear to have been playing both ends of a game that resembles more a nightmare of deception and treachery.

It’s truly impressive how our intelligence community and our Navy Seals broke through the subterfuge and found the engineer of 9/11.

We’re discovering that there are differing narratives about what happened in that midnight raid. One early telling of the story suggested that a very different outcome was attempted, capturing Bin Laden rather than killing him. We’ll never know whether that could have resulted in more—or less—deterrence of terrorism.

We’re surely hoping that intelligence gained from computers seized in the raid, and what may be learned from Bin Laden’s wives, will hasten the disintegration of Al Qaeda. But I can’t help thinking that what I know about crabgrass gives me useful metaphors for understanding Al Qaeda: even with the measures I take to counter it, that pest is going to spring up along borders and will flourish in tricky patches that will keep its seed blowing in the wind long after I’m gone. In addition to countering it, my best intelligence tells me to plant good seed, healthy, hearty, desired grass in the thin spots where, otherwise, poverty ensures a new generation of trouble.

Translated out of the garden and into the world, that would be pre-emptive counter-terrorism that counts less on the iron fist of military action and ratchets-up our resourcing of intelligent foreign aid, out-of-the-box diplomacy, and imaginative re-envisioning of person-to-person initiatives like international youth exchange (though perhaps it’s we older adults who ought to be exchanging with one another, less likely to be mistaken as special operatives or spies) and what a 21st-century version of a Peace Corps would look like. There must be other examples of planting good seed, and we need to find them.

In an age when religion divides the peoples of the earth more and more sharply, followers of Jesus must freshly hear “the things about himself in all the scriptures”, paying close attention to those which make our hearts burn within us, never being surprised when these involve the breaking of bread, the sharing of resources, the open hand of what the apostle calls “genuine mutual love” which wields a surprisingly more resilient and liberating power than the iron fist.

That this is true is not because we wish it were, but because, as Jesus reveals to his roadside disciples, and as the apostle echoes, the God who created the universe “judges all people impartially according to their deeds,” and counters the futile ways inherited from our ancestors by extending to all the precious self-offering of Christ, freeing us to be “born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring Word of God.”