When I heard about the Boston marathon bombings — it happened via TV in a North Dakota seniors’ residence my wife’s parents live in — tears lept to my eyes and that terrible, familiar taste of 9/11 rage rose up inside. This time there was no creepy Osama bin Laden character to blame. Two young guys, foreign yes but also so American and seemingly with so much to live for, had done this.
My tears were about the place — Boston, where my father grew up and near where I for a time attended college — and about the venue, the Boston marathon. I’ve run three marathons, though none in Boston, and can say that of all sporting events a marathon is the most meaningful to me. A pair of tennis shoes and an entry fee give anyone the option to run a marathon. It is a race not against others but against one’s own limitations. And it celebrates not speed as much as endurance, the ability to simply finish what one starts. It is a beautiful, though sometimes (I speak from experience here) painful event. Crossing that finish line is nearly as awesome for the last runner as it is for the first. “I did it! I ran a marathon!!”
A celebration of life, a sport for everyman and everywoman, was short-circuited by two young men’s heartless acts of violence.
I am haunted by the power of stories.
The runners, the bystanders, and those watching on Boston television shared in a story of endurance, sunlight, joy and enthusiasm. Two men shared a story about their god, their righteous cause, and the power of two kettle bombs to defeat a nation.
Which story was true? Which was the lie?
Eight year old Martin Richard was “defeated” — that is, his life was robbed from him and his presence taken viciously from those who loved him. What story in the bombers’ heads explained such a contingency?
Honestly, I don’t think such possibilities even entered these two brothers’ heads. Their story was as simple as a badly constructed video game, the only real climax to it coming via maximum damage done to the most innocent bystanders possible. Such a story makes goodness and chaos indistinguishable. It is a story of power, power at the expense of human tenderness or hope or life. Strategically, it is the equivalent of a malevolent teen-ager walking up to a Mother Grizzly Bear and jabbing it with a cub scout knife; the bear’s response is predictable. One bomber died, the other’s life is in ruins and quite possibly will also be forcibly ended by the nation he presumed to conquer. (One needn’t favor capital punishment to observe the probability of this “remedy” of nation-states to such assaults.)
We all live by the narrative. We understand things in narrative form; we accept some meanings and reject others. And here’s the scary part. If we’re not careful, we begin tailoring every experience, every encounter with fact, every other person’s story, so that our story always remains “on top,” the TRUE story.
These two young men were suckers. They bought into a twisted home-made version of religion — unrecognizable to mainstream Muslims (see my interview with Hoda Elsharkawi). Their story required them to ignore the humanity of others, to ignore the teachings of the faith they said they held, to embrace violence at the hands of men as synonymous with righteousness. It was as illogical and heartless as the rapist who justifies his deeds on the basis of love.
Stories are necessary. I believe in the Gospel story as the North Star to all good stories. Jesus is at the center of all I understand as “good” or “right.” But his righteousness does not belong to me as something I “own” — it is an alien, “imputed” (that is, “given to me by God’s choice”) righteousness. The terrible flaw in these two mens’ narrative was that righteousness was theirs, the bombs instruments of their own righteousness. And in a horrifyingly true way they in fact told the rest of us quite another story with a clear and personally applicable moral.
Beware any story in which one’s own role is that of judge, jury, and executioner of another human being. Some use kettle bombs. Some use smart bombs. Some use weapons of mass destruction (whether they exist or not in reality). Some use — no, we ALL use — words to destroy those we consider “evil.” And in such moments, we are victims of our own badly written, badly conceived, narratives that place us at the heart of righteousness. We are not righteous. Only God, as Jesus (Himself God) noted, is righteous.
Already other destructive stories have begun to emanate from the Boston Bombing. Some from the far-right media, such as the now infamous New York Post article that unjustly accused “two Saudi nationals” of being the bomber (and published their photos), cling to the anti-Islamic narrative no matter what. No apology is offered, because their narrative does not require the righteous to apologize to the “evil others” they see everywhere. Others even further right (and probably left as well) are suggesting the bombings were in fact the work of the American Government. (Alex Jones, anyone?) The old 9/11 conspiracy theories recycled… and why?
We need an evil other in our story. We need someone we can hate. We need to believe our own lives are rooted in the good, the righteous.
Christianity is shocking in, among many other things, its assault on such stories. “None is righteous, no not one. Human works are as filthy menstrual rags to God.” Does that sound like you — or like I — own righteousness?
The story of the cross is a story that requires us to surrender our self-righteousness. If we Christians cannot see that, we of all people are blind guides, surpassing the Pharisees of Jesus’ day in every way.
Our story must not be about righteousness, but rather about the sharing of our failure and our struggle to embrace the righteousness and goodness of He we say we love. His death via grace brings us into the kingdom of God, but it does not give us our own little story of being right. It instead takes such a tale away from us, categorically and irrevocably.
When Jesus said “take up your cross and follow me,” he was not merely speaking metaphorically. The death to self required of us involves primarily our stories! The rugged western male who saves the town from the bad guys… the story of American goodness. That story is not of God, but of men. The pure follower of Allah who blows up innocent children, women, and men… he honors neither God nor the faith he presumes to follow. The relentless cultural barrage of sexual anarchy disguised in story form as “good” (as in both tolerant and morally enlightened even as it demands conformity), is a self-righteous shallowness destructive to the heart and soul.
Christ bids us come follow. “Master,” the former prostitute but then redeemed lover of God cried out when she saw him risen fresh from the grave. She did not worry about her righteousness. She knew she was known. She loved Him. And such love is the only antidote I know of for those diseased with the misbelief that they have righteousness all to themselves.
The Christian story ends with a crucified, then resurrected God, but leaves open our response. Be sure of this: to follow Christ means letting go of your own story and your own sense of “goodness.” In Him is Goodness for all Eternity.