Boston Marathon– Lost Innocence?

The Boston Marathon

I love the Boston Marathon. The spirit of the event is a resonant harmony of the freshness of the first warm days, the hope of early-season baseball, the perseverance of the runners, the lift of the cheering crowd, the helpfulness of the marathon volunteers, and the silliness of the soused– all of it wrapped into a ball of  joyful camaraderie that is fully lovely because widely shared. People come together on Marathon Monday in a way that calls forth our better nature: we cheer for each other, instead of harboring hidden envy. Your success is my success; my success is yours. Ubuntu.

Is the bombing really an end of innocence for the Marathon? I remember being in Hopkinton for the start of the race in April 2002, and I remember being on the lookout for suspicious bags and suspicious people. I wasn’t overanxious, afraid, or edgy– I was just aware of my surroundings, having had past trauma re-awakened the previous September. And while I am not a reporter and therefore don’t know this to be true, I imagine that Marathon and city officials rehearse for emergencies. In this era, it would be naive– even negligent– not to prepare for scenarios similar to what happened Monday.

I believe innocence is recoverable; I believe that there always exists the possibility of a second innocence rising up as a green shoot from dead earth. A second innocence will never be as pure as original innocence, but it might be richer: richer because a second innocence knows, and has some kind of working agreement with, the darkness and corruption in life. On the far side of injury, we re-open ourselves to love. We can, and do, begin again.

Perhaps Monday’s bombing was the end of a naivete about the Marathon, rather than the end of innocence. Naivete says: it can never happen here. Naivete says: I can guarantee 100% safety, all the time. Naivete says: there is a plane of existence that is exempt from the outrageously unfair. It’s right to grieve the loss of this naivete, even as we grieve for those who died, and for those who were injured in body, mind, and spirit.

On Marathon Monday next year it will be spring again, after a long winter. 25,000 runners will gather in Hopkinton, and half a million will line the route. The spirit of good will and mutual care will come alive again; again my success will be yours, and yours will be mine. What is this, if it is not innocence reborn: the willingness to share again a day that is beautiful and good, despite the memory of fear and grief; the willingness to come together again to celebrate the best of the human spirit, despite having experienced the worst? The spirit of the Marathon will have a shadow, and that shadow will add a dimension of sadness. Still– even with that sadness, and maybe perhaps even because of it– the spirit of the Marathon will be more abundantly filled with all the fullness of life.

Below is an excerpt and link to Boston Globe sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy’s column on the bombing:

More end to more innocence. One of our best days is forever tainted. The 117-year-old Boston Marathon will never be the same. The journey from Hopkinton to Boylston Street is now a 26.2-mile stretch of yellow police tape.

via Dan Shaughnessy: Patriots Day a sacred tradition taken away – Sports – The Boston Globe.


“Morbid Symptoms”– Eugene McCarraher

Cardinal Timothy Dolan

A good essay is like a good compass: it points north, and the truth of its pointing helps us find our way. Eugene McCarraher’s “Morbid Symptoms” (November Commonweal) is just this kind of “true north.”

The essay– cultural critique disguised as a book review– uses the material in four recent books by Catholic clerics as a runway to gain speed, before soaring wheels-up over today’s American cultural landscape. The view is impressive. This is not McCarraher’s first flight; he knows where to go, and when to dip a wing so that we get a clear view down.

The essay, at 4000 words, is longer than most of us will want to take the time for. Religion in the Balance will be considering the article in smaller bits, over the next weeks. “Morbid Symptoms” gives us so many helpful vantage points, that it is worth lingering over.

It’s important to remember that while a major theme of the essay is criticism of the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, our interest is in McCarraher’s critiques of America’s cultural life, and of a particularly unhelpful response by religious leaders– a response that is by no means limited to the Roman Catholic Church. I’m not into bashing Catholicism, and I don’t think McCarraher’s article is most fruitfully read in that manner.

Here is just a sample of what McCarraher offers– a critique of American culture that is much more penetrating, and therefore much more interesting, than the facile finger-pointing that we often get:

As Stanley Hauerwas perceptively reminds us in War and the American Difference, “America is a culture of death because Americans cannot conceive of how life is possible in the face of death”; as unregulated accumulators and consumers of ever-expanding wealth, Americans share nothing in common “other than the presumption that death is to be avoided at all costs.”

More on this to come.

via Morbid Symptoms | Commonweal magazine.

Parker Palmer on Creative Tension

Parker Palmer

We’ve been reflecting on the role of tension in society. On one hand, tension has the power and potential for good when it is held creatively in a healthy society; on the other hand, tension can lead to violence in a society that, for any number of reasons (material want, or historical enmity between competing groups, for example) is less resilient. Tension means that there is some kind of conflict. Conflict can drive adaptive responses that lead to growth and learning, or it can lead to levels of inflicted pain on others, that cycle through generations.

Parker Palmer– author, educator, and activist– has this to say about creative tension:

“In the end, the challenge faced by adherents of every tradition of faith or reason is the same one we face in our public lives: to let the stranger– and things we find strange– be who and what they are, allowing them to open us to the vexing and enlivening mysteries we find within and around us. Whether our Ultimate Reality is God or Reason, fear constantly tempts us to try to tame it and contain it within the boundaries of our comfort zones. Doing so dishonors the Ultimate, diminishes the scope of our lives, and keeps us from developing a key habit of the heart that democracy requires.”

— from Healing the Heart of Democracy (p. 150)

via Parker J. Palmer.

How We Describe It, Is How We Understand It: Breivik in Norway

I was surprised to see Sunday’s headline in The Wall Street Journal, in which the headline writer used the word “Christian” to describe the villain of the Norway murders. I was curious to see how other news organizations described this man. His actions would stretch to the breaking point our attempts to understand them, if not for the sad fact that we’ve seen this kind of evil already, several times before.

Here’s a sample of what I found:

“anti-Islamic zealot” (Chicago Tribune)

“extreme nationalist” (Chattanooga Times Free Press)

“ultranationalist” (Christian Science Monitor)

Other writers/editors have kept the word “Christian” in their descriptions of Breivik, if only because he used the term of himself, in his internet manifesto. From the San Francisco Chronicle:

Some speculated that Breivik is seeking another public platform for his anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim ideas, which center around the conservation of cultural and Christian values, in the face of what he sees as a continuing effort by Islam to conquer Europe, since the Ottomans were stopped at the gates of Vienna in 1683. [via San Francisco Chronicle]

And from the Cleveland Plain Dealer:
Breivik says he will explain his motives on Monday when he is arraigned. For now, investigators can only speculate, but the suspect’s writings and videos on YouTube paint a picture of an extreme right-wing Christian fundamentalist with strong anti-Muslim views, skepticism about multiculturalism and animosity toward socialism. [via Cleveland Plain Dealer]


So how do we describe what happened in Norway? How do we understand the motivation of a Breivik– or of a Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber), from whom Breivik borrowed ideas? What is at stake in our description of this particular episode, is the accuracy of our understanding the wider social/cultural/psychological/spiritual challenges facing us today– and therefore the effectiveness of our response. Breivik is in Norway, but his spirit is abroad in the world. It’s a fearing, fearful spirit– a spirit Christ came to cast out, not to defend.

Distraction, Avoidance, and Deeper Reflection

Today’s headlines include the names Peter King and Muammar Qaddafi; the country of Japan; and the state of  Wisconsin.

Public theology is sometimes about exploring  theological perspectives on a particular story. We’ve done that in the last six months with events such as the “Ground Zero” mosque, the deposing of Mubarak, and the report of President Obama’s Debt Commission.

Other times, public theology is about stepping back from the headlines to reflect on longer-term trends and to ask, “What are we missing?”

Ronald Heifetz, in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers, points out that groups of people– as small as families and as big as nations– can avoid much-needed learning and growing, by engaging in distraction. The very definition of distraction is to shift our attention from one thing to another, without probing or going deeper. The benefit is that we don’t have to be accountable. The cost is that we miss opportunities for growth.

So what are we missing, with our distracted hop from headline to headline? Or, to put it differently, what deeper reflections do the headlines call us to?

Here are a couple:

1. With regard to the collective bargaining rights of public service employees: the larger question here has to do with our economic life as a whole, and specifically, the increasing gap between the very wealthy, and the rest. This is one uncomfortable but unavoidable context within which all questions of economic fairness are placed, in 2011 post-crash/recession realities. One contentious difference that then is revealed, is the difference between those who see a role for government in narrowing the wealth gap, and those who don’t. And within that difference is the further distinction between those who believe government has a moral obligation to the lesser well-off, and those who don’t.

2. With regard to Muslims in America and their potential radicalization: the larger questions have to do with religious plurality and how we will deal with those identified as “the other”; the foreign policy questions of who is the enemy and what is the nature of their threat; and the context of the ever-present adrenaline arousal of fear and anxiety in American society.

The Pluralism of Modernity and the Pushback of Reactionary Fundamentalism

Taseer (right) supported the amendment of a blasphemy law under which Bibi, centre, was convicted

Two sad stories from the Middle East this past week: one, the assassination of Salman Taseer, in Islamabad; two, the bombing of the Coptic church in Alexandria.

Both stories underline societal tensions in Egypt and in Pakistan– tensions that manifest as conflict between religions but are, more fundamentally, between forces of tolerance and forces of fear; between forces of modern pluralism and forces of reaction. Both stories also– in their sensational violence– serve to deflect attention from the less dramatic, and rarely reported, efforts of people in positions of no formal authority, whose work is an affirmation of life.

Salman Taseer was critical of a blasphemy law in Pakistan, a law that was used to convict a Christian woman (Aasia Bibi) and sentence her to death:

Mumtaz Qadri, the member of the elite force of the police deputed to protect Taseer who shot and killed him in a market in Islamabad, boasted to officers that he was proud to have killed a “blasphemer,” according to security officials.

via Deadly warning to Pakistan liberals – Features – Al Jazeera English.

Such violence comes from fear.

Mosques in America, continued

Reactions to mosque building in such diverse places as Manhattan and  Murfreesboro, TN, are revealing, and merit our continuing attention.

What do those reactions reveal?

They reveal something old in the American psyche. We’ve been here before: on the one hand, fear and demonization of the other; on the other hand, an appeal to tolerance– a reaching out to the other in generosity of spirit. American history is full of both. Here’s what it looks and sounds like in Tennessee in 2010:

In June, Congressional candidate Lou Ann Zelenik issued a statement that included the following:

“Lou Ann stands with everyone who is opposed to the idea of an Islamic training center being built in our community. This ‘Islamic Center’ is not part of a religious movement; it is a political movement designed to fracture the moral and political foundation of Middle Tennessee.”

“Yes, we are tolerant, but our nation was founded on the tenets of the Judeo-Christian tradition; we have a right to defend that tradition. Until the American Muslim community find it in their hearts to separate themselves from their evil, radical counterparts, to condemn those who want to destroy our civilization and will fight against them, we are not obligated to open our society to any of them.”

via Tennessee: New Vandalism at Mosque – “Tea Party” Candidate Rejects Mosque Proposal :: Responsible for Equality And Liberty (R.E.A.L.).

On the other hand:

Another Congressional candidate, U.S. Marine and Iraq combat veteran Ben Leming, had this to say about opposition to the mosque, about Americans, and about fear:

“Once again, fear is our enemy, not law-abiding Americans who are exercising their constitutional right to worship free from persecution…. We must reject the loud and angry voices that manipulate and motivate people through fear. We are Americans, strong, brave, and proud.”

“The people that want to build a house of worship in Murfreesboro are not the enemy. Osama bin Laden and his band of thugs and criminals are the enemy.”

via Mosque expansion proposal in Murfreesboro spotlights fear, shame | | The Tennessean.

Tolerance may spring from a recognition of the rights of others. Tolerance, for a Christian, is grounded in an identification with God’s own self-disclosure in Christ: a self-disclosure whose character is a daring, generous, all-embracing agape-love.

The practical application of God’s hospitable agape-love is not naivete, nor is it insipid, namby-pamby can’t-we-all-get-along-ism. It is courageous, patient, wise-as-a-serpent-and-innocent-as-a-dove relationship-building.