For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
-Hebrews 10:25-27 (NIV)
I’ve been thinking today of the shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand. Forty-nine people who simply went to Friday prayers in their mosques were killed when a gunman or gunmen walked in and opened fire. Another forty-eight were wounded. The killings were live-streamed. The man in custody for the attacks described himself, in a “manifesto” that ran over 70 pages, as “just an ordinary white man…born in Australia to a working class, low-income family.” Just an ordinary white man? Hardly, though Muslims today might be forgiven for thinking so. He’s a terrorist, despite the fact that the circumstances of this attack are a reversal of the way many of us think about terrorism.
The news today of families mourning the loss of loved ones who did nothing but go to a place of worship reminds me of another terrorist attack, many years ago but closer to home.
In Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, four children died in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.
Four members of the Ku Klux Klan set the dynamite that killed four girls - Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley - between the ages of 11 and 14. The bomb went off as they were walking to their Sunday school classroom.
On the day of the bombing, Atlanta Constitution editor Eugene Patterson wrote an editorial that begins this way:
A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist Church in Birmingham. In her hand she held a shoe, one shoe, from the foot of her dead child. We hold that shoe with her…
It is too late to blame the sick criminals who handled the dynamite. The FBI and the police can deal with that kind. The charge against them is simple. They killed four children.
Only we can trace the truth…you and I. We broke those children’s bodies.
We watched the stage set without staying it. We listened to the prologue unbestirred. We saw the curtain opening with disinterest. We have heard the play.
We -- who go on electing politicians who heat the kettles of hate.
We -- who raise no hand to silence the mean and little men who have their…jokes.
We -- who stand aside in imagined rectitude and let the mad dogs that run in every society slide their leashes from our hand, and spring.
We…we are the ones who have ducked the difficult, skirted the uncomfortable, caviled at the challenge, resented the necessary, rationalized the unacceptable, and created the day surely when these children would die.
Patterson’s editorial is difficult to read. But there was truth in it then, and there’s truth in it now, half a century of “enlightenment” later. It’s truth that no one wants to believe. Patterson’s only mistake was in holding the South alone responsible.
Doesn’t blame for terrorist violence like the Christchurch shootings, or police brutality, or the gang violence in my city, fall in part on all of us and the world we’ve created?
Doesn’t blame especially fall on those of us who wear the name of Jesus?
Jesus’ intent, Paul says, was to “create one new humanity.” Not one in which differences disappear, but in which the things that make us different don’t cause us to lose sight of what joins us together. In his own body, Jesus reconciles us to God and to each other. On the cross, as he dies, so does the hostility that keeps us estranged. He came and preached peace - the peace of God’s acceptance, and the peace of the Holy Spirit.
One of the stained-glass windows at 16th Street Baptist was replaced by a Welsh artist named John Petts who was horrified by the news of the bombing. The new window showed a black Jesus, crucified - one outstretched arm pushing away hate, one offering forgiveness. And it offers as a reflection on the bombing the words of Matthew 25:40 - “You Do It to Me.”
Some say the church should have nothing to do with politics. The fact is that Christians who, in Patterson’s words, “go on electing politicians who heat the kettles of hate” — even while holding our noses — have to bear some responsibility for what happened in Christchurch. Don’t we? Can we really hold our politics separate from the values of the kingdom of God? Should any candidate who intentionally plays on the fears and prejudices of men like the Christchurch shooter get the vote of a believer in Jesus? I cringe as I write that, knowing that it’s going to make some people angry. I cringe wishing that wasn’t the case.
There should be no easier decision in the world for a Christian than disqualifying a candidate as worthy of our votes who would rebuild in any way the hostility between human beings that Jesus gave his life to dismantle.
Our actions, or lack of action, still matter. As believers in Jesus, we have the responsibility to act out the message of the cross, that in Jesus human divisions and hostilities fall away, dead with his dying body. And that together, in one new body, we’re brought to reconciliation with God and each other. Living that out will require that we repudiate the hostilities and estrangement that Jesus died to demolish. It will demand that we evaluate our own words, thoughts, and actions - whether online or in real time - and that we not allow the words, thoughts, and actions of others to go unchallenged.
Living out the cross will mean reaching out in love and self-sacrifice to those who are different from us. It will mean answering hatred, distrust, and threat with love, grace, and compassion. It should affect the way we vote, the way we give. It might very well say something about basic realities like where we go to church, where we live, and where our kids go to school.
Have we somehow bought into the lie that the gospel is all about the next world, about who will make it to heaven? Do we imagine that we can turn blind eyes to the suffering of murdered Muslims and their families on the other side of the world because they’re Muslims, and go on electing leaders that promise to benefit us while pretending not to see the world their policies and promises perpetuate? Christ preached peace to those far away and near. What do our words, our actions, our politics, our prejudices — what do they preach?
It’s very simple: We will act out the message of the cross in our lives, or we will act out another. We will give ourselves for the things Jesus gave himself for, or we’ll rationalize the unacceptable and help create another day where many more will die. Next time they might be Christians. Maybe we’ll care then.
If the cross doesn’t make a difference in the way we see and treat those different from us, why should anyone listen to it? But if it makes us as loving and compassionate as Jesus to those around us, how can it not change our world?