I wrote these words when it came time to return to the University of Chicago Divinity School to think more deeply about religion and violence. The year was 2002 and the last time I had pulled the box of candles off the shelf in my office in Memorial Church was the evening of September 11, 2001.
One of the reasons I have not said more about last week’s carnage is that, at the moment, my most charitable response is restraint. You see, a few weeks ago, when I finally got the physical strength to visit my ailing father in the nursing home in Cleveland, I was stopped by a police officer for no apparent reason–other than perhaps a Soundex algorithm gone awry. (Google it.) I pulled up into a gas station so that he would not have to stand in traffic and rolled down the window. He yelled, at the top of his lungs, “ARE YOU DRUNK? SHOW ME YOUR LICENSE AND PROOF OF INSURANCE. WHERE ARE YOU GOING?”
[Warning: The following post contains spoilers for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, along with serious references to the geography and religions of the Star Wars universe. Caveat lector.]
I saw The Force Awakens opening night. I liked the movie a lot, but as the credits rolled I was pensive and troubled.
Don’t get me wrong. Unlike so many outspoken critics, I wasn’t bothered by the many parallels between the original Star Wars and this latest installment. Sagas, after all, are often iterative. That’s the nature of human storytelling. I quite enjoyed the mixing of familiar characters and tropes with new characters and twists. So what was my problem?
A mural in Beit Sahour, the village of the shepherds in the nativity story.
I think I’ve been here long enough now to write something. Take it for what it is: the experience of a privileged outsider who does not speak for Palestinians.
I’ve spent the last month in Palestine. Specifically in Bethlehem, which is in Area A of the West Bank. Area A means that it is under Palestinian control (Area B is under Palestinian civil government but Israeli military control. Area C, which comprises about 60%–and which includes all the major roads between cities–is under Israeli military control). The occupation is brutal.
After expressions of forgiveness from the families of “The Beautiful Nine,” a few articles have been written that counter the dominant media narratives focusing on the beauty of the unconditional forgiveness offered Dylann Roof contrasted with the hatred and terror wrought on the community. As I mentioned earlier, I laud the family members for opening themselves to such extraordinary grace, particularly during a moment when the temptation to lash out with hatred and vengeance must have been barely resistible.
My father laid bricks long before he became a Baptist minister. He used to tell the story of how, at the beginning of a building project, the mayor, the city council, business leaders, and the foreman would show up with golden shovels for the ground breaking ceremony. A brass band would show up as well. At the appointed time after the speeches were made, the community leaders would force their shovels into the rocky ground and the band would strike up a merry tune.
Tonight Cliff and I stole a few moments of recreation. We wondered whether seeing the documentary Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine was the best way to spend them. After dealing with religion, race, and violence in the last two sermons and a book study, I had said to him earlier, “That’s it. No more violence. It is just too painful. I am worn out and I need a break.”
We saw it anyway. As fate would have it, writer and director Michele Josue, her co-producer Liam McNiff, and another of Matt’s friends were there for the showing. Afterwards we had a chance to linger over conversation in the cool Berkeley evening air. I am glad we went.