taking the words of Jesus seriously

Back in the day, my college mid-term and final exams often had an essay question that began, “Compare and contrast…” We were asked to show our knowledge of what we had been studying by discussing how two things – perhaps time periods or events or persons – were similar and how they were dissimilar. I usually got a C.

That test question came back to me, as I pondered two tragic shootings that have monopolized the news in recent weeks. The first happened in Afghanistan, when an American soldier went on a rampage one night and gunned down seventeen defenseless citizens, most of whom were children. The second occurred in Florida, also at night, when an armed, self-appointed protector of the community shot an unarmed teenager.

Compare – Both shootings are offensive, senseless, shocking. Outrage is a mild word for how anyone and everyone feels. Both perpetrators were men. Both men were armed with lethal weapons. Both initiated the incident. Both stories have seen mobs take to the streets, demanding justice. In both cases there have been threats of violent retaliation against the accused shooter. In each case there were urgent pleas for ‘swift’ justice. In both instances, we have heard it suggested that we have to get all the facts, and that we cannot rush to judgment. We have to let our system work its way. And in both cases that suggestion has met with anger and frustration and suspicion that justice is not only not being done fast enough. It may never be done at all. In each case there is an underlying sense that our institutions and our procedures (whether it be too much pressure on military personnel, or dangerously unclear laws in Florida, or societal racism) themselves must carry some of the blame for the actions of individuals. The stories have much in common.

Contrast – In one case a man is in the military, under military obligation, on an assignment he did not choose, bearing the emotional scars of previous deployment. In the other case the man is acting on his own, choosing his role as community protector. While it can be said that each man has something about him that can explain his behavior, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and racism are qualitatively quite different.

But in the “contrast” section of this essay I have to admit that for me the most wrenching contrasts have been inside of me. I am conflicted. And I have got to face that reality. I admit that I have sensed a certain sympathy for a soldier who has endured so much that he snaps, while I have not been able to muster any sympathy at all for a man, armed with a gun who ‘appears’ to have singled out a young man for no other apparent reason than the ‘crime’ of being black and wearing what black teenagers often wear. While I do not know enough about either case to make me an authority, I do know that I have to keep pushing myself to be fair about what I already know. For example, I know that I cannot let my patriotism too easily seek excuses for the one, and my long struggle for racial justice too quickly damn the other. My knee jerk reactions in these two cases have not made me proud.

I have found myself falling into the trap of seeing from totally different angles the two different crowd scenes of angry people yelling in the streets of their respective countries. As an American I have to struggle with the tendency to see a group of angry people in Afghanistan as a dangerous irrational mob and a similarly angry group of people in an American city as righteous defenders of justice and racial fairness.

Two terrible tragedies have occurred. Innocent people have been killed. Grief and outrage surged spontaneously in us the instant we heard the news. But justice is slow. It is in the interim between instant outrage and slow coming justice that I have wondered what light our Christian faith might shed. In recent days the following passages have come to mind and offered perspective:

You have heard that it was said in those ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’: and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” (Matthew 5: 21-22a)

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5: 43-44)

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” (Matthew 7:1-2)

The parable of the Good Samaritan. (Luke 10: 29-37)

“Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.’” (Matthew 26:52)

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)

Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7b)

There are so many, many more verses that can speak to our minds and our hearts. Perhaps some of our readers can help us build a list.

The outrage and the grief that has been felt around the globe over these two tragedies can tear us further apart, or it can be used by God and God’s faithful people to begin healing the divides between us. I hope the latter happens.

If it is to happen, the healing will begin as we turn to the God of Abraham, the Creator God from whom the Jews and the Christians and the Muslims have all come, the God before whom we all humbly bow. Imagine the Creator gazing on the bodies of the dead, the children, the teenager, the adults, each one a child of the Creator. Who can deny that there are tears for each victim streaming down the face of the Almighty? We Christians are one with Jews and Muslims in knowing that the tears are real.

Dr. John Galloway is a retired Presbyterian minister and graduate of Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary. A frequent guest preacher, Dr. Galloway is the author of three books, the latest of which is Ministry Loves Company, a guide on how to be a parish minister. He is also the Executive Director of Tony Campolo’s missionary organization, .

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