Burying the Terrorist

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This morning’s News Flash: Bombing terrorist entombed in undisclosed location!  Two weeks ago if we could have peered into the future and seen this headline we would likely have concluded it was a slow news day.

On week ago a longtime friend called to tell me about the bitter controversy then raging about where and whether to bury Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev.  I hadn’t heard about this before our conversation, but, indeed, cemeteries, funeral homes, and many people in and around the Boston community where Tsarnaev and brother worked their terror, were protesting the possibility that the bomber would be buried anywhere near them.  Reportedly, the funeral home that accepted the corpse suffered protest and received hate emails, along with other threatening gestures.  A strong sentiment began to circulate that the body should “be shipped back to Russia from where it came!”  My friend, distressed over the reactions, commented, “Surely followers of Christ would respond differently, certainly they would,” though no reports seemed to confirm this.

Massachusetts Police Chief, Gary Gemme, pled for help in finding a burial place, noting, “We are not barbarians.  We bury the dead.”  In antiquity and in other places it was not uncommon for the vanquished to be left exposed to the elements or actually to be displayed in some prominent location to shame the family and people of the enemies by offering the remains to scavengers of air and land.  But those were other places and times.

The question is whether we are different in kind than the people of those times and places.  Certainly, we are no different in the depth of pain and trauma some of us experience, with which the rest of us rush to empathize as fully as we are able.  No doubt, the terror of the attacks will continue to cloud our minds and color our view of the foreseeable future.  To be sure, the injustice and brazen brutality of the bombings cry out for justice and births within us a need for justice to come.  Just as surely, the wounds to bodies, minds, and souls will require years to heal, and some may not heal at all.  And, understandably, for those most affected, and maybe others as well, a thirst for more than justice, a demand for retribution, even revenge, teases with promises of a certain satisfaction and assurances that it will never happen again.  I mean, if we could make them pay enough, “they” would never mess with us again!

The question is whether we are or will be different in kind than the people of other places and times.  In many ways, at least the deeply human ways listed above, we can hardly claim to be different.  Isn’t this why some would protest burying the bomber, as though such denials could prevent further and deeper wounding, as though doing something decent like disposing of human remains somehow “feels” supportive of the atrocities the dead perpetrated, and as though the dead may reflect the true nature of all connected with him who, for that reason, must not to be given any comfort or kindness?

I do not know whether we can legitimately claim to be different from the so-called barbarians of old.  But I do know that the best traditions on which our society still rests offer other and different sets of responses.  Responses that calm and careful reflection could help us avoid or arrest the cycles of pain that often spin out of control in the wake of an atrocity.  The fact is that justice per se does not heal wounds or address the root, heart causes of the atrocities.  Justice restores lost order and prevents the continuation or escalation of the evil.  Justice can sometimes quarantine the evil and those gripped by it.  But justice does not overcome evil.  Overcoming evil requires more.

I think my friend’s shock and sadness over the refusal to bury the bomber traces to this more.  Followers of Jesus, whose impact on our history continues to be enormous, know that evil cannot be overcome by evil.  Evil can only be overcome by good.  And, specifically, the good that love is and love does.  Only the love that faces the evil fully, and even absorbs its assaults when necessary—only this love in the end overcomes.  For those with ears to hear, this was and is the point of Jesus’ cross and the victory of Easter’s empty tomb.  Love took evil’s best shot and in the end only love stands.  Such love, because it stands alone, opens the way for a forgiveness robust enough never to deny the evil of the evil but always to offer the possibility of healing that comes when good overcomes the evil.

All of this is counter-intuitive.  Of course, that’s the point: it is indeed different than those reputed barbaric times and places where people were predictably ruled by common instincts and intuition.

My friend, who spoke with broken heart and choking voice about the followers of Jesus making a different response to burying the bomber, saw more clearly than most that many of us want to be different than barbarians.  Many, in fact, would really like to be more like Jesus, eager for justice but more, eager for the love that overcomes, heals and offers a future different than we’ve just sadly experienced.

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