On Solidarity, Unity, and Difference

Throughout the week and until Sunday, flags across the country have been flying half-mast in honor of the late Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye, the second-longest serving U.S. senator in history and a decorated World War II veteran. Humble in his ways, he brought passion, conviction and wisdom to national crossroads as evidenced by his distinguished service on the Watergate committee and subsequently leading the Iran-Contra hearings. He recalled the time when as an American soldier in Italy, he confronted a German solider. Thinking that the perceived enemy was reaching in his uniform for a weapon, Inouye said that he (Inouye) “smashed him in the face,” killing the German soldier. He walked over to the now dead solider and Inouye discovered that the soldier was reaching for photos of his family. It was in that moment that Inouye saw the humanity of the “enemy,” so much so that as a U.S. Senator, he would cast votes against the Vietnam War, the first Gulf War in 1990, and was one of the group of 22 senators who voted against the Iraq war. This did not diminish his commitment to the U.S. Armed Forces as chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, but it did change his posture towards war, the enemy, and hostility.

Yesterday, bells tolled in churches and civic plazas in solidarity with the 26 massacred at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. As a father of two elementary-aged sons, I cannot imagine the deep grief of the families of the young children. I wept last Sunday in front of my congregation as I read the names of those killed during our prayers. They were victims in the chaotic evil of human violence.

Yet, the 26 bell tolls missed two other victims: Nancy Lanza and her son, the murderer, Adam Lanza. These were two souls who lost their lives, victimized by their own actions. As a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I recall the words of the Lord, “Love your enemy”; and again, as the Lord was being crucified on the cross by religious and political leaders, the ancient Scriptures record that he cried aloud, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”

Jesus sets the bar quite high. Love your enemy? Even a mass murderer and the mother of the murder who owned guns and taught her son how to use these weapons of mass destruction?

The Scriptures prompt me to say, Yes! As difficult as that is. As difficult as it is to utter.

It’s not excusing Adam Lanza and the violence he inflicted. What “Love your enemy” does do is a call for all of us to reframe our thoughts of a murderer to ask ourselves, “Why and how?” What would cause him to do such a thing? What would cause a mother to own guns that are not for recreational use nor self-defense, and then take her son to the sporting range for lessons? Interviews of school classmates, distant family members, and even customers of the barber shop that he frequented showed a constellation of people who orbited around young Adam Lanza, regarding him as “the weird kid” and leaving him alone, setting him aside , or just altogether dismissing him as some “crazy.”

The immediate response after news spread of the Sandy Hook tragedy was of national and global solidarity effort of prayers and thoughts pouring from all quarters; Facebook and Twitter generated millions of hits as the on-line community prayed and lamented. As was the case for us in New Jersey when hurricane Sandy hit, as is the case in every instance when some tragedy occurs.

Yet all of this prompts me to ask: why can’t we be neighbors and community in times of relative peace as in times of national devastation? How can we embrace the radical posture of regarding the “other” (the “weirdos,” the perceived “crazies,” the ascribed “enemies” among us) as our neighbor, what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls “dignity of difference.” This is not mere toleration or respect for difference; it’s understanding difference, seeing in the “other” as someone who carries wounds, scars, confusion, hurt as we all do to some varying degree.

I resonate well with James Davison Hunter’s call for a theology of “faithful presence.” Faithful presence is far more difficult to live into because it’s not so much a matter of passing legislation and thinking that a new law will change hearts, or somehow implementing a policy will eradicate the violence that breeds in human hearts; indeed all those are needed but they are not the end-all. Faithful presence means to be in radical and generous solidarity with our collective human condition, to do as Jesus did when He Himself descended from the heavens to be among the world, in flesh and blood, as the Prince of Peace, yet rejected by the world for His life and message of radical peace and reconciliation, to the point that He Himself met a violent death in the grips of religious and political powers that preferred power, politics and scapegoating over and against people. It’s the kind of love that enabled Pope Benedict XVI to pardon his ex-butler today, or for theological progressives and conservatives at a meeting I convened recently to begin to regard one another as friends.

Underneath the glitter of lights and golden wrapping paper this Christmas, let us be in solidarity with each other – the powerful and the weak, the rich and the poor, the healthy and sick, victims and victimizers, Democrats and Republicans – seeing in one another flesh and blood and soul, broken and being made whole, created in the image of God, the whole lot for which God came into the world in the person of Jesus the Christ.