By John Lomperis (@JohnLomperis)
The dust has settled. The lockdown has concluded. Further arrests have been made. Details keep trickling in to give us a more complete picture. And my own travel schedule has settled down enough for me to have more time to reflect on the attack on the area that was my own adopted hometown from 2008 through 2011, while I studied at Harvard Divinity School.
It is one thing, as a broad principle, to acknowledge the existence of Evil “out there.” The extreme examples are too readily available to dismiss, from Nazi genocides and Soviet gulags of history to more current atrocities such as the use of rape as a weapon of war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
But this evil struck close to home. The festive atmosphere of the Boston Marathon was suddenly ripped apart with explosions that killed three innocent people while permanently maiming or seriously wounding many others. By bombs planted on a sidewalk where I have walked. Apparently by brothers who at least occasionally attended a mosque by which I often passed. Who had attended a high school I walked by all the time. Who lived close to where I lived, and about a literal stone’s throw away from where I used to meet with my accountability partners.
After the attacks, I was grateful to learn of the lack of direct physical harm to my friends in the area – while haunted in the back of my mind by questioning if that meant I was feeling grateful that other people were the ones to be included in the casualty statistics. I did discover that the wider circle of friends of my friends included a grad student murdered in the bombings and a family whose home was invaded by bullets from the chase.
I am grateful for the good work done by law-enforcement personnel, for the all the heroic ways bystanders jumped into helping their neighbors, and for further bloodshed being prevented. I pray for the work of those seeking to administer justice and prevent further such attacks. And I pray that public reactions may not be dominated by the extremes of either hateful, collective-blame-casting xenophobia or of the sort of liberal, politically-correct naiveté that stubbornly refuses to acknowledge important realities.
Yet I am still struck by a recent episode of a talking-head cable news program, in which the host kept pushing variations of the question of when we could finally be “safe.” The guest, a counter-terrorism expert, talked about how Americans can and have been made relatively safer from such attacks, but pointed out that those with some of the world’s highest levels of safety from such terrorism are North Koreans, who trade the evil of vulnerability to terrorism for the evils of living in a brutally tyrannical police state.
This new, dramatic attack on American soil – in an area where so many Americans live, previously lived, know loved ones, and/or have attended school – shattered illusions that we are living in a “safe” world.
We desperately want to move on, get back to our routines, and regain our illusions of safety, of being in charge of our own lives, and of feeling comforted by empty rhetoric about “the persevering goodness of the human spirit.” We desperately want to think of the great evil committed as an aberration rather than the natural fruit of the endemic evils of our fallen world.
And yet we cannot do this without sacrificing our intellectual honesty.
The Boston attacks once again demonstrated to relatively comfortable Americans what many throughout the world already experience on a daily basis: that we live in a world that full of great evil. Evil that is a lot closer than we would like to think. Evil that can in one instant, without warning, tear open the beautiful, divine-image-bearing bodies of dozens of people in one of the “safest” neighborhoods of your own city. Evil that can prematurely, mercilessly, brutally end the lives of any of us, our family members, or our dear friends. Evil in such forms as the unknown terrorist plotting of neighbors who live just down the street.
We are right to be outraged at the terrible, despicable, inexcusable evil committed by the perpetrators of this attack. We are right to remember that divine wrath and eternal damnation are important realities without which the God of the universe would be neither just nor truly loving.
But here I find myself convicted by the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
“The Cross of Jesus Christ destroys all pride. If my sinfulness appears to me to be in any way smaller or less detestable in comparison with the sins of others, I am still not recognizing my sinfulness at all. He who would serve his brother in the fellowship must sink all the way down to these depths of humility. How can I possibly serve another person in unfeigned humility if I seriously regard his sinfulness as worse than my own? Would I not be putting myself above him; could I have any hope for him?”
Of course, no perpetrator of this attack appears to be a “brother in the fellowship” of Christian disciples. And I see little value in credibility-straining denials of obvious degrees of difference between the specific sin of bombing hundreds of marathon-goers and sins that do less damage.
I also realize that I want to self-righteously justify myself with such self-delusions as “Granted, I am not perfect, but obviously John Lomperis is nothing like a terrorist who kills and maims all those people!” But the fact is that I have a lot more in common with the Tsarnaev brothers than simply having lived in the same place.
Before I truly became a Christian (but while I was already a member in good standing of the United Methodist Church), probably my most hated passage of Scripture was Paul’s teaching in Romans 3 about the universal sinfulness of all of humanity, in which I could find no loophole to except myself.
But if God is truly God, any sinning creature necessarily falls short of His glory. And the fruit of the sin I regularly produced – even over and above what I tried to ignore, minimize, or rationalize – revealed the root character of my own heart.
Number VII of the Methodist Articles of Religion declares that original sin is more than just a matter of committing individual acts of sin, but is rather a basic corruption of the moral nature of all of humanity since Adam.
Fundamentally, the difference between those other people’s sin when they bombed the Boston Marathon and my own sin when I have harbored feelings of hatred or unjustified rage towards others is more of a difference of degree than of kind.
Horrific evil is indeed a lot closer and more ever-present than we would like to think, closer than even next door. It is within the corrupted nature of all of us.
And yet despite our self-centered orientation away from the One who gave us existence, life, and all good things, despite our blasphemous rejections of Him, and despite our abusive treatment of others created in His image, He did not simply abandon us to our chosen fate. On the cross, the Lord Jesus chose to suffer greater torture and pain than anyone on Earth has ever experienced, for the sin of Adam, John Lomperis, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and every other human being – so that through His blood we may have the offer of forgiveness, healing, and new life in Him.
So along with the important work of comforting those in pain and mourning with those who more, the only response to the great evil of the Boston bombings I can offer is to point to God’s response on the cross to such evil. And to reflect on my own sinfulness.
If prayers are answered for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to one day repent, believe, and surrender his life to the Lord Jesus Christ, Christians will have no choice but to somehow accept him as a “brother in the fellowship,” despite whatever pragmatic issues his legal status may cause.
Because we serve a just but also merciful God who personally paid the penalty earned by humanity’s sin. Even very extreme sinfulness. Even sinfulness as detestable as our own.