In The Right Place At the Right Time
Shortly after the Virginia Tech shooting, I remember listening to the words of President Bush offering his condolences:
Those whose lives were taken did nothing to deserve their fate. They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now they’re gone—and they leave behind grieving families, and grieving classmates, and a grieving nation.
He was right, of course, to unequivocally affirm the innocence of the victims and channel the grief of the nation. But he got one thing wrong. Those students were in exactly the right place at the right time. They were in their classrooms, where they had gone to learn and grow and become the thoughtful, caring, competent adults that the world was deprived of on the day they were shot. It was the right place and time for students to be in school. It was the wrong place and time for a killer. It was the wrong place and time for hatred, division, and murder.
I thought about that yesterday as thousands of Muslims and supporters gathered in solidarity for Friday prayers. Some may have been afraid to congregate in a world where deadly Islamophobia can strike anywhere. But they knew that there was no better place to be than in prayerful solidarity with the worldwide ummah, comforting one-another in mutual submission to the One who is Most Compassionate, Most Merciful.
Praying In God’s Womb
To pray in a mosque, especially in a Muslim-minority country where immigrants and refugees have come from all over the world, is to stand, bow, and prostrate shoulder-to-shoulder with sisters or brothers of different races, nationalities, native tongues, ages, ideologies, and life experiences. This was my experience when I prayed with my Muslim sisters in masjids here in the United States so many years ago. It is a very intimate form of worship among very diverse people. Together, Muslims humble themselves, letting the poetic rhythms of Qur’anic Arabic drown out the noise of the world, and, with arms and shoulders brushing against each other as they move in unison, touch their heads to the floor in ultimate humility and surrender to God. As my colleague Adam affirmed in his recent sermon, among the beautiful 99 names for God, the two most used after “Allah” are “Rahman” and “Rahim,” both of which are forms of the Arabic word root “r-h-m,” which means “womb.” And shoulder-to-shoulder with other Muslims in the masjid, curled into a fetal position, Muslims return to their Source, their Womb, in prayer. From the womb of mutual worship, Muslims go forth into the world renewed in compassion and mercy.
In this week’s lectionary reading, Isaiah beckons those who thirst to come to the waters and drink, and those who have no money to buy rich food without price. In mosques around the world, especially during Ramadan Iftar dinners and the fast-breaking holiday of Eid, people congregate to share meals, and the poor are welcomed. Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset in part to embody solidarity with those for whom fasting is not a choice. They share meals at night to feed not only themselves but also the poor among them who hunger.
In other words, I have seen, embodied in mosques and through the hospitality of Muslims, what I as a Christian might call the fledgling beginnings of the kingdom of God taking root here on earth. The Muslims I know take seriously their vocation to learn and heed God’s will, which is mercy, compassion, justice, patience, and love. And while practicing Muslims remind themselves of this vocation at least 5 times a day in formal prayer and often more, there is something sacred about coming together as a community for Friday prayers. And yesterday in New Zealand, thousands saw and experienced that sacredness standing in solidarity with their Muslim kindred. All divisions cast aside, in the most intimate and profound way possible, the people embodied God’s love, and will carry it forth to heal a wounded world.
It’s Never The Right Time And Place For Hate
The fifty-one worshipers who were killed were exactly where they were meant to be. It is always the right time for fellowship and prayer – connection to our brothers and sisters and the Love from which we all come. It was the killer, who invaded their space while calling them invaders, who was out of place.
And yet, even he was welcomed as “brother” before he opened fire. For the doors to God’s homes are open to all. And so it was his hatred and fear, suffocating the spark of humanity still within him that his greeter still recognized, that was truly out of place.
There is no place in God’s world for hate and fear. There is no place in God’s world for white supremacy and bigotry. And there is no place in God’s world for weapons of death – whether assault riffles that take out dozens or drones and missiles that kill hundreds or even thousands. There is no place in God’s world for the Global War On Terror that has terrorized and killed millions and displaced even more. The violence that saturates and permeates our world is a poison that destroyed not only 51 lives last week, but hundreds around the world every day, and every time violence takes a life that Love creates away from this world, it is wrong. It is always the wrong time and place for war.
White Supremacy And War: Intertwined Evils
For the New Zealand shooter didn’t come to his fears in a vacuum. His fears were cultivated in a world where we have deceived ourselves by putting our faith in violence. They were cultivated in a world where greed and powerlust created tools of bigotry in the forms of white supremacy and Islamophobia, among others, to divide and conquer. They were cultivated in a world where two major lies reinforce and fuel one another: the lie that people must find their identity over and against others, and the lie that violence is necessary and beneficial for making the world safe.
The killer believed in racial purity. That’s a fiction invented to justify slavery and segregation, and also to give consolation of pseudo-superiority to poor white people so rich white people could profit at their expense while scapegoating other races. Though race itself is a social construct invented to break up bonds of class – specifically, to keep indentured servants from Africa and Europe from revolting together by enslaving the former and eventually freeing the latter – the tentacles of racism have reached out through the world, bolstered by false science, the myth of a white Jesus, laws, traditions, violence, and blind denial and self-righteous justification. And though laws changed as many slowly came to see the folly of judging others by color of skin rather than content of character, racism remains in a worldwide network of structural inequities spread by colonialism, imperialism, and exploitation.
And the United States’ War on Terror – with racism at its core – has fueled racism and Islamophobia worldwide. White supremacy and the colonialism and imperialism it fosters is by no means a solely American phenomenon; European colonialism predates (and created) the United States itself. But the US War on Terror in particular has spread throughout the world, reaching nearly 40 percent of the world’s countries with the largest wars being waged in seven. And while we cloak our wars in humanitarian rhetoric, the truth is we are exploiting lands for profit, selling weapons throughout the world, and destabilizing nations for our own control… all the while killing and displacing people who pose no threat to us and do not understand our nation’s reasons for war. The pain and loss and grief of last week’s killing is multiplied thousands of times over and compounded by fear and hopelessness where violence has become the norm rather than the aberration.
And refugees flee war-torn countries. Some went to New Zealand. Some were gunned down as “invaders.”
Refugees Aren’t Invaders; Weapons Are
But the truth is, people fleeing for their survival are never invaders, because this whole world is made for people to live and thrive. People migrate – fleeing violence or natural disaster or seeking sustenance or opportunity – and God has made the world to provide, though we may deny it. Human violence has divide the world into nations guarded with guns and military might, but we were made – in all of our wondrous diversity – to come to know one another, as the Qur’an says. Our drones and missiles and assault weapons, however, which operate without regard to boundaries, are invaders. Invaders do not belong – and such weapons belong nowhere.
“You may say I’m a dreamer…” and many will say worse. An open-bordered, war-free world… that’s not reality. That’s not sustainable. That’s what the conventional wisdom says. But that conventional wisdom, from the beginning, has set us on the course of death.
Repent And Live
In this week’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Unless you repent, you shall perish.” Unless we see how violence and bigotry in all of its forms structure our world and make a fundamental change, we are on a path of destruction. Divisions of us verses them may advantage some people at first at the expense of others, but ultimately they weaken us all. Bigotry impoverishes us by keeping us from knowing one another as friends and seeing the immense beauty and wonder and wisdom in one another. For we are made to be in relationship with one-another, and cannot be our fullest selves until we all reach our potential together, recognizing our interconnection. Violence may be seen as protection for a time, but ultimately it’s an all-consuming fire destroying everything in its wake. Two decades of endless wars have made the world a minefield of enmity while destroying the planet. We can’t over-spiritualize the message “repent or perish.” This is not about adhering to a particular dogma to avoid damnation. It’s about recognizing how we are killing ourselves as we kill each other.
But on the other side of this warning is the good news that beautiful, abundant life is already ours if we change our minds, if we open our eyes to see it. It’s a life in which we come to know each other not through rivalry and enmity but through cooperation and friendship, in which we meet each other’s needs and share each other’s joys. Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, people of any faith or no faith can cultivate this life together when we seek to know each other in Love. We can only do that when we put down our weapons. We can only do that when we remove blinders of hatred and bigotry, and see the victims of our hate and fear – those far away and those right in front of us – as sisters and brothers. We can only do that when we look very seriously at all of the ways hate and fear permeate our hearts and our world, and make conscious efforts to change by humbling ourselves and listening to one another.
Love already enfolds us. If we open our eyes, we will find ourselves linked with all of humanity in the womb of Love, ready to be born into a new world built on mercy and compassion where we heal the wounds we have inflicted on each other and our planet. Let us trust in this love, renounce our ways of death, and live the only way we can – together.
Image: Screenshot from Youtube: Christchurch Live: Friday prayers and Sermon broadcast at Al Noor Mosque | 22 March 2019, by GNN.