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In the two-week rhythm of The 12, I last posted on the day of the Boston Marathon / bombings. And by the standards of our 24-hour news cycle, Boston is old news. We’ve moved on to more pressing things like the NFL draft and air traffic delays. But I am not ready to move on. I think of the victims, their families, or the witnesses who were not physically injured but now carry psychological wounds. They aren’t moving on. Me neither. I’m still processing.
I feel haunted by Boston, and armed with some “Boston questions,” I went to see Dr. Dennis Voskuil, former President and current Professor of Church History at Western Theological Seminary. Dennis did his PhD at Harvard and retains deep ties to the Boston community.
I went to Dennis because it bothers me that a sporting event was targeted. I “get” why the 9/11 terrorists chose the World Trade Center and Pentagon. But why the Boston Marathon? And beyond that, I went to Dennis for help understanding how to put all of this together theologically.
“I lived in Boston for five years,” Dennis told me, “and for the last four years I served a Methodist church about four blocks from the spot where the suspect was captured. I know the area — I can imagine the streets where the shootout with the police took place — I even know that gas station where the suspects were spotted on a security camera. That’s the part of Boston where I spent the most time – Watertown and Cambridge. Watertown isn’t an upscale suburb; it is middle class, full of row houses with lots of diversity. These are hearty, family-oriented people, very much part of the fabric of Boston life.”
What is Boston life? Sitting in Dennis’s office, I noted he has replaced his standard issue seminary waste basket with a large Boston Celtics trash can. “You have to understand sports in New England. It’s unlike anything I’ve encountered elsewhere. It’s deep in the culture. The Red Sox are New England; there is a cultural loyalty that is unparalleled.”
Why target the marathon? “It isn’t just the marathon; it’s Patriot Day in Boston, a unique and special holiday. It’s Boston’s holiday, nobody else’s. Kids are off school, the Red Sox play at 11am, the whole city seems to come out for the marathon – if you wanted to strike out at Boston, that’s the way to do it.”
I feel like the Boston bombers belong more in the class of the guy who opened fire at the movie theater in Aurora or the elementary school in Newtown. Maybe I’m putting too fine a point on it, but these acts feel more “cultural” than political. I find it easier to rationalize those outside our culture who hate us than those inside who commit outrageous acts of violence. What drives them to want to kill innocent people? Is it just mental illness? Or is there something else happening?
And then there are the theological questions. What am I supposed to take away from this? I feel nothing but sadness in every direction.
I asked Dennis for some theological insight. He deferred to his son Karsten, the pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, telling me of the sermon Karsten preached on April 21. Karsten was born in Boston and baptized in Watertown (what a great place to be baptized) and, like his father, still holds Boston deep in his heart.
The text was John 10, about the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. Here’s some of what Karsten said:
“We saw some of the worst of human behavior, but even more, we witnessed some of the very best of our humanity as well. There were so many people showing this goodness: serving others before serving oneself, caring for the needs of strangers instead of taking advantage of the moment . . . so many people responded in ways that certainly glorified our Good Shepherd.
“’My sheep hear my voice, and they follow me.’ They follow me by running towards, not away from victims of violence. By facing, not running away from, the skeletons in our own closets. By bearing witness to God even when all seems chaotically out of control. By trusting in what God can do in the most difficult of moments, even if the blood on the sidewalk is still fresh. By teaching our children how grace defeats hatred. By loving even persons we want to loathe.”
The Good Shepherd walked towards Jerusalem, knowing full well what awaited him there. His sheep follow him, and we follow him closely when we, like all those who helped in Boston, walk toward those in need instead of running away.
I’m not done with Boston. Maybe I’m not done with Boston because I’m supposed to learn what it means to follow the Good Shepherd from it. Thanks be to all those heroic souls who ran to help.