Sunday, September 07, 2008
Inheriting the earth
This is Mr. Weber's address to JPII students on Monday, September 8, 2008.
On September 11 this Thursday, we commemorate the 7th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on America, both at the Twin Towers in NYC and at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Just over 3,000 innocent people were killed in those attacks, making it the worst attack on America in our history (The bombing of Pearl Harbor killed just over 2350).
Since that terrible day on 9/11, we have fought two wars: the first in Afghanistan, which was run by the Taliban government that gave safe harbor to al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, the organization and person responsible for the attacks, and the second in Iraq, believed to be sympathetic to al-Qaeda. Since those two wars began, an additional 957 American lives have been lost in Afghanistan and 4,155 American lives lost in Iraq. It is impossible to know how many Afghani or Iraqi lives have also been lost in these wars, but conservative estimates place the number at 10 times as many as Americans' If that number is true, that would be roughly 40,000 Iraqis and 10,000 Afghanis (cf. http://icasualties.org/oif/).
It is common when we come together as Christians to pray for “peace in the middle East” and a “safe return for our soldiers”. Given the ravages and horrors of war, these are important prayers, but I suspect, if you’re like me, you feel a bit helpless and maybe even hopeless in these prayers, as if we were the dingy beauty contestant who says her #1 goal if selected to be Miss Universe is to bring “peace to the world”. Good luck on that, we think sarcastically. After all, how can any one person, whether that person be Miss Universe, or any of us sitting in this auditorium here this morning, have any real effect on bringing peace to this world?
I have two thoughts on the matter.
The first is, we can begin by becoming peace-makers here at JPII, in our daily lives together. Through-out our lives, people will say things about us that are unfair, borne from pettiness or jealousy, perhaps, or maybe just out of meanness. When they say these things, we feel often justified in lashing back, aimed at inflicting equal damage, trying to get even, an “eye for an eye”. But as Tevye says in the play Fiddler on the Roof, an “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and soon the whole world is both blind and toothless”. Jesus says it even more pointedly, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek, and if someone takes your coat, give him your shirt as well” (Matthew 5:39-40).
What the heck is Jesus talking about? Surely he doesn’t mean to be taken literally?
In my junior year of high school, I witnessed someone who took Jesus’ teaching literally, and it was fascinating to watch. My class was going on a long field trip, we had chartered a bus, and as I remember it, there were exactly 45 seats on the bus and 46 students in the class. The last person to board the bus was a fella named Gerry, who was also the largest human being in our school, played right tackle on the football team and was known to be a bully. When he realized he didn’t have a seat, he walked up to a fella named Tim, who was slightly effeminate, and said, “Tim, you’re in my seat. Get up”. Those of us in the bus thought to ourselves, “Gerry, you’re a jerk”, but also, “Tim, you better move.”
Tim said instead, “This isn’t your seat”. “Get up”, Jerry said threateningly, “or I am going to remove you”. “This is my seat, Jerry, and you know it”. With that, Gerry picked Tim up as if he were picking up a rag doll and threw him across the aisle and sat down. Tim picked himself up, a little banged up, and walked back to Gerry and said, “Get out of my seat”. Gerry stood up and said, “Get out of my face, Tim, or I am going to hurt you.” Tim, a little shaky, replied, “You’re in my seat”. Gerry then took Tim and threw him violently across two rows of seats and sat down. This time, Tim was really hurt. With tears in his eyes, he limped back to his seat and told Gerry, “You’re stronger than I am, but you’re in my seat”. Never once did Tim try to swing back at Gerry, never once did he stoop to Gerry’s level, but he wasn’t backing down either. And no matter how big a bully someone is, it’s very hard to hit someone 3 times when each time, he isn't swinging back. Gerry looked around the bus, and there were 44 classmates looking steely eyed at him as if to say “you better not do it again, Gerry”. So Gerry stood up, cursed at Tim to save face, and then walked to the back of the bus and sat in the aisle. From that moment forward, we all looked at Tim a lot differently.
When Jesus says “turn the other cheek”, he doesn’t mean put your tail between your legs and allow yourself to be trampled on. That’s cowardice, not Christian virtue. He expects us to have the courage to stand up to injustice—for others, and for ourselves—when that courage is required. But he challenges us not to think first about ourselves, but about challenging the heart of the one doing the injustice. Had Tim ever swung back, Gerry would have certainly won the fight, but also, felt justified in remaining the bully that he had always been. Because Tim refused to back down but also refused to fight, Gerry’s attitude was directly challenged. He had to think, “What’s wrong with me that I am hitting someone who refuses to hit back?”
I believe the insight of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement was they understood that to be peace-makers, to change people’s hearts, they had to be willing to take a blow. They were NOT going to live by “an eye for an eye”, they were not going to resort to violence, but they were going to challenge injustice. And when the nation saw video of peaceful protestors being beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, or watched children in Birmingham sprayed with fire hoses, or read about children being bombed in a Birmingham church, or about defenseless Freedom Riders beaten up by thugs in a Montgomery bus stop, it said to itself “Surely, a nation committed to justice for all cannot permit such thuggery”. Laws, and eventually hearts, were changed.
Fortunately, to be a peace-maker at JPII doesn’t usually mean to stand up to fire hoses and beatings. But it does mean, I think, to forgive.
Girls, on this matter of forgiveness, I may be talking to you even more so than the guys. When guys do bad things to each other, they tend to challenge each other, fight, and then move on. You women have a tendency to HOLD ON to your grievances.
At my old school, we probably had no more than 3 fights a year, but on one particularly bad day, we had two fights, one between boys in senior homeroom, and one between 2 sophomore girls at lunch. Here’s how the boys’ fight started. They were sitting in HR, and one guy was day dreaming, but he was looking right at another senior. The other senior said “Quit looking at me”. The daydreamer, who wasn’t thinking at all about this other guy, didn’t like the guy’s tone, so he then looked DEAD AT HIM. Both boys stood up, then the whole ritual of the chest bumping played out, then some some swings, then tussling over desks. Well, they knew they were in trouble, but by the time they had walked down the hallway to my office, they had already made up and were laughing about how stupid that fight was. I agreed with them. Pretty stupid. I suspended them.
Later that day, the two sophomore girls were brought to my office. I took them one at a time into my office and asked “How did this start?” Each of them—I am not exaggerating—said “Mr. Weber, this all started in seventh grade” and then proceeded to tell me of every slight between them over the last 3 years, chronologically. I had to cut them both off in mid-story somewhere around what happened in 8th grade and ask them, “What happened TODAY that caused you to fight?”
Girls, you must forgive each other. If we’re going to take seriously the words of Jesus, if we want to be worthy of being Christians, literally, followers of Christ, we must forgive each other and be peace-makers. It may not change foreign policy, it may not affect our war in Iraq, but it makes a difference in the here and now, and we can have profound effect on this portion of the world.
Here’s my second thought, very simply. In our readings this Sunday at Church, Jesus says to us:
“Again, amen, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Mt 18:19-20)
God wants us to pray for peace, and as people who trust in God’s mercy and promises, we believe that prayer makes a difference.
So on this occasion of the 7th anniversary of this horrible attack, let us have the courage to live out the words of Jesus in our daily lives, forgiving each other, becoming peace-makers in our families and around our school. Let us also pray for the safety of those fighting wars in foreign lands, that they may return home soon and that there will one day, soon, be peace abroad.
“Blessed are the peace-makers”, Jesus said, “for they shall inherit the earth”. (Matthew 5: 5)