The Paris bombings last Friday re-opened memories and wounds — of the 1993 World Trade Center bomb attack that came within seconds of killing my brother and of the Boston Marathon bombings two years ago, among others. This past Sunday, just two days after the attacks in Paris, I arrived at church much in need of a space for worship and prayer.
But as I sat in meditation after the Prayers of the Faithful, a priest unexpectedly stood up on the altar and unleashed a rant against “the racist media.”
For a moment, I was disoriented. Had I stumbled into a political rally?
An enemy had been named, and denounced.
Astonishingly — it was me.
There are lots of enemies afoot these days. At Yale, students have demanded the ouster of Nicholas and Erika Christakis, masters of a residential college there, for having suggested that Halloween costumes constituted free speech and that they couldn’t be banned. Donald Trump wants to build a wall to keep Mexicans out of the United States. Syrian refugees — families desperate for a place to resume lives of hope — have been burdened with the stigma of dangerous radicals. And now, “the racist media.”
The “sin” denounced on Sunday was the alleged failure of the Western press to report an attack on Muslims in a Beirut marketplace, even as it plastered articles about the Paris attacks on the front page. I turned on my iPhone, right there in my pew, and confirmed what I suspected: the accusation was utterly false. There had been no blackout of reporting on that Beirut bombing, no conspiracy on the part of the Western press to ignore violence in one part of the world (Muslim) in favor of violence in another part (Christian). Every major western media source had reported the story.
But the damage had been done. Name-calling and demonizing political rhetoric had made its way from the political hustings to the altar. Another enemy had been created; a monolith, the face of some vague evil empire.
My heart broke.
I thought of Terry Anderson, the Associated Press reporter chained for seven years to a radiator in Lebanon, memorizing the Psalms to keep from losing his mind. Of Daniel Pearl with the Wall Street Journal, beheaded while reporting in Pakistan. Of Jason Rezaian, imprisoned in Iran. Christian. Jew. Muslim. The men and women reporting in war zones wake up every morning, wondering if today they will be able to lay hold of a thread of truth in political quicksand, to offer us, at our comfortable breakfast tables, the slightest glimmer of reality, or whether they will die from a stray bullet, be abducted, never to see their children again.
The tragic flaw in our humanity is our deep-seated need to find scapegoats. The ennobling aspiration (as Jesus spent his ministry teaching us) is our rickety efforts to convert this flaw to compassion, welcome, and dialogue.
It is perfectly reasonable to have conversations about the proper “play” of news stories. Members of the media spend hours everyday doing just this; responsible criticism is the privilege afforded by the First Amendment. But just as accuracy wasn’t on offer last Sunday, neither was nuance or dialogue. That’s the problem with creating scapegoats: It thrives on partial truths, primary colors, bully pulpits. If it isn’t “the racist media,” it’s Syrian refugees. Or Mexican children. Or drug cartels. Or inner-city gangs. You choose.
Every time we cave to our bully pulpits, we are the weaker for it.
Polarization is everywhere today. We need to address the real enemy with clarity and firmness. Name-calling, impulsive, seat-of-the-pants reactivity erodes the ground from which healthy dialogue and community springs. Weaponized language is just the beginning. It validates “camps,” separates “them” from “us,” and enables us to forget that behind the billboards of evil are individuals with dreams, minds, and souls trying, for the most part, to lead good, purposeful lives.
History has proven over and over that it is a short step from weaponized language to hardening our hearts — to building walls, refusing the stranger. My years on the streets as a reporter among American’s most vilified residents — the homeless, poor junkies, unemployed ex-felons — seared into me the utterly corrosive effects of labels. They are toxic.
When my father was a young man, in the 1930s, the Rev. Charles Coughlin was a priest with an agenda. From his bully pulpit, he excoriated “international bankers” and “manipulative lenders.” He was a fascist and vicious anti-Semite. His pulpit was the radio, and he persuaded too many credulous young men that Hitler might have a point.
The Church in these times must be catalysts of connection, not divisiveness. We need the courage to open our doors, not spurn those who would be most able to bring constructive insight. Martin Buber famously distinguished between I-it relationships — in which “the other” exists as a projection of our own angers, fears, needs — and I-thou relationships, in which we see the other as a human being.
These are not new challenges. Only the players have changed.
There are many past masters who have followed Jesus in this work. They lived through violence and dislocation and oppression to earn their wisdom. Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King Jr., Etty Hillesum, Thich Nat Hanh. And if reading texts is too time-consuming in these fast-moving days, I would take a look at Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 speech in Indianapolis announcing the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. to an all-black crowd. It will bring tears to your eyes. It is a moving effort of integrity, vision, and peacemaking. At the end of that difficult talk, his audience actually applauded Kennedy, and Indianapolis was the only city in the country that didn’t erupt into riots.
We come to church, as I did last Sunday, wounded by the world and in search of healing and pathways back out into constructive engagement. Ours is a gospel of tolerance. We forget this at our peril. It is also a message of hope and reconciliation. The way we use language matters terribly.
The Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney lived most of his life in exile, in the Republic of Ireland and in North America, writing about brothers who were killing brothers in his native North. He knew the power of language, and the importance of holding to a vision of hope. Here is what he wrote:
Human beings suffer
They torture one another.
They get hurt and get hard.
History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.
This is the vision that we must not only hold in our hearts, but speak with our lips and act out toward one another — refugees, college students, fellow faithful. We will all be strangers until, in Christ’s love, we see one another as pilgrims on the same journey. Hope welcomes the stranger, feeds and clothes her, doesn’t turn and walk away. It is this that cures. It is this that changes us.