The Enemy Within
I thought for a day or so late last week that I would not add one more comment to the flood of stories which has poured out of Oklahoma City after their horrific tragedy, but I found myself so overwhelmed by what happened to our neighbors that I could not concentrate on anything else. The sermon I had announced was so oppo-site from the mood of the whole country that I simply gave it up. Maybe next week.
It was not only the graphic media accounts that kept me thinking of that awful business night and day, but I have a son who has lived there for the past ten years and who kept calling me with his own stories every few hours. He was teaching a class at Oklahoma City University when the bomb exploded and shook their building, but his wife and infant son had been in the federal building a few days earlier to get a social security card for the baby, and Robin was marveling, as all of us do at times, at the sheer good or bad luck that puts people in certain places at certain times.
To cope with such a tragedy, our minds spun out questions like a pinwheel on a fencepost: all motion and no meaning. First we want to know Who — and given the way the world is we were understandably in a hurry to fix blame on someone from a different culture, unable to imagine for a while that we had domestic rather than international terrorism. “Seal our borders,” some shouted. “Bomb their country off the face of the map,” screamed others. And when men were arrested and we looked at the enemy within, we had that familiar surprise when evil comes dressed as our next-door neighbor. “Just ordinary, regular guys, coming in to buy gasoline or groceries,” the clerk said. “Hadn’t bothered anyone.”
But things build inside, slowly, fed by the rhetoric of hatred and violence, and one day the ordinary-looking guy who always spoke or kept his yard clean explodes in some unimaginable act. As a society we gasp at the terrible consequences of violence, but we are not much given to the grim and pedestrian task of studying the causes and finding a cure. Perhaps I inhabit a different world from yours but a simple trip to the movie theater is an inescapably violent spectacle, even if all I’m forced to watch are the previews of coming attractions where everything explodes: police cars, speed-boats, airplanes, high-rise office buildings — one huge fireball after another. Let me see your art forms, Plato said in ancient Greece, and I can define and predict your society.
Add to this continuous bombardment of violence our recent non-stop endorse-ment of the politics of hatred, and we have a volatile mix. What was once considered boorish, even dangerous, is now considered entertaining. G. Gordon Liddy recently called for the death of ATF agents on his radio talkshow, instructing listeners to “shoot them in the head” so they could not be bandaged up and brought back to do more mischief. Most of us simply shake our heads in disbelief at such talk, but hundreds, even thousands, are wrought to fever pitch by a steady diet of such rhetoric. It seems we have extremists from rightwing paramilitary groups whose very reason to live is to hate the government. A president is smeared day and night on the airways. The first lady is made fun of, viciously. Chelsea is the butt of crude and cruel jokes. “Government is the enemy; get rid of it!” As a man who believes in the power of language, I am convinced that this constant inflammatory rhetoric by and by moves somebody who might otherwise have stayed home to drive to Oklahoma City.
We have pondered these last few days the great paradox of this malignant act of cowardice: that out of the almost indescribable horror of what happened there has blossomed heart-stirring proof human beings are capable of equally great sympathy and compassion and heroic sacrifice. One of the most realistic books ever written, which against the odds found its way into the Bible, shocks us in one verse by sug-gesting that more wisdom comes from a visit to the house of sorrow than to the house of laughter. Oklahoma City and the whole world must understand a little better today the words of the French philosopher Pascal when he reminded us that “We sometimes learn more from the sight of evil than from an example of good….”
So what have we learned? First, how incomprehensibly evil the human heart may be that has no moral conscience. Humanity is not an accident of birth; an infant arrives with no conscience, a bundle of purely selfish instincts. Patiently, lovingly, we go to work to create a conscience, to create a human being. Someone failed to do that with the men who ran from the Ryder truck, or else somewhere along the way they converted to the gospel of hate. The second thing we have learned is how noble people can be at such a time. “Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,” our sacred writing pleads, and our neighbors down I-35 have distinguished them-selves. My son and I talked of the irony that the lilies of Easter Sunday had hardly wilted when Oklahoma City’s crucifixion began. In a cruel twist of liturgical rhythms: death coming AFTER the empty tomb, a tomb 9 stories high and twisted like the face of evil itself. Both of us had said to our congregations that the real meaning of the resurrection story is that the spirit of Christ lives over and over in those who give it room. “We know about this in our city,” my son is saying at this very moment on radio heard all over Oklahoma. “It was our firemen who lifted children, some bleeding, some already dead from that hell of a place. They did it in disregard for their own lives, and proved once and for all that whoever said grown men don’t cry was not a grown man.
“It was our doctors and nurses, from our congregations, from our neighborhoods, from our hospitals that poured into the streets of downtown Oklahoma City and treated with their skilled han ds what most people could hardly bare to look at. Do you think we need to reach out and touch the side of Christ to know that he lives on? It was our parents who taped the names of their children to themselves so they could be identified quickly should those children be found, and it was our parents who rejoiced with every vhild found alive, even before they knew the fate of their own. It was our citizens who could not be restrained from digging by hand, rock by rock, because they heard kids crying. Reach out and touch the wounds of Christ, you say? Not necessary.
“They came from everywhree: firefighters, sheriff;’s deputies, tactical police teams, smalltown police, ATF and FBI agents, arson and explosives experts, state and federal investigators, disaster team members, FEMA representatives, an Air Force rescue squd, state and national guard personnel, and ordinary citizens. Anyone who could do something, did it. Nearby restaurants and stores brought food, volunteers handed out water bottles, a hotel-restaurant convention at the Myriad spread their food samples out cafeteria style for anyone who was hungry. Nearby churches lost their sained glass windows but opened their doors to handle basic human needs. At every location where blood could be donated, the lines stretched for blocks. My wife Shawn stood in line for 7 and l/2 hours to give her rare O-negative blood. Touch the body of Christ to believe, doubting Thomas? Not necessary. We became the body of Christ, torn, bleeding, full of infinite love and compassion.
“The telephone at church and at home began ringing early in the afternoon of April 19th, and it has not stopped ringing. Dozens of UC C and Congregational ministers have called from all over the country to express sympathy and offer the help of their members. During one call, while I spoke to a church secretary in Massa-chusetts, she suddenly began to cry. And this weeping, like a lyrical song of sorrow, is a sound I will never forget. People in Oklahoma City have been driving around since the bombing with their headlights on, a profoundly moving sight whose message is obvious: we are all in a vast funeral procession, and all of us are grieving.”
If Robin had been a boy in Oklahoma as I was, and taught Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, as I have done many times, he would probably be telling his Oklahoma audience this morning that they will now be remembered for something else besides the Joad family and the epic journey to California. This time, the Californians came by the dozens to Oklahoma and were amazed at the strength and courage they found. And as one of them said, “I can’t believe that you didn’t have looters all over that part of town.” Sometimes, and this was such a time, tragedy elevates instead of merely depressing. There is an inspiring enlargement of the human spirit. We go about our routine existence, complaining that the coffee has gotten cold, that the room is too hot, that a tooth hurts, that the job is boring. And then, the truly tragic awakens us and we rediscover the meaning of heroism and goodness. In suffering so immense, and compassion reckless of risk as it insists on helping, is born a new affirmation of faith in life, a declaration that even if God is not intervening from some remote location, then at least humanity has risen in nobility to renew the values that make its life possible. As Bertrand Russell put it in one of his books: “In these moments of insight, we lose all….struggling and striving for petty ends, all care for the little trivial things that, to a superficial view, make up the common life of day by day….”
Our faith, as you of all Christian people must know, offers no theoretical solution to the problem of horrendous evil. It merely points to the cross and says that there is no evil so dark and so obscene but that it can be turned to good. Which is exactly what the stunned and totally self-forgetful people of Oklahoma have done. I shall see for the rest of my life the haggard, griefstricken face of that nameless relief worker who said, “I just want to go home and hug my child.” He will be a better father. My son will be a more sensitive minister. Teachers in Oklahoma city schools will see their students differently. For a long time, people who took life for granted will not do so. Would we give up those gains to have back those we lsot? In a moment! But we have no such choice. The only choice is to overcome evil with good.
So what shall we do? For one thing, we must study hatred no more. We must condemn the rhetoric of violence that saturates talk radio. We must stop subsidizing gratuitous and glorified violence on television or at the movies, so that those who make money dehumanizing us will have to look for honest work. We must discourage the teaching and preaching of simple-minded solutions to complex problems. We must counter a pathological hatred of authority and government, or reap tragedies wrought by atomic bombs or poison gas that will make what happened in Oklahoma City seem child’s play by contrast. We must stop staring at hatred and violence in distant lands and look unflinchingly into the face of the enemy within. We have had a wakeup call.
I think it helps to remember that the terrible things that happen to us do not HAVE a meaning when they happen to us. We GIVE them a meaning. We redeem them from utter senselessness by imposing meaning on them. If our feeling of security has been damaged, we rediscover how precarious our tenure is, how vulnerable we are to accidents of time or place or grotestue evil — and life is suddenly no longer routine or trivial. In Archibald MacLeish’s challenging drama J. B., a modern version of the Biblical Job, the wife of the tragically stricken hero says to him, “You wanted justice, didn’t you? There isn’t any….there is only love.” So he and his wife answer the problem of human suffering not with theology or psychology, but by choosing to go on living and creating new life. I like what a Jewish rabbi of a century ago said: “Human beings are God’s language.” We can be proud of the way our fellow human being have spoken that language in the last few days.
We have reminded ourselves, gracious God, that love is the
one thing no one can command. It is a free gift, or it is nothing.
And it is most itself, most free, when it is offered in spite
of suffering, of injustice, and of death. Amen.