For years I have struggled with a sense that there was something not quite right about the religion into which I was born. I’m not talking about the leader or “founder,” as he is sometimes called because common sense tells me that Jesus never set out to start a religion at all. It was something else but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
It would take two conversations a decade apart for clarity to come—one with an African-American man in my office in the weeks after 9/11 and another earlier this year, while I was editing a novel based on the true story of a Jewish immigrant to New York from Lithuania at the turn of the last century.
The first conversation had to do with the fact that I’d noticed that most of my African-American friends and co-workers didn’t seem quite as overtly upset by the World Trade Center attack as the rest of us. Where for white people like me 9/11 and where we were and what we were doing when it happened was for weeks the prevailing topic of every non-work-related conversation, it was not so with most people of color.
I knew that my black friends weren’t immune to feelings about the tragedy, so it had to be something else. So I asked.
Duncan looked at me for a moment. “We’re not afraid of attacks by people we don’t know,” he said. “We’re more afraid of things like Oklahoma City.” He was, of course, referring to the 1993 bombing of the federal building there.
“Why is that?” I asked.
He paused before responding. “I guess you’ve never had a cross burned on your lawn.”
It was like a brick between the eyes. He was right—I’d been an adolescent in the Deep South during the 1960s. I had mourned the death of Martin and seen hooded KKK members and winced at early photos of dead humans hung from trees for no other reason than the color of their skin. But I had never once actually experienced the terror of waking in the night to bricks through windows and fires in my front yard.
For the next few years, I was haunted by that conversation. Its result was to remind me with a vengeance that there are some things we can never truly understand about what drives another’s behavior, another’s thoughts, another’s feelings—even if we, with compassion, try to imagine. The limitations of these skin-enclosed bodies and brains of ours make it impossible for us ever to understand absolutely what it is like to walk in another’s shoes. To try is both crucial and honorable, but to do so with the arrogance of assurance that we can ever know the “truth” of another’s experience is dangerous. Couple that narcissistic ignorance with a weapon and injustice hiding behind an imaginary need for self-defense too often prevails. Bring out the big guns. Create the reality of an adversary where there never had to be.
I’m afraid of violence for a number of reasons—most notably because it never solves anything, unless your full intent is to try to make someone else cower in your presence—which, frankly, says more about the powerlessness you feel than anything else. Violence begets violence in return— physical, emotional and spiritual—unless, of course you’re Jesus.
And that’s exactly the point. But I’m ahead of myself.
The second conversation, which took place largely in my head, came about when, after I watched a National Geographic special around Easter, I was reminded that when the state religion of Rome became Christianity, Constantine required that an X-shaped cross be painted on the shields of his soldiers. Could there have been more of a travesty than to turn the message of the man from Nazareth into a military one? Never mind the fact that the word “religio” in Latin literally means to conform, to be rebound by whatever ideas the temporary ruler has about God.
Mixed with reading to gain a historical perspective about what compelled many of the Russian Jewish immigrants to the United States, the pogroms against Jews in Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—mobs often led by men carrying crosses like battle flags, I was reminded of that first conversation.
When Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me,” he wasn’t talking about guns or spears or bows or quartering or lynching or water torture…or crosses. Doesn’t it strike you as odd that the “icon” for a religion whose members profess to follow the Prince of Peace is a weapon of torture?
It strikes me as odd. Blessed are the peacemakers, he said. Blessed are the meek, the bendable, those who mourn. Nowhere in that cobbled together “sermon on the mount” does it say, “Blessed are the violent.” To imply otherwise is to deny not self, but sanity.
So, in the end, I threw away my crosses for Lent…and, frankly, probably forever. If I must have a symbol of my belief that what the man Jesus reportedly said is indeed the way, the truth and the life, it will be a pearl or a mustard seed or a sunflower. Or maybe it will be a life lived non-violently.
I kept one of my crosses, though. As a reminder. Of man’s unceasing inhumanity to man. And that time after time, the most cruel acts of violence have lain powerless in the face of love.