Wednesday, November 18, 2015


It’s not what happens but how you react to it that matters.
                                                       Epictetus (55-135 AD)

The terrorist shootings and bombings in Paris are horrific, as was the terrorist attack of similar proportions in Kenya last April, as are all incidents of mass violence. I was ordained on the anniversary of the greatest act of mass violence in history; the bombing of Hiroshima that ended 100,000 lives in “a noiseless flash.”[i] The Japanese priest who preached at my ordination said:
          Endings are a natural consequence of life itself – but
          we see violent death as an outrage because it is unnatural.

The priest, Koji Hayashi, told the story of Masao Watanabe who was in Hiroshima that day. He said,

           Masao had to pass through what remained of Hiroshima
           to reach the railway system. He was so broken in spirit
           by the devastation he passed that he could not bear
           to leave the suffering and wounded without some gesture
          of what he felt in his heart – so he put down his duffel bag.
          It was everything he owned. . . .

         Dan, you know, as we all know, that a broken spirit is more
         than an ending. Is the empty vessel that is ready to be filled.

And therein lies the question: filled with what?

It’s not what happens but how you react to it that matters.

I see most of the world filling the vessel with love and compassion for all who suffer from the violence in our world. I see hearts broken open to share the grief of France and Kenya. But others have opened their hearts to fear and hatred. That is, of course what terrorists hope to accomplish. That is the response they hope to see.

Fear plus hatred does not equal wisdom. For example, although I thought I could no longer be surprised by anything politicians say, I was stunned to hear a leading presidential candidate call for the closing of American mosques. It isn’t that such a thing is un-Christian and un-American, it is that it is such a rolling out the welcome mat for terrorism.

ISIS does not appeal to well-adjusted, socially successful, happy youth. ISIS appeals to the lonely, the outcast, the misfits desperate for someone who will take them in, allow them to belong, and give them a mission. When ISIS begins recruiting a teenager, the first thing they set out to do is separate the teenager from his mosque. The mosques are where these teens have a chance of belonging and where they will hear their elders teaching authentic peaceful Islam. American mosques are the frontline of our defense against the recruiting of young jihadists. The very last thing we should do if we want to keep our country safe is close the mosques.

I do not want to belabor the point that Syrian refugees are the fellow victims of ISIS or that ISIS has committed vastly more violence against Syrians and Iraquis than Westerners, and vastly more violence against Muslims than Christians or Jews. It isn’t about numbers. It is that we extend compassion to hurting people who look like us but respond with fear and hatred to hurting people of a different race, religion, and language. The theological imperative to welcome refuges is clear and emphatic.

My point is not theological or moral but spiritual. ISIS weapon is fear. It’s objective is fear. What ISIS wants us to do is “be afraid.” Our Bible says 365 times, “Fear not.” The command Jesus gave his disciples most often was “Fear not.” We are faced each day with the chance to live in fear or love. Those are the options because “There is no room for fear in love but perfect love casts out fear.” 1 John 4: 18.

So let’s get clear on who is promoting what. ISIS is not promoting Islam. ISIS disgraces Islam and slaughters Muslims. ISIS is promoting fear. The question is: are we going to buy it. Are we going to let them win by feeling what they want us to feel, saying what they want us to say, and acting as they want us to act. Fear is the false God they invite us to worship. That’s why the one true God says over and over again, “Fear not.”

Fear makes us reason in the wildest, craziest ways. Someone said this week if we let 10,000 Syrian refugees in our country, if even 1% are terrorists, that is 100 terrorists who might do us tremendous harm. But we have seen more violence here from a few troubled college students. There are close to 21 million college students. If 1% of the college students are crazed gunmen who will commit mass shootings as in Oregon this Fall, that would be 210,000 crazed gunmen. That reason would clearly mandate the closing of all college campuses. The refugees are not the enemy. They are the victims. Yes, we must do reasonable security checks – security checks at a level that is simply impossible in Europe. Acts of love do not have to be foolish. Acts of fear seem to be so compelled.

Masao Watanabe, the young man in Hiroshima, filled the empty vessel of his broken spirit with the love of Christ. He was baptized in the Episcopal Church of Japan. Later he was ordained priest, then bishop, then primate of the Church. His grief never went away, but he turned it into love everyday of his life. You see, Hiroshima Day is also The Feast of the Transfiguration.

It’s not what happens but how you react to it that matters.

[i] John Hersey, Hiroshima


Anonymous said...

This was a PERFECT reply that I forwarded to my cousin, who has been hysterically ranting her fear-based diatribe about closing our country to all Muslims, etc. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

P.S. This is one reason why I love my church.