A complicated morality

“Watch the news from other parts of the world,” was the advice and homework from one of my professors in seminary.  It provides a different perspective on national events as they are explored through a different set of questions and interpreted from a different framework.  This week I came across an article reflecting on the Boston bombings from a Pakistani columnist.  She writes for the nation’s largest English speaking newspaper and is familiar with covering such incidents as Pakistan suffered over 650 such attacks last year.  Here are a few excerpts from Rafia Zakaria’s article “The Tragedies of Other Places:”

Attacks in America are far more indelible in the world’s memory than attacks in any other country. There may be fewer victims and less blood, but American tragedies somehow seem to occur in a more poignant version of reality, in a way that evokes a more sympathetic response.

It is this greater poignancy of attacks in America that begs the question of whether the world’s allocations of sympathy are determined not by the magnitude of a tragedy—the numbers dead and injured—but by the contrast between a society’s normal and the cruel aftermath of a terrorist event. It is in America that the difference between the two is the greatest; the American normal is one of a near-perfect security that is unimaginable in many places, especially in countries at war.

America is so secure and free from suffering that people have the luxury of indulging in deliberate suffering in the form of excruciating physical exertion; this suffering in turn produces well-earned exhilaration, a singular sense of physical achievement and mental fortitude. The act of running a marathon is supposed to be simple, individual—a victory of the will over the body, celebrated by all and untouched by the complicated questions of who in the world can choose to suffer and who only bears suffering.

When terror hits the site of such faith in human fortitude, the impact is large. The innocence of marathon runners and their expectations of a finish line, a well-earned victory, are markers of an America that still believes in an uncomplicated morality even while it is at war. The runner runs, sweats, suffers, and deserves the prize; the messiness of the world has no place in that vacuum of earned achievement where victory is straightforward in a way that it can never be in actual life. The rest of the world is a more complicated place; its people are forced to digest more complicated truths whose vast gray areas rob every tragedy of the pathos available to Americans living and mourning in a universe of black and white.

This is an incredibly rich article with much to consider, so I’m going to isolate a few thoughts:

Broken faith in human fortitude:  Qualifying to run in the Boston marathon is an accomplishment; finishing even more so.  When I see the 26.2 sticker on the back of a car I think of the  months of training, the time constraints and physical strain – all of which take place before the race.  So when these athletes and those who come to celebrate them are together injured and killed, it shows our incredible frailty.  We can push the body, exert the will and concentrate our focus on a singular end, yet it unravels so quickly.  The body we push is broken, our energies are turned aside, and our expectations of what would be fail.  In the display of strength that is the Boston marathon we now more clearly see our weakness.  Is this weakness something from which we want to hide?  Yes, but it is inseparable from being human.

The thin fence between violence: Many of us live as if danger is far away.  We die from heart attacks, cancer, or car accidents unless you live in a “rough neighborhood.”  In other parts of the world you die if you’re grocery shopping on the wrong day.  You die if you’re early or running late to a party.  You die ridding the bus, going through check point, standing next to a police officer or on your way to school.  The arbitrary nature of violence and death is felt much more acutely in societies without the security and freedom which has been passed down to us.  As our world continues to change the security and self-sefficiency that seems inseparable from the American life, may further erode.

Choosing to run:  We were recently watching the DVD of the John Adams mini-series and when he was representing the colonies in France he was caught up in a conversation about music.  Acknowledging that he hadn’t studied music he said that his son would not either.  Adams continued that he studied law and participated in the revolution so that maybe his great-grandsons would have the opportunity to study music.  Adams understood that studying music was a privilege that his world did not allow and to set aside other matters for this pursuit would be wrong.  We live in a country where we freely choose all sorts of recreations and easily forget all  the pieces in place to give us such freedom.  Recreation, regardless of the type, is a privilege and as such should be viewed accordingly.  For example, I assume that the winner of this year’s Boston marathon is not gloating or celebrating.  He is likely mourning and to some degree thankful to be alive.  Yet, when the bombings fade from our the tip of our conscience we will gloat and mourn our team’s victory as if there is nothing larger in the world.  If it is inappropriate to celebrate in the midst of death and violence what of the death and violence in America’s rougher neighborhoods?  What of the death and violence in Pakistan and so many other places?  Yes, we need to go on with normal life in the midst of a world which is full or sorrow and pain, but we also need to rethink normal.

“Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.”  These are Jesus’ words to a crowd of men, women, and children familiar with violence, oppression, terrorism, and the frailty of human life.  I’m going to be preaching from this on Sunday and I believe there are ways in which we don’t want to hear these words.  Speaking of mercy and grace to Americans is usually much easier than speaking of justice and the righteousness of God.  I wonder to what degree our sentiments will continue to evolve as we experience violence and wrongdoing.

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