Sunday, April 21, 2013

"Fear no evil" in a locked-down world

Text: Psalm 23 (The Lord is my shepherd)

"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil." So writes the author of the 23rd Psalm. Today, I examine this famous statement in the light of Monday's terrorist bombing in Boston.

It is easy to make a list of things we fear: disease, natural disasters, war. But nothing seems to get the media's attention and governmental response quicker than politically-motivated terrorism. Acts of terror are designed to cause death and injury and spread fear; and the ability of terrorism to spread fear was dramatically illustrated again this past week.

Two young Russian-American brothers set off bombs at the Boston Marathon this past Monday. The blasts killed three people and injured more than 170 others. The brothers had lived in the United States for 10 years and the youngest had recently become a U.S. citizen. They had been born in or around Chechnya, which is a wretched part of Russia in which a failed independence struggle over the last 20 years has led to the deaths of 100,000 people, an Islamist terrorist insurgency, and human rights abuses by the Russian army.

So it seems probable that national and religious conflict in the former Soviet Union provides part of the backdrop for this deadly act of terror.

Some like Prime Minister Stephen Harper urge us not to look for the causes of terror attacks like the one on Monday. On Wednesday he said, "When you see this type of violent act [as in Boston], you do not sit around trying to rationalize it, make excuses for it, or figure out its root causes. You condemn it categorically, and to the extent you can deal with the perpetrators, you deal with them as harshly as possible."

His remarks were aimed at the new leader of Canada's federal Liberal Party, Justin Trudeau. On Monday, just a few hours after the bombings, Trudeau responded to a reporter's question about the bombing by saying, "we have to look at the root causes. Now, we don’t [yet] know if it was terrorism or a single crazy [person] or a domestic issue or a foreign issue. But there is no question that this happened because there is someone who feels completely excluded. Completely at war with innocents. At war with society. And our approach has to be, okay, where do those tensions come from?"

My instincts pull me in both of these directions. While I was amazed by the size and scope of the police action that led to the apprehension of the two suspects -- one who is dead and one who is recovering from serious injuries -- I am relieved that the suspects are no longer at large.

On the other hand, I want to understand why young people -- like the two brothers in Boston, or the four high school friends in London Ontario who moved to North Africa a few years ago and joined Al-Qaeda -- are drawn to violence. To try and approach this question, I look both at Scripture and at some difficult realities.

The 23rd Psalm does not ignore the things in life of which we are afraid. It talks about the valley of the shadow of death and mentions our enemies.

In the face of both enemies and death, the psalm paints an appealing and reassuring picture of life lived in the presence of God. But given all that we have to fear, is this a realistic picture? Do "goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our lives" even in the face of disease, war, and terrorism?

And if we have nothing to fear, then how do we explain the huge response to the bombing in Boston on Monday? I was especially shocked when I heard on Friday morning that the whole city had been ordered into a so-called lock-down in order to aid the search for the remaining 19-year old suspect and to prevent him from hurting anyone else.

In the end, the lock-down seems to have slowed the capture of the teenager. It was only when the governor of Massachusetts told residents at 6 pm on Friday evening that they could unlock their doors and leave their homes that a homeowner in suburban Boston went outside and noticed a trail of blood that led to a boat in his backyard. He lifted up a tarp, saw the bleeding figure of the suspect inside, and phoned the police. Two hours later, the boy surrendered to the FBI.

The events of Monday were horrible, and I quite understand the sadness, fear and huge police response they generated. But what about the other things of which we are afraid?

The other incident of mass violence in the United States last week was the accidental explosion at a fertilizer plant in the small town of West Texas. At least 14 people were killed, part of the 5,000 Americans killed in industrial accidents each year. But why do regulations allow huge tanks of anhydrous ammonia to be stationed in residential neighbourhoods? Is this not crazy?

We are much more likely to be killed by an industrial accident -- often exacerbated by  lax regulations and enforcement -- than we are by acts of political terror.

Lax regulations are also behind the financial meltdown of 2008 that destroyed the savings and livelihoods of hundreds of millions around the world. Most observers believe that it was reckless and fraudulent practices by ultra-rich bankers that caused the meltdown. And yet five years later, not one bank executive has been arrested let alone charged, tried or convicted of a crime. Not one legislator who allowed the era of rampant greed on Wall Street to flourish has been held to account for what is surely a series of terrible crimes.

Then there is war with all its collateral damage. We are told that 100,000 people have died in the tiny region of Chechnya in Russia's attempts to prevent it from becoming a separate country. We are told that close to 1 million Iraqis have died since the U.S. invasion 10 years ago. All of these victims are just as much children of God and the mourned loved ones of parents, siblings, friends and neighbours as are the four people murdered by the terrorists in Boston this past week.

Do we really think we can live in a world filled with such reckless disregard of safety in the pursuit of profit, such inequality, and such carnage in war, and not also discover that some fanatical young people lash out with their own violence?

Asking this question does not condone political or religious acts of terrorism.  Such acts can never be justified. It does, however, put them into a context that Prime Minister Harper, for one, does not seem to want to examine.

President Barack Obama put it this way on Friday evening after the second suspect was arrested, "Why did young men who grew up and studied here as part of our communities and country resort to such violence? How did they plan and carry out these attacks? And did they receive any help? The families of those killed so senselessly deserve answers.

The wounded, some of whom now have to learn how to stand, walk and live again, deserve answers. And so . . . we will determine what happened. We will investigate any associations that these terrorists may have had. And we will continue to do whatever we have to do to keep our people safe.
One thing we do know is that whatever hateful agenda drove these men to such heinous acts, cannot prevail . . . they will not break the bonds that hold us together as Americans."

Obama concluded  by saying that, "the American spirit includes staying true to the unity and diversity that makes us strong . . . we take care not to rush into judgement, not about the motivations of these [two brothers], and certainly not about entire groups of people. One of the things that makes America one of the greatest nations on earth . . . is that we welcome people from all around the world, people of every faith, every ethnicity . . . So as we continue to learn more about why and how this tragedy happened, let’s make sure that we sustain that spirit." I appreciate the President's comments . . .

Terror, war and fear -- these are some of the big and difficult topics raised by the attacks in Boston this past week, and also by the 23rd Psalm. To close this sermon, I talk about the most fearsome threat that has ever faced humanity -- nuclear war.

Psalm 23 includes the phrase "the valley of the shadow of death;" and sometimes that image reminds me of our own neighbourhood. The United States houses its land-based nuclear weapons in silos just over the border from us, near Minot North Dakota, Great Falls Montana, and Cheyenne Wyoming. In this sense, Borderlands seems literally to be part of the valley of the shadow of death. At any moment, the hundreds of intercontinental ballistic missiles housed across the line could be launched and obliterate most people on the planet.

When President Obama first took office four years ago, he spent a lot of effort trying to advance talks to rid the world of nuclear weapons, and with good reason. Each night Obama goes to sleep knowing that he could be awoken with news of a crisis and be asked to make a split-second decision to deploy these weapons and kill millions or even billions of people. Talk about terror and fear!

If only the nuclear genie could be put back into the bottle . If only we didn't have to live every moment of our lives with the threat of the ultimate violence lying in the hills to the south of us. But this is the world in which we live. And it is a world in which Psalm 23 can speak clearly to us.

The Psalm is not naive, I believe. It does not mean that regulators of industry will always do their utmost to keep us safe. It does not mean that fanatical youth won't sometimes attack the ills of the world or their own alienation with horrible acts of terror. It does not mean that nuclear weapons will never be used again.

What the Psalm does is remind us that God's Spirit is with us always -- through life, at the end of life, and after life is over. The Psalm reminds us to fear no evil precisely at the moments when we seem to have the most to fear: as our loved ones are dying, as horrible industrial or natural disasters are occurring, or as war is breaking out despite our best efforts to prevent it.

In fragile lives and in a society plagued by conflict and violence, fear seems unavoidable. The antidote to that fear is not wishful thinking that bad things will never happen to us. The antidote to fear is our faith that we are in God's hands come what may; that we are blessed by God come what may.

I pray with all my heart and soul that the ICBMs across the line are never used. But if those silos ever do open and the missiles are fired, I imagine that I will recite the 23rd Psalm. Its poetry will remind me that even in a world of violence and at my life's end, we need fear no evil, for God is with us both now and always.

Thanks be to God.


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