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Rev. Susan Baller-Shepard Headshot

Searching for Goodness in Times of Horror

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I remember July 7, 2005, when an acquaintance of mine, Colin Morley, was killed on the Tube, Edgware Road in London, by a suicide bomber. I remember the horror of it. The bomb had nails packed into it so when it exploded, it would do as much damage and maiming as possible. I thought of that this week with the two bombs going off in Boston, packed with carpenter nails.

I speak to a stranger, as we catch part of the news.

She says, "I really hope it's an international incident. I really hope it's not domestic."

I reply, "I really hope it's domestic, and not international."

The stranger looks at me for a long pause and says, "I know lots of hunters, I don't want guns banned. I want my rights. If it's domestic, more of our rights will erode away. The Constitution was good enough for our forefathers, it's good enough for us today."

I don't respond. I think of numerous remarks, but don't say anything.

I want to tell her, "I have a daughter, and friends born in other countries. I'm afraid if it's international, there will be even more xenophobia."

I want to tell her, "Hate crimes skyrocketed against Muslims and Sikhs (mistaken for Muslims) after 9/11. Innocent people were targeted because of actions of extremists."

I want to tell her, "I teach Major World Religions, there are profound implications globally when violence has its roots in foreign soil." Instead, I say nothing more to her.

On Monday, before the bombing occurred, and before teaching Major World Religions class, I had two students ask me what I thought of Mr. Rogers. They were debating Mr. Rogers' merits. I respond, "Did you know Mr. Rogers was a Presbyterian minister? I love his line, "Look for the helpers," that got quoted a lot after the Sandy Hook elementary shooting."

When these students return to class on Wednesday, one tells me, "You know that Mr. Rogers quote you mentioned? It's all over the web."

For Wednesday's class, since we are covering the Abrahamic traditions, I had asked the students to review the Theological Declaration of Barmen. We discussed how Karl Barth, Hans Asmussen, and others were responding to the Third Reich, to the violence in their time. For Presbyterians, this document is included in The Book of Confessions for how it speaks out in a particular time and place against atrocities.

I wonder about the atrocities these students are witnessing in the news -- how inured they and we can become to the violence in our age, the violence in our games, the violence in our movies -- how we can become numb because there is so much of it. For homework, after reading the document, I had asked students, "What characteristics do these authors possess? Can you think of a risky situation in which people or a person of a faith tradition acted as a force for good?" I want to be bombarded with examples. I want there to be resounding response. Instead, their answers come in fits and starts: they mention courage, they cite Martin Luther, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi.

This exercise reminds me of my poetry instructor saying that in her class we could not rely on dead poets for sustenance, we had to find new voices, living poets, to sustain us. It was in her class that I discovered Yusef Komunyakaa, Sharon Olds, Anne Carson, Robin Behn, Carole Maso, and others, alive now, in our time, poets speaking and writing in this age.

I watched the clips from Boston, the people rushing in, tearing down the fencing to help the injured, at their own peril, not knowing if there would be further explosions. I am glad they are caught on camera, these people acting bravely to help others. These, truly, are heroes. As Joan Chittister wrote in "Welcome to the Wisdom of the World," "In the end, the sight of goodness undeterred has more power than all the forces on earth arrayed against it."

Before my students leave Major World Religions class in May, I want them to have a list of people, from a variety of faith communities, who have exhibited "goodness undeterred." I want them to know there are people who are courageous and strong, who risk much for the sake of causes bigger than their own lives. I want to remind them that these brave people, alive today, come from a variety of faith traditions. I want my students armed with these examples, before the next atrocity occurs.