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Dr. King's Sword: Responding to Boston

04/19/2013 03:30 pm ET | Updated Jun 19, 2013
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The Onion said it best. It always does.

"'Seriously, can we wrap this up already?' Maryland resident James Alderman told reporters, echoing the thoughts of all 311 million Americans, who have just about reached their weekly goddamned quota for carnage, misery, confusion, heartbreak, and rage. "Because, you know, I'm pretty sure we've all had our hearts ripped out of our chests and stomped on enough times for one seven-day period, thank you very much."

Someone set a bomb off at a marathon. An 8-year-old and two others died there. Two cops were shot last night.

There were heroes. And there was shame. What bothers me most is how not at all unusual all this seems.

But what reassures me is that it seems that the American people have changed.

We have changed. We are not the same people yanked out of our overripe naïveté 12 years ago when the towers fell.

Not all of that change has been good: We've frittered away a decade in pointless wars; we have a strange, dangerous, addiction to assault weapons; our politics are so polarized that one party should just call itself Antarctica and be done with it.

But when the bomb went off, and ordinary people ran toward the blast to help, and runners added 2 miles to their staggering 27, just to reach the nearest hospital and donate blood, we saw who we want to be.

In the Song of Songs it says, "Here is the bed of Solomon, with sixty warriors around it, of the heroes of Israel. All grasped a sword learned in war; every man, his sword strapped to his thigh -- out of fear of the nights" (3:7-8).

We are these verses. We know fear in the night, and we are learned in war. Perhaps the great tragedy is that we live an infinitesimal inkling of what large swaths of the world experience daily.

I am cautious of using war imagery because it makes people feel like it's OK to go out and shoot someone, or, on a whim, invade a nation. But here is what King said about nonviolence:

We had to make it clear that nonviolent resistance is not a method of cowardice. It does resist. It is not a method of stagnant passivity and deadening complacency. The nonviolent resister is just as opposed to the evil that he is standing against as the violent resister but he resists without violence. This method is nonaggressive physically but strongly aggressive spiritually.

We have reluctantly assimilated the idea that we do not live in times of peace. Peace is not the tenor of our age. We live in a strange age in which the terror of the few is perpetrated upon the wellbeing of the many. Those who set the bombs are not waiting for the right moment to take our hand in friendship. Peace is a fervent dream; it is not reality.

And if that is the case, then we must become -- we already have become in some ways -- spiritual warriors. It is time to choose an aggressive spirituality, just as the good doctor taught us.

Among the reasons that Dr. King was a great man was that he knew how to choose his weapon. Every weapon has a recoil: when used, it kicks back at the one who used it; it is immutable Newtonian physics. The weapons we choose inexorably affect us in return. We cannot ignore how weapons that cause death and destruction change the nature of their wielders. This is why terror is insidious: not to respond is irresponsible; however, to respond with violence is to run the risk of furthering our dehumanization.

In his book, "Why We Can't Wait," King writes, "Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. It is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals."

I am glad that there are trained, armed police officers all over the country whose job it is to protect us. But our societal response cannot be to up and grab a gun. Those guns end up pointed back at us. We want a different kind of weapon. We need King's sword.

As a society, we are not perfect, and there's really no cause for our triumphalism. But what we have built in this country is a model for dealing with intractable ideological conflict that does not necessitate beating the other guy with a tire iron, or assuming that the guy with the dark skin is the enemy. America is not a peaceful place; we war over ideas and values constantly and grimly. But we do it in front of the Supreme Court, within inches of each other (I saw it) -- and here's the good part -- no one dies for it. The fact of civil response to ideological war is not all of our reality. But that it exists at all is worth everything.

Rabbi Barry Katz, quoting the psychoanalyst Alan Phillips, teaches that part of adulthood's maturity is surviving and integrating the destruction of childhood's fantasy. Our fantasy, that everyone desires peace and goodwill, is destroyed. We live in a world of violence. Unlike 9/11, let's not go invade somebody. Rather, let us be the warriors who fight for that kind of peace, despite the threat of violence to us, to our families, and to our society. That is our Torah. We are to be the warriors who fight for that kind of peace, despite the threat of violence to us, to our families, and to our society.

I have said nothing new. A thousand sermons and op-eds tell us to fight back by preserving the good in our way of life. All I have to add is a reminder, and some hizuk (strengthening): warriors keep fighting. They accept the necessity of struggle as a personal responsibility. They fight, even while they fear.

Will Joyner wrote a beautiful review of "Wounded I Am More Awake: Finding Meaning after Terror," the story of a Bosnian physician who lived through Bosnian concentration camps, and his subsequent work.* The article ends with the haunting words of the poet Mak Dizdar, from which the book's title was taken:

"They whisper around to me that my life has been in vain / They do not know that so wounded I am more awake."

*Again, I am thankful to Rabbi Katz and Rabbi David Schuck for directing me to Joyner's piece.