Romance interrupted by reality

Saturday, June 30, 2007

The heart of the Romantic notion of humanity, an idea that had real currency in the United States until the Civil War, is that it is possible for all people to become one. The time and place in which you live, the generation in which you were birthed do not matter. It is possible, a Romantic would say, to get beyond these differences. It is possible to overcome words of opposition and confrontation and actions of malice and murder to find each person's "core." If we try hard to understand, the Romantic might say, we find the core. In arriving there, it is possible for all of us to become one.

In his high priestly prayer in John 17, Jesus prayed that his disciples and future followers would become "completely one." Was Jesus an early Romantic?

Oh, I don't think so. In the passage cited above, Jesus was essentially talking about the choir. To mix a metaphor, he was praying about people who he believed were on the same page. Jesus was well aware of the opposition his disciples would face once he departed. Note his words, variations of which appear in all three synoptic Gospels:

"If any place will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave, as a testimony against them." (Matthew 10:14)

Jesus was a realist. So were Reinhold Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, two 20th-century German theologians who renounced pacifism because Romantic notions about finding the "core" in Nazi brutality failed utterly. Bonhoeffer, in fact, participated in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler. That involvement cost Bonhoeffer his life in 1945.

Today, we are tempted. We are tempted to believe that Romantic notions ought to guide a Christian attitude toward the scourge of terrorism. If we can only find common ground with Wahhabi Islam, the form of Muslim thought practiced by Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, then we can work out our differences and find a negotiated solution. Yes, it is tempting to feel that way. In our hearts, we want peace and believe others do as well. Unfortunately for all of us, reality intrudes.

Just this past week, we read the following story: A 6-year-old Afghan boy, Juma Gul, said Taliban militants forced him to wear a vest that they told him would "spray out flowers" when he touched a button. Juma was told that when he saw U.S. soldiers, he was to throw himself at them and press the button. Caked with dirt, impoverished, collecting scrap metal for money, Juma seemed an easy mark. Wise beyond his years, however, Juma felt a bomb inside the vest and turned himself into U.S. and Afghan authorities. The Taliban dismisses the story as propaganda but Afghan tribal leaders and U.S. military officers say Juma told the truth.

If you lie to a first-grader and try to turn him into a suicide bomber, there's no common ground to find. If a child's life isn't sacrosanct, there is nothing to talk about. The words of the old Irish prayer come to mind: "May those who love us, love us. For those that don't, may God turn their hearts."

In the meantime, in the face of such sociopathic behavior, we shake the dust off our feet as a testimony against them.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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