Three men and six women lying on the floor of an historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, USA, their bibles scattered on the desk and the floor, and blood streaming through the aisle is the picture of the world’s, yet known, greatest tragedy of the week of 17 June 2015. In all the heartbreaking dramas of the past decade, the terrorism and gruesome murder of thousands of Christians and religious minorities across the east, Africa and even in the west, and the destruction of iconic places of worship, this one stands out like the story of “Et tu Brute” (and [even] you, Brutus).
On the west coast of the United States of America, I was having a bible study with more than two hundred men of integrity (BBB Group) at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Bakersfield, California. The theme was on forgiveness. We recalled the rare cases of Christian forgiveness as witnessed during the Rwandan Genocide of about a million people, Pope Saint John Paul II’s heroic act of forgiveness to his attempted assassin, and many other examples including those from the terrorism-ridden places of the world. Little did we know that, at that very hour, on a similar occasion (bible study), terror was taking place closer home on the other side of the coast about 2500 miles away.
The meek, unarmed and vulnerable Christian community in Charleston welcomed a boy to their fellowship with open arms though he was a stranger. “When I was a stranger, you welcomed me.” They were living the very words of Our Savior Jesus Christ. They were living out the teachings of the bible.
For one hour, one long hour … the boy (his name is intentionally left out here) listened, and was “part” of the body of Christ. The believers may have offered him water and coffee if he wanted it, since it is customary in many churches in the United States of America during bible studies to make for such provisions. After one hour of fellowship, he decided to kill the very people who welcomed him. Unreal! Mean!! Heartless!!! The rest of that horrible incident is a negative history; the memory would hardly be wiped out of the books. My heart bleeds. No need to recount the horror anymore, and give the villain an undue attention and space on my blog.
May the gentle souls of the fallen heroes of Christian hospitality rest in peace. Amen. My heart goes out to the families, church members and friends of the victims. I offered prayers and I will continue to pray this does not repeat, anywhere.
As the story of that massacre evolves, I find behind it yet another story, a Christian message of forgiveness. During the first court (bond) hearing the day after that evil-personified was arrested, the members of the Church and the families of the victims addressed him to his face. They weren’t in denial about their pains which are really deep; instead they acknowledged them but spoke the very word standing as judgment to the wicked: “I forgive you.” “We forgive you.”
I am edified by this heroic spirit of forgiveness and Christian answer to acts of hate and terrorism. I find in the son of one of the victims, the family members of the deceased and the response of the members of that Church as well as other men and women of goodwill, a clear example of the weapon of forgiveness. Christians do not live by the standards of an eye for an eye. We overcome hate with love, violence with peace, murder with the gospel of life. Our weapons are those of love not of hate.
We see in this tragedy, in the blink of an eye, how many people, irrespective of their affiliations, united in condemnation of the horrific murder. And at least, I suppose, a free world would realize how monstrously wicked people could be, if there were no solid moral compass to shape their thoughts and actions.
Many questions have been asked; how did the villain devolve to this extent, how was he raised, who are his mentors, how dare his father gift him a gun irrespective of a questionable track record, why the historic black Church, why in Charleston, South Carolina? We can go on and on without finding satisfactory answers. But one thing is clear to me; it is in the heart, wherein lies hate and the thirst for blood. For if the heart is not trained to love others, to love every life and to see one another as members of one family, it may as well be that a case-study of the mythic controversial homo homini lupus (man a wolf to man) is finding a scene on our time’s (world) stage despite the triumphalism posture of advancements in education, politics, human rights, science and technology.
In the face of evil, racism, and terrorism, in all their forms, we need to realize how love trumps hate; how a sense of reconciling and reconciliatory family is key to building a stronger world; how seeing others, irrespective of their color or background, as a brother, a sister; and how building on good moral foundations, and I dare to say, the dictates of love, is the only lasting principle for any society.
She has been a Catholic for about two decades, and is one of the most devout women in her parish. A regular Holy Communion communicant, Magdalene (not her real name), is happily married and also active in her community. Committing her time, talents and treasures in the service of God and her neighbor. Her faith … incredible!
“I lived a horrible life in the past. I was proud, lustful, and unhappy but God saved me”, she told the audience who were rapt in deep attention, listening to her story.
Born in an ungodly family in one of the North American countries, her dad forbade her from having Christians as friends or going to church. She was her father’s
darling and adored him. The dad was wealthy and she wouldn’t want to mess with
him, knowing she could lose out on family inheritance. Moreover, she didn’t care much concerning the “whole thing about faith and Christian morality.” She wanted to live her life freely and not be bothered by any standards “limiting” her freedom.
As a teen, she made her choice. “I want to live in the United States, the land of freedom and dreams to enjoy my life and maximize my potentials”, she had disclosed to her father. In order not to lose her to meaningless piety (so it seemed to her dad) of the religious nuns who taught in one of the local schools and who would, from time to time, chat with her to his distaste, she was obliged to migrate to the United Sates of America. This was considered a win-win situation to both her and her dad. She wanted to enjoy life, free from the daily monitoring of her father (her dad didn’t know this), and everyone else’s (including those laidback nuns who taught at her school). For her dad, America was the best fit so she could see life broader and be a freethinker.
The relocation to the US was fun, but only for a time. She was studious and took her academics serious, landing a good job after graduation, way ahead of many of her peers. Her self-esteem was very high. Shoulder high, she enjoyed every iota of pleasure she could afford. No violations of any state laws or work-related policies, no excessive depravity, just the usual stuff, it seemed to her; wining and dining, and sexual gratifications. “If you can afford it, go for it”, she firmly believed. By mistake, as they say, she became pregnant. She didn’t want the baby, not because she was ashamed – not her concern since all in her circle cared less. She decided to abort because she didn’t want to shoulder the responsibility of taking care of a baby.
Walking out of the abortion clinic after a successful abortion, reality set it. She felt sadness, anxiety and worries like never before. Guilt was strong and real. She was completely in moral rags. In her heart, there was a palpable conviction she had done something really horrible, terribly wrong. Her life wouldn’t be the same again. This caused her sleepless nights, climaxing in deep depression. A new search has begun – the search for inner peace.
For close to a decade she was searching. Her controlling temperament set limits to where she could go, and from whom she could receive advice. The person must be pristine, not one of “those”, she resolved. About where to go, some institutions were tabooed. Therefore she tried Yoga, travels to exotic, quiet new-age-style retreat centers or islands. No peace came, happiness seemed far-fetched. Finally, she decided to lift the ban, any Christian church will do provided it wasn’t a Catholic Church. “One faithful day, I was so disoriented I wanted to kill myself. I managed to enter my car and drive with no destination in mind. I wanted to drive to any church but never a Catholic church.”
Thus, any church, which had a look of a Catholic Church, was avoided. Finally, she saw a building that looked like a non-denominational or Pentecostal church. “The looks tell it all”, she said, “definitely this isn’t a Catholic Church.” She will enter and ask the pastor to hear her confession or something like that (she wasn’t thinking of the Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation) and have the bitterness and guilt of her abortion off her heart.
Like a bi-polar teen run amok, she dashed into the church. The minister was about to begin the “service.” Her eyes were still beclouded she couldn’t notice it was a Catholic priest and the service, the Mass. Her guilt was too much; she couldn’t see beyond her nose. She simply grabbed the minster and the words jumped out of her mouth, “Can you hear my confession?”
The priest who was already vested and ready to begin Mass was taken aback. “Can I do so right after Mass because the Church is assembled for Mass and I should begin the procession?” It was then it dawned on her she had been led to a Catholic Church. She looked around and saw the Church packed; many people inside were calm, gentle and praying. The cantor singing a joyful song to the Lord and many who knew the song sang along. She felt peace outside but not inside of her. Would she surrender her will so cheaply…?
“Never mind”, she replied to the priest. She didn’t want a priest. “A Catholic priest, a Catholic Church? Never!” The priest held her hands as she was about to leave, and said to her, “You are not leaving. I will hear your confession.” He stopped the procession, stepped aside by a private space and heard her confession. “That changed everything for me. Joy filled my heart and has ever since. That was how the Lord brought me to peace and happiness”, she said, tears of joy dripping from her eyes.
“Wow!”, many exclaimed, “God is good.”
It was Sunday morning. I received a distress call about a woman who had stillbirth. She wanted a priest to pray for her and help her spiritually deal with her trauma and pains. No sooner had I finished praying with the woman, offering her God’s consoling words and warmth of human compassion she needed at her moment of trial, than I met with another girl around the vicinity of the hospital. She could be in her late twenties or early thirties.
“Are you a minister, pastor or what?”
I looked in her curious eyes and saw some interest, maybe to talk with this stranger, whose attire was different from many men she may have met.
“I am a priest,” I replied.
It seemed my answer was not satisfactory, the girl wanted more details.
I knew at that moment she was coming from a Christian background – Christians meeting each other for the first time often ask same or similar questions.
“Catholic,” I replied. I had to develop an interest in her, or at least seem to do so by inquiring about her too. You don’t want to be ungentlemanly. Reciprocal dialogic conversation in this sense is politeness.
“What about you?” I asked.
“Me”, she said, “I don’t believe in religion, I belong to the kingdom.”
Her answer came as a surprise to me. I wondered why she would answer my question by a refutation of something else. Was she trying to say I do not belong to the kingdom or what? Prejudging? Well, I would engage her I decided.
“I belong to the kingdom too and I do not believe in religion also.”
This came as a shock to her. I could see it in her eyes at the mention of “I do not believe in religion also.” But I would not allow her to steer the ship.
“Do you mean you belong to the kingdom of God,” I continued.
“Yes, of course.”
I thought so; at least we were on the same page since she was referring to the kingdom of God. She must believe in life after death too.
“You would likely believe in Jesus and may be a Christian,” I suggested.
Her emphatic yes was reassuring and made me feel good that our phatic communication has become something more. I wasn’t talking to a non-believer or somebody from another faith. I was talking to a fellow Christian. Now we can talk.
“I am a Christian too. And as a Christian I do not believe in religion, I believe in Jesus, in the Trinity.” I would have ended the discussion at that moment but wanted her to educate me on what she meant by saying “I don’t believe in religion,” I felt we might not mean the same thing. I was very curious and open to tap from her insight.
“For me” she began, “religion has to do with tradition – for me, it is a cult and I don’t believe in a cult. This is my opinion; it is religion for me.”
I observed how in two sentences she had used ‘for me’ ‘this is my opinion’ four times. I engaged her on that, wanting to know why she was emphasizing ‘for me.’
“If ‘for me’ means your personal opinion, you are entitled to it. Who am I to suggest otherwise. But if you want it to be what has been the consensus denotation, I will suggest it isn’t.”
“How,” she asked.
When she asked the question, I saw she was willing to listen to see the bigger picture than the ‘for me’ alibi. A good way to go.
I started. “Religion is simply a concept developed by a given society to express a reality. Just like the concept ‘America’ represents a people and a particular geographical location. But the concept is conventional, developed by the people and there is some consensus on what the concept means; otherwise it would not represent ‘America.’”
I asked her, “Do you suppose you are right when you say ‘For me, I don’t accept America to mean what it is but I will call it something else I like?’”
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“I suspected you wouldn’t,” I continued.
“Though the concept of America was developed in time to represent a particular reality, the concept would not mean anything to anybody without reference to the reality it represents. When people decide to develop their concept which is not related to what a particular concept is understood to mean by convention, they may as well have some explaining to do or do some massive publicity so as to convince anyone else to change the old concept with their new favored one. But if the rejection of the concept has to do with a misunderstanding or lack of knowledge of what the original concept means, it is known in education as ignorance. Do you follow this much?” I asked.
Ok. We can go further, I thought. “Back to the concept of religion, religion is from Latin religare – which literarily means ‘a connecting tread’. It was a common concept used by folks of the time to explain the reality of anyone who has connection with the sacred or God or gods. Later the meaning was expanded to mean, those who have recognizable ‘cult’ (a worship system) to distinguish it from people who do not believe in the spiritual, or in God or in the gods and who do not have an organized system of worship. Hence, anyone who believes in God, the Sacred, in the spiritual, or in gods is said to be religious; but anyone who does not isn’t. It is a concept that identifies a group of people of ‘faith’, distinguishing them from another group, those who do not believe in the Sacred or spiritual. Atheists and agnostics are not religious. Do you understand that much?”
“I do,” she concurred.
Then I continued, “And when the American constitution talks about freedom of religion, it means to express those freedoms enjoyed by those who believe in the Sacred and who have an organized way of expressing their beliefs as must be protected by the state irrespective of their different ‘cults’ (the different ways they express their religious aspirations provided they operate within the confines of the constitution). Hence, religion is an umbrella concept for ‘believers’ in God, the Sacred, gods or the spiritual as contradistinguished from the purely material, physically experimental world, no matter what their understanding of the sacred is. And if I may ask you, by saying you don’t believe in religion and you are not religious but spiritual, do you mean to say you do not believe in God?”
“Not what I mean. I mean I do not belong to any religion.”
“There you go! But you are Christian?”
“Does the fact that you don’t want to accept the consensus understanding of the concept of religion change the meaning of the concept?”
“I don’t think so,” she answered.
“Good you know. Similarly, if you are not religious but spiritual, what is the difference between you and an Asian religious, who is a member of one of the numerous Asian religions? Did you know their religions are truly spiritual, because they do not believe in a particular Person(s) as the Sacred but in the spirit world and they try to connect with that spirit world. If you say you are spiritual, you may want to affiliate with them who are in that sense the truly spiritual.”
“What religions are you talking about?” her sense of curiosity was raised.
“Have you not heard about the Asian religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, and many other mystic spiritualities practiced by many from the Asian culture?”
“Not heard of them.”
“I am not surprised. Even they know they are religious people as well. But they do not believe in the Person(s) of divinity as we Christians believe. If we claim we are spiritual but not religious simply because we want to emphasize we do not belong to any organized Christian Church, are we really representing what the Lord and the Founder of our Faith wanted? I am a Christian, a Catholic and I do not believe in the spirit or even in religion as my God. I do believe instead in the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ, as my Lord and Savior. In fact, I believe in the three persons of the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Isn’t this belief our central belief as Christians?”
“Yes, it is,” she replied.
“I also believe in the Body of Christ, the Church, because my faith is a faith personal and in the community of faith, in the body of Christ as our Lord taught us and Paul emphasized. Thus, all those who have this faith, within the law of the state are called religious as well. But it doesn’t mean they are not different from other religious groups. Christianity is completely different because of the belief in the Trinity and in a relationship with God who has revealed Himself in Christ Our Lord and Savior, and who through the Holy Spirit gives us the power to daily relate with God as a Person.”
“You have the choice: Is your Christianity spiritual and therefore like the Asian spiritualties or is your Christianity religious because you believe in the reality of God who is beyond physical empirical test? Do you ever think you can be a Christian without connection with the body of Christ, the Church? Doesn’t the Church have an organized system of worship – say, reading and sharing the bible together, worshiping on Sundays, praying together and communion? Aren’t these aspects of organized Christian worship? Or do you think it is a disorganized set of believers?”
She didn’t answer my questions but simply said, “I never looked at it this way. I never even knew Catholics believed in the Holy Spirit or in Jesus as their Lord and Savior. I never knew they were Christians. I was taught they were religious and not Christians.”
As she said this, I could see her become a little emotional.
“Can I have a hug?” she requested.
“Sure, you can.”
“God love you,” I said to her as she walked toward her car and I to mine.