Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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When Dead Isn’t Good Enough
For Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the two brothers responsible for the bombs that killed and wounded so many at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, being killed by the police in a dramatic showdown is apparently not sufficient punishment. Now the people who oversee the cemeteries of Boston want to deny him a burial site. No one is suggesting a state funeral, just a simple piece of ground where his body can be placed in accordance with the traditions of his Muslim faith. A city that proclaimed itself the paragon of courage and resilience in the days immediately following the bombings now reveals that it contains a good deal of vindictiveness as well. Even being dead is not quite good enough. There is precedent for this in Boston where John Adams was vilified for offering his legal services in defense of the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre. Equal access to the law only goes so far for those deemed terrorists, not just in 1770, but also in 2013 in places like Guantanamo. Now that apparently extends to their corpses. Shame on us.
It’s not just Boston. On Tuesday, Paul Keane, a graduate of Yale Divinity School, offered one of his plots in the Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Hamden, Connecticut next to the First Congregational Church. He explained that his mother, who will lie next to the young Muslim, taught him that Jesus wants us to love our enemies. Whether Tsarnaev will be buried in Mt. Carmel remains to be seen; community opposition erupted immediately and no doubt the families of loved ones buried there will be rallied to the cause.
Last year my wife and son, both fascinated with the mob culture of Chicago in the 20th century, “encouraged” me to join their excursion to another Mt. Carmel cemetery on the outskirts of the city to see the grave sites of some prominent mafia figures including Al Capone and Sam Giancanna, to name only a few. They lie in impressive mausoleums not far from the final resting places of the archbishops of Chicago, veterans of World War I, and numerous other Chicagoans from the famous to the forgotten. These gangsters arguably caused more suffering, death, and injury to one another and to ordinary citizens than the Boston bombers, and many died in wild shootouts with the police or rival gangs as dramatic as anything in Boston two weeks ago. We might prefer that their final resting places were less grandiose given the lives they lived. But there they lie among the sinners and the saints, and no one seems to be overly bothered.
Not so in New England right now where the ghosts of an old distorted Calvinist penchant for fencing tables and exiling dissenters has been aroused in the unseemly spectacle of a body in search of a burial place. The logic of this is a little frightening. What sins are so severe that we should be barred from even the most humble cemetery plot? And by extension, what evil is so profound that we place ourselves beyond the reach of God? Is that a calculation we ought to make or should even want to make?
Today is Ascension Day for which the text is the mandate to be witnesses to the Risen Savior in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. If there is no place on earth beyond the horizon of God’s gracious love, does it not follow that there is no person beyond that Holy reach as well? Boston’s courage and resilience – and that of the rest of the country – will not be demonstrated by the extent of the desire for revenge, but by the extent of our generosity. If the death of a terrorist is not good enough for us, then terrorism may be the least of our worries.
John H. Thomas
Ascension Day, 2013