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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The death of innocents in Boston this week and the wounding of well over a hundred, some of whom will never run or walk again in quite the same way, shocks and saddens us. The news is stunning, in part, because it is so “not normal.” These things just don’t happen here, not on a bright day, full of sunshine, happy runners and families converging at the end of an historic race, the familiar landmarks of Boston surrounding the scene. This kind of violence is just not normal and we refuse to accept it as normal, as refuse we must.
In Iraq on Monday twenty car bombs and assassinations around the country killed fifty and wounded 200. Sectarian violence is mounting in the run up to the elections later this month. Thus far fifteen candidates have been killed either by terrorists or by their political opponents. The running count of civilian deaths in Iraq over the past decade is now somewhere between 112,000 and 122,000. Of course none of us is happy with this news. But few of us are really shocked, either. After all, it’s become “normal” for this to happen in Baghdad on a daily basis. We read the headlines and shrug. “That’s the way it is in Iraq.” One day of violence in Boston prompts a hastily called presidential news conference and sends Anderson Cooper and his fellow journalists scurrying. One day of violence in a place like Iraq gets a comment from a second tier communications officer at the State Department and an article below the fold.
None of this surprises us. We are naturally drawn to and affected by tragedy close to home and feel affinity with victims who seem, in some sense, “so much like us.” Apart from some notable and terribly painful exceptions, Americans are well insulated from the kind of political, sectarian, and criminal violence that seems to be daily fare in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria or Mexico, to name just a few. Normal and not normal often has as much to do with geographic, cultural, racial or religious proximity as anything else.
But violence anywhere, even when it is a daily occurrence, is not normal, whether it be in Baghdad or Boston or the south or west side neighborhoods of Chicago. When we accept as normal in one part of the world something that we determinedly resist as normal in our own nation or neighborhood, we fail an important moral test and we consign certain peoples and places to tolerate circumstances and conditions that we ourselves would find intolerable.
To remind ourselves that people suffer in Baghdad as well as Boston is not to diminish the anguish of those who lost life, limbs, or loved ones at the end of the Marathon. It is simply to affirm that human life anywhere is precious, and that the expansion of our horizon of compassion and, yes, even outrage, is a witness to the profound interconnectedness of human life. Just as no victim is more or less important than another, so too, no act of violence should be considered anything but unnatural. And while we may not be able to expect our news media or political figures to remind us of this important truth, or to connect the suffering of one community with the suffering of another, that is one of the vocations of faith communities.
No, bombs in Boston are not normal. And they are not normal anywhere else in the world, either.
John H. Thomas
April 18, 2013