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CRAMER: Terror after Pentecost, look to the martyrs of the church

• Jun 7, 2017 at 1:00 PM

This past Sunday, those Christian communities in our area who follow the church year observed the Feast of Pentecost. At liturgical churches, that likely meant red vestments (for the fire of the Holy Spirit) along with extra-special offerings like special music, chanting or incense.

At many churches, there was likely an offering in more than one language, commemorating that the gift of the Holy Spirit was the ability of the apostles to speak in the many languages of those gathered.

At my own faith community, St. John’s Episcopal, our 10 a.m. service was bilingual, drawing both liturgy and prayers both in the language of our English-speaking members and our growing Spanish-speaking members.

Yet, I know the minds of many Christians gathered to celebrate Pentecost was the increased news of terror over this past week. Indeed, this has likely been high on the minds of all in our community, regardless of their faith background or the worship practices of their community.

The terror attack in London was shocking to us all. Seven people have died and nearly 50 were injured when three men drove a van into people walking on the London bridge. After the horror of that attack, they then exited the van and starting stabbing people in the nearby Borough Market. The Amaq Agency claimed it was a detachment of fighters for the so-called Islamic State, but a direct link between the attack and Daesh (often known as ISIS) has not yet been identified.

This was not the first time in recent days our allies across the Atlantic have suffered at the hand of radical extremists. It’s not even the last time in the past three months.

On May 22, 22 adults and children were killed by a suicide bomber while nearly 60 more were injured. In March, five people were killed and at least 40 injured when a terrorist ran down pedestrians on the Westminster Bridge and then also went on a stabbing spree. Prime Minister Theresa May has reported that five further “credible” terror plots have been disrupted since that first Westminster bridge attack.

Worldwide anxiety continues to increase as North Korea seems determined to secure nuclear weapons, and no one is sure what decisions the Trump administration will make in the face of the intransience of that regime. And now three Gulf countries (including Saudi Arabia) and Egypt have cut ties with Qatar over terrorism — a startling decision since Qatar also hosts the largest United States military base in the Middle East.

In some ways, the celebration of Pentecost and the resulting call to Christians to spread Christ’s message of love and mercy to all nations seems to sound a little hollow given the circumstances in which we find ourselves as a country and as an international community. What does it mean to celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church when we seem to be unable to stem the tide of terror, violence and prejudice all around us?

One of my favorite evangelical theologians, John Mark Hicks, has been posting quotes from the ancient fathers of the church over these past few weeks. One of his quotes in particular struck me, one from Origen, the great theologian of Alexandria. Origen’s father was a martyr and Origen himself died from wounds suffered by torture under the Decian persecution. In a time in which Christians regularly faced the possibility of death, Origen wrote, “In Christ and with Christ the martyrs disarm the principalities and powers and share in his triumph over them, for their share in Christ’s sufferings makes them sharers also in the mighty deeds those sufferings accomplished. What could more appropriately be called the day of salvation than the day of such a glorious departure from this world?”

We may be tempted, in the face of the terror of these days, to turn to a greater reliance on violence. We may be tempted to increased militarism, to turn against one another, to wall ourselves off from refugees and others who seek safety. Our president has taken this as an opportunity to attack the tone of the mayor of London (who is himself a Muslim). Many of my liberal friends have been distracted by Trump once more, seeing this as another opportunity to point out his failures in leadership.

All of these temptations, all of these choices, will do nothing to increase the cause of peace, justice and security in our world.

Instead, I would suggest that those of the Christian tradition might look to the martyrs of the church. In times of great violence and fear, they chose to love their enemies, to forgive those who persecuted them. They did this following the example of our Lord, who prayed that God would forgive those who crucified him.

Sharing in the sufferings of Christ means we do not allow the hate of others to turn us to our own hatred — whether that is hatred of terrorists held captive by a distorted understanding of Islam or whether that is hatred of whichever political party stands opposite of your own.

Instead of alarmist cries of fear, let the Christians who are heirs of that first Pentecost not be bowed by the terrorists. Instead, with a desire to work for the healing of this broken world, let us commit ourselves anew to dialogue with those we disagree and to the hard work of working together as an international community to protect those who are most vulnerable in the face of violence and fear.

— The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. Information about Holy Week at his parish can be found at www.stjohnsepiscopal.com.

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