Reforming a Religious Terrorist

Image result for Paul on the Road to DamascusTHIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 9:1-20
Psalm 30
Revelation 5:11-14
John 21:1-19

Prayer of the Day: Eternal and all-merciful God, with all the angels and all the saints we laud your majesty and might. By the resurrection of your Son, show yourself to us and inspire us to follow Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

This weekend, on the final day of Passover, a gunman opened fire in a synagogue in California killing one and injuring three others. Last weekend, on Easter Sunday, over 300 people were killed and around 500 others were injured in eight coordinated attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka. Prior to that, the world was shocked by an attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand killing 49 people and wounding 20. There is something particularly revolting about attacks on houses of worship where people gather to express their deepest faith convictions, support one another in prayer and perform works of compassion and service. What kind of perverse and twisted soul would desire to kill people on account of the way they pray, worship and believe?

The Apostle Paul, for one. We read in our lesson from the Book of Acts that Paul (then known as Saul) was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” Not content with cheering on the lynching of Stephen and driving the disciples in Jerusalem out of town or underground, Paul obtains authorization to purge the Jewish communities of Damascus by imprisoning all he found who adhered to the good news about Jesus. We know very few specifics about Paul’s upbringing. The Book of Acts tells us that Paul was born in Tarsus, but brought up in Jerusalem and educated in a “strict” manner. Acts 22:3. Paul himself tells us in his letter to the Philippians that he was, in his “zeal,’ a persecutor of the church. Philippians 3:5-6. As a Jew brought up under the pharisaic traditions of Jerusalem, Paul no doubt witnessed what he saw to be the corrosive effects of foreign teachings and traditions on his faith community of Tarsus. One can readily understand why he would perceive the Jesus movement, taking place as it did initially on the front porch of the Holy Temple, the the very heart of Judaism, as a direct attack on the faith of his ancestors.

Paul’s background, what little we know of it, mirrors that of Zaharan Hashim, the mastermind behind the Easter church bombings in Sir Lanka. According to an article in this morning’s New York Times, Zaharan was educated in the strictest expression of his faith, namely, Wahbhabism. This variant of Islam, forged in Saudi Arabia, the heart of the Muslim world, is fiercely intolerant of rival faiths, including other forms of Islam. Such rigorous and isolationist tendencies often prove attractive to religious minorities struggling to maintain their identity in predominantly foreign cultures. As a member of a minority Muslim community in the predominantly Buddhist nation of Sir Lanka, it is understandable that Zaharan saw in Wahbhabism a way to preserve the integrity of his faith and culture. Like Paul, he is fighting a life and death battle against hostile cultural forces to ensure the survival of his faith. Like Paul, he believes that requires taking human life.

My purpose in drawing these parallels between Paul and Zaharan is not to justify or minimize the violence and intolerance practiced by either of them. There is no excuse for persecuting, to say nothing of killing, people on the basis of their faith. Yet I believe this biographical episode in Paul’s life has been preserved for us as a salutary cautionary tale. Though persecution of persons adhering to other faiths runs counter to the fundamental teachings of Judaism, Islam and Christianity, all three faiths have been guilty of this sin. Historically and currently as well, our sacred scriptures have been used to justify acts and words of hatred directed at one another and toward those of other faiths. As St. Paul learned on the road to Damascus, when religion gets sick, when it becomes incapable of tolerating contrary points of view and demonizes everyone holding such views, it winds up destroying within itself the very image of the God it claims to worship.

More than all of this, however, the story of Paul’s conversion is a reminder that all people are capable of redemption. All people bear within them the image of their Maker, however distorted that image may have become. That is so even when they have names like Hassin Zaharan. All people are objects of God’s love and so must be subjects of our compassion. We are the people who believe in redemption, that all are capable of being changed or, rather, God is capable of changing anyone. That is why love of enemies is at the heart of discipleship. “…while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son,” says Paul. Romans 5:10. God’s perfection is demonstrated in God’s lavish kindness poured out on the wicked and undeserving. That, too, is the way of discipleship. Matthew 5:43-48.

The message is worth repeating in this present culture of polarization. The problem is not that we disagree. The problem is that we are no longer even speaking to one another. We are instead shouting slogans at one another from behind our entrenched positions. We live in our proverbial bubbles, associating with people who share our views, listening to news sources that tell us what we already believe and growing more certain by the moment of our corner on all truth. Such isolation kills our curiosity, dulls our ability to think critically and makes us increasingly unable to tolerate difference. The extremes of religiously and ideologically inspired violence reflect the growing consensus that there are “some people you just can’t talk to.” Mass killers are people like us who have run out of words and decided they’re through talking.

The election of 2016 laid bare the fault lines that have long divided our nation. Those fault lines run right through the middle of our churches. This fact affords us the opportunity to be centers of healing and reconciliation. Sometimes, that has in fact occurred. But frequently, the issues of race, sexuality and gender identity have proved too explosive for congregations to handle. Too often, we have lost the capacity to trust one another. Too often, we have been unable to recognize in one another anything more than what we hate and fear. Too often, we have simply given up on each other. When that happens, the false gospels of religious intolerance and the ideologies of culture, blood and soil find welcome audiences. That is why it is more important than ever for all who identify as disciples of Jesus to begin putting themselves into the skin of those we think of as enemies, trying to see the world through their eyes, acknowledging that what we hate and fear in our enemies often reflects the darkest elements of our own fears and prejudices. More than ever before, we must determine that we are not going to give up on one another. We are not going to give up on the world Jesus died to save. We are not going to give up on reconciliation.

I am not suggesting that we should “heal our wounds lightly” by agreeing to ignore pressing issues and “just get along.” More than at any other point in my lifetime, I believe it is critical that we speak the truth about white privilege, American nationalism and its symbiotic relationship with the American Church and the persistence of patriarchy in church and society. Having conversations about these matters will be painful for all of us. But the church is the community of the one who took up the cross and whose resurrected Body is presented to us with the wounds he bore for the world he loved. We are the community of deserters that left its Lord to die alone, but who were called together again by that same Lord and given the Great Commission. We are the community of the man who denied his Lord and was nonetheless entrusted with feeding that Lord’s sheep. We are the church which hears the words of God’s limitless compassion for Jew and Gentile, slave and free, female and male, gay and straight, legal and illegal, Christian, Jew Muslim-all through the lips of a man once driven to murder by fanatical religious and cultural hatred. Yes, loving one’s enemy and seeking reconciliation is hard work. And it needs to be said that for those most deeply wronged by our society’s structural injustice, to which many of us more privileged folk remain blind, it’s a big ask. But the atrocities we have seen in New Zealand, Sir Lanka and California over these last few weeks remind us that the alternative is too horrible to contemplate.

Here is a poem by Joy Harjo painting for us an image of what reconciliation might look like and what it might demand of us.

Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings

I am the holy being of my mother’s prayer and my father’s song

—Norman Patrick Brown, Dineh Poet and Speaker


Recognize whose lands these are on which we stand.
Ask the deer, turtle, and the crane.
Make sure the spirits of these lands are respected and treated with goodwill.
The land is a being who remembers everything.
You will have to answer to your children, and their children, and theirs—
The red shimmer of remembering will compel you up the night to walk the perimeter of truth for understanding.
As I brushed my hair over the hotel sink to get ready I heard:
By listening we will understand who we are in this holy realm of words.
Do not parade, pleased with yourself.
You must speak in the language of justice.


If you sign this paper we will become brothers. We will no longer fight. We will give you this land and these waters “as long as the grass shall grow and the rivers run.”

The lands and waters they gave us did not belong to them to give. Under false pretenses we signed. After drugging by drink, we signed. With a mass of gunpower pointed at us, we signed. With a flotilla of war ships at our shores, we signed. We are still signing. We have found no peace in this act of signing.

A casino was raised up over the gravesite of our ancestors. Our own distant cousins pulled up the bones of grandparents, parents, and grandchildren from their last sleeping place. They had forgotten how to be human beings. Restless winds emerged from the earth when the graves were open and the winds went looking for justice.

If you raise this white flag of peace, we will honor it.

At Sand Creek several hundred women, children, and men were slaughtered in an unspeakable massacre, after a white flag was raised. The American soldiers trampled the white flag in the blood of the peacemakers.

There is a suicide epidemic among native children. It is triple the rate of the rest of America. “It feels like wartime,” said a child welfare worker in South Dakota.

If you send your children to our schools we will train them to get along in this changing world. We will educate them.

We had no choice. They took our children. Some ran away and froze to death. If they were found they were dragged back to the school and punished. They cut their hair, took away their language, until they became as strangers to themselves even as they became strangers to us.

If you sign this paper we will become brothers. We will no longer fight. We will give you this land and these waters in exchange “as long as the grass shall grow and the rivers run.”

Put your hand on this bible, this blade, this pen, this oil derrick, this gun and you will gain trust and respect with us. Now we can speak together as one.

We say, put down your papers, your tools of coercion, your false promises, your posture of superiority and sit with us before the fire. We will share food, songs, and stories. We will gather beneath starlight and dance, and rise together at sunrise.

The sun rose over the Potomac this morning, over the city surrounding the white house.
It blazed scarlet, a fire opening truth.
White House, or Chogo Hvtke, means the house of the peacekeeper, the keepers of justice.
We have crossed this river to speak to the white leader for peace many times
Since these settlers first arrived in our territory and made this their place of governance.
These streets are our old trails, curved to fit around trees.


We speak together with this trade language of English. This trade language enables us to speak across many language boundaries. These languages have given us the poets:

Ortiz, Silko, Momaday, Alexie, Diaz, Bird, Woody, Kane, Bitsui, Long Soldier, White, Erdrich, Tapahonso, Howe, Louis, Brings Plenty, okpik, Hill, Wood, Maracle, Cisneros, Trask, Hogan, Dunn, Welch, Gould…

The 1957 Chevy is unbeatable in style. My broken-down one-eyed Ford will have to do. It holds everyone: Grandma and grandpa, aunties and uncles, the children and the babies, and all my boyfriends. That’s what she said, anyway, as she drove off for the Forty-Nine with all of us in that shimmying wreck.

This would be no place to be without blues, jazz—Thank you/mvto to the Africans, the Europeans sitting in, especially Adolphe Sax with his saxophones… Don’t forget that at the center is the Mvskoke ceremonial circles. We know how to swing. We keep the heartbeat of the earth in our stomp dance feet.

You might try dancing theory with a bustle, or a jingle dress, or with turtles strapped around your legs. You might try wearing colonization like a heavy gold chain around a pimp’s neck.


I could hear the light beings as they entered every cell. Every cell is a house of the god of light, they said. I could hear the spirits who love us stomp dancing. They were dancing as if they were here, and then another level of here, and then another, until the whole earth and sky was dancing.

We are here dancing, they said. There was no there.

There was no  “I”  or “you.”

There was us; there was “we.”

There we were as if we were the music.

You cannot legislate music to lockstep nor can you legislate the spirit of the music to stop at political boundaries—

—Or poetry, or art, or anything that is of value or matters in this world, and the next worlds.

This is about getting to know each other.

We will wind up back at the blues standing on the edge of the flatted fifth about to jump into a fierce understanding together.


A panther poised in the cypress tree about to jump is a panther poised in a cypress tree about to jump.

The panther is a poem of fire green eyes and a heart charged by four winds of four directions.

The panther hears everything in the dark: the unspoken tears of a few hundred human years, storms that will break what has broken his world, a bluebird swaying on a branch a few miles away.

He hears the death song of his approaching prey:

I will always love you, sunrise.
I belong to the black cat with fire green eyes.
There, in the cypress tree near the morning star.


When we made it back home, back over those curved roads
that wind through the city of peace, we stopped at the
doorway of dusk as it opened to our homelands.
We gave thanks for the story, for all parts of the story
because it was by the light of those challenges we knew
We asked for forgiveness.
We laid down our burdens next to each other.

The following poem by Joy Harjo paints a picture for how reconciliation might begin and what it demands of us.

Source: Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings (c. 2015 by Joy Harjo, pub. by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.). Joy Harjo  (b. Joy Foster on May 9, 1951) is a poet, musician, and author. Born in Oklahoma. She took her paternal grandmother’s surname when she enrolled in the Muscogee (Creek) Nation at age 19. Harjo graduated from the University of New Mexico in 1976 and earned her master of fine arts degree in creative writing from the University of Iowa. In addition to writing books and other publications, Harjo has taught in numerous United States universities, has performed at poetry readings and music events, and has released five albums of her own original music.  You can read more about Joy Harjo and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website

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