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Easter emerging from violence

The "Field of Empty Chairs" at the Oklahoma City National Memorial

The joy of the Resurrection emerged from a sealed tomb. The gift of peace and hope which comes with Easter emerged out of violence. Easter does not end violence (oh, how we wish it could), but Easter does provide the possibility for the transformation of violence into peace.

On Good Friday, I joined with over 80 people from the three Episcopal congregations in Jersey City, other Jersey City churches, city officials and leaders in the Police Department, for the Stations of the Cross in the streets of the city. Each station marked a place where life-threatening – or life-taking, violence had taken place. A portion of Jesus’ Good Friday story was told at each station, and then the local incident of violence was remembered and honored, a nail was hammered into the large cross – and prayers were said. The biblical story of violence was read, and the contemporary story of violence was told.

There was a clear sense from everyone present that the ground was being blessed after the obscenity of violence. The police captain told me that our witness lifted his spirit, and made it easier for him and his officers to do their job. It filled them and us with a hope that rarely, if ever, is associated with those neighborhoods.

A week before Good Friday I was at the memorial of the Oklahoma City bombing, as part of a conference sponsored by several dioceses on “Reclaiming the Gospel of Peace.” On April 19, 1995, 168 lives were taken in what was then the deadliest act of terrorism on American. At the end of the museum tour a survivor of the blast told her story. She said that she still struggles with Post Traumatic Stress (PTSD), but she, and indeed most of the city, lives with a purpose: of remembering the tragedy, recounting the story and sharing what each survivor has learned. “Be aware,” she said; “be of us – and be grateful”. She was all of that. Her awareness, usefulness and gratitude transformed her scar of violence into a deep hope – a hope that we couldn’t help but take away with us.

Several years ago I visited Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town in South Africa, where Nelson Mandela spent most of his 27 years in captivity. Robben Island is now a national museum that welcomes visitors from around the world. Each group entering the prison is led by a guide, who himself was a fellow political prisoner with Mandela. Our guide said that the prisoners developed an elaborate and clandestine system of communication that passed information to one another about what was happening on the mainland; but more importantly, the surreptitious notes kindled and sustained their hope. He said the prisoners knew apartheid was doomed a year before it ended. He said the guards knew it as well. They knew it from the growing numbers of stories of hope that they had heard – which transformed the indignity and institutionalized violence into a hope that could not be denied.

The visit to Robben Island taught me that human evil cannot be sustained. Violence will continue, yes, and leave its misery and grief – but violence is not the last word. Hope and justice will eventually prevail. The Good Friday Stations of the Cross in Jersey City – and the visit to the Oklahoma City memorial, confirmed my conviction that our capacity for violence can be ultimately transformed by hope and a commitment to peace.

Jesus knew that. He willingly walked into a vortex of violence and human evil. He knew it would cost him his life. He also knew that God’s love, mercy, hope and blessing would not only get him through the violence, but would give him new life. And would provide us new life as well – and the freedom, and the challenge – to remember and tell the story.

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