Last week I walked into my barber shop in Bay Ridge to get my hair trimmed. Let’s call my barber Mike. I’ve gone to this barber for a while and always appreciated his kindness. But this time Mike brought up something I didn’t know: he’s from Uzbekistan.
Perhaps he had mentioned this before and I had forgotten it, but in the wake of the New York Terror Attack that had just happened, it felt tangibly significant. Knowing very little else about the country, the air between us felt thick and I wasn’t sure what my sentence should be. Mike helped me by offering his thoughts.
“I hate all those bastards.”
Mike is a Jewish man that had to flee the country in his late teens and came to the US as a religious refugee. He started talking about the Islamic Extremists he knew in Uzbekistan and how he thought it was a bad idea to allow any of them to come into the USA. Because of his experience, it was fascinating - albeit frightening - to hear some of his stories.
Does the terror attack impact Bay Ridge?
I must be honest that for myself and many of my friends in the neighborhood, we aren’t sure what to make of the attack. We started receiving notifications about it as we got our children dressed up for Trick or Treat. The glee of our children was like water to the oil of the news of the attack in lower Manhattan - they didn’t mix or compute. Just today I walked along the bike path where the attack took place - it has only been days but the path is cleaned up and people are riding bikes on it as though nothing happened. New Yorkers are strong, you see, and won’t get scared off the path of their daily lives.
Beyond that, not a week had gone by before the news coverage was muted by the horror of the massacre at a Texas church. It's hard to even catch my breath with the speed of anger and terror.
I listened to Mike’s experience in Uzbekistan after hearing from another Michael, a fellow pastor in Manhattan named Michael Rudzena. He lives in Tribeca and often walks with his family along the bike path along West St and was across the street at the time of the attack. His story is harrowing but it was his final words about experiencing trauma that stuck with me:
“If we don’t transform our pain, we’ll surely transmit our pain.”
How are we going to face this trauma? Not just keeping our eyes open for what’s evil and terrible - that’s easy. But also keeping our eyes open for hopeful things. He was suggesting that the way forward doesn’t mean living in fear and believing the worst about others. We are not Jack Bauer with the superhuman ability to sniff out “the bad guys” with our gut feelings. More often than not, that quickly turns into racism.
If we are honest with ourselves, we would agree with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He said that the dividing line between good and evil doesn’t run along national dividing lines. He said the line between good and evil runs straight through every human heart. If we aren’t careful, we can quickly become exactly the thing that we hate in someone else.
What is the way forward?
What’s the answer? What is the way forward? Perhaps we should listen to Jesus. Jesus made an outrageous claim - he said “I am the way, the truth and the life.” He was the only leader of a major religion to make a claim like that. He said that HE himself was the way. Not that we should follow some other way, but that following him was the way, not only to eternal life but also to the fullest expression of our humanity here and now.
And at the center of the Christian faith is Jesus dying to forgive his enemies. He embodied his words “forgive your enemies” to their fullest extent. When Jesus invites us to forgive, it comes at a cost. The cost of our sin and transgression was the life and death of Jesus. We couldn’t clean ourselves up enough, we couldn’t be good enough to earn our way up to God, so God came down to rescue us. That was how dire our situation was, and also how secure we are in his love. To forgive us, it cost Jesus everything.
Today Jesus is inviting each of us to follow him, not by showing retribution and returning violence, but by forgiving, believing the best, and choosing today to love our neighbors. Not in a way that is weak or naive, but in a way that says, “I’m not going to allow this trauma to define me. I’m not going to continue to transmit this pain to others.” Through Jesus, we can have the courage to not allow our fear to define us, to let go of the unforgiveness that will rot us from the inside out, and continue to walk forward loving our neighbors as ourselves.
We are starting a new church in Bay Ridge with a heart to live this out. We are becoming a church that tears down dividing walls (along racial, economic, gender lines and more) because that’s what Jesus did for us through the cross. A church that overcomes fear with love, risky though that is. If you are interested in learning more about this new community, shoot us a message and join us for one of our dinner parties in the neighborhood.