Dear People, Friends, and Neighbors of St. John's,
Today the bell of St. John's tolled for ten minutes in memory of those killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Earlier in the day, I sat next to a regular attender of our 8:30 a.m. Morning Prayer services in the chapel, whom I knew had moved to Newport a couple of years ago from Charleston. In conversation afterwards, it turned out that he knew two of the victims. We are all much closer to each other than we think.
Just before I went over to begin tolling the bell, I happened to read a review of Christian Households: The Sanctification of Nearness by Thomas E. Breidenthal, written when he was a seminary professor. He is now a candidate for Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church. The reviewer quoted the following, which struck me as particularly apt given the symbolic act of solidarity in tolling our bells. Breidenthal writes,
"Whether we like it or not, then, we are always at the mercy of the event of nearness. Anyone, at any time, can suddenly emerge from the crowd or the newscast and change my life with a glance or a word.... At any moment and at any time the tactful and protective reserve that we maintain in our dealings with most human beings can be torn asunder.... We tend to view such chance encounters as exceptions to the distance that ordinarily separates us from one another. But what if the occurrence of nearness indicates our true condition-that is, our radical availability to one another? Then the distance that so often seems to divide us is mere pretense-a pretense which denies the close connection every human being shares with every other human being." (p. 24)
The way of the cross that Christians are called to embrace daily leads to a "radical availability to one another" which is vulnerable and unprotected, as vulnerable and unprotected as Jesus himself was on the cross. The tragedy in Charleston does not simply illustrate this truth. It has brought it painfully home, into many homes throughout the world. And yet, I am reticent to try to make sense of something so profoundly disturbing, so freighted with our own historic and contemporary failings as a nation. All I will venture is that the events in Charleston do indeed give the lie to the pretense that we can divide ourselves from one another. We are all closely connected to each other, and that includes the apparent perpetrator of this heart-rending violence.
For now, it is enough to mourn with those who mourn and to weep with those who weep. As our neighbors and friends, and we ourselves, grapple with this and other events like it, and to discern what action we might be called to take in response-howsoever small or large-we must be wary of providing pat answers that reinforce comfortable distances, and instead embrace by faith that nearness that love always offers, come what may.
Yours in Christ's service,