In the introduction to his book, Acts of Faith, Eboo Patel opens with an account of the trial of Eric Rudolph. Though perhaps most known for detonating bombs at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Rudolph also bombed several other sites in the two years following the Olympics before he went into hiding in the Appalachian wilderness. Patel describes how Rudolph showed no remorse for his actions:
“In fact, Rudolph is proud and defiant. He lectures the judge on the righteousness of his actions. He gloats as he recalls federal agents passing within steps of his hiding place. He unabashedly states that abortion, homosexuality, and all hints of ‘global socialism’ still need to be ‘ruthlessly opposed.’ He does this in the name of Christianity, quoting from the New Testament: ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.’”
Rudolph faced a world different from the one he had constructed in his mind. The moral code he had internalized didn’t match with what he saw going on around him. And he decided that the way to reconcile these differences was to murder and destroy.
I believe we all face the crisis that Eric Rudolph faced. When our faith traditions provide guidelines for what is right and wrong, we will encounter others who live by a different standard. We will find those with whom we disagree. The tension may be moral, theological, or preferential.
So how do we respond? Thankfully, very few respond the way Eric Rudolph did. For Christians, the Bible provides clear direction on why Rudolph’s actions were wrong. But I know many Christians who would respond with violence of another form. A violence that others do not see, but exists nonetheless. I know because I’m guilty of such violence as well.
I’m referring to the violence we commit in our hearts – the judgment we pass as we perceive someone in an act of “wrongdoing,” the pride we feel when we interpret our lives to be more excellent than another’s, the righteousness upon which we gloat as others fall below our personal standards. While such responses are devoid of the violence that placed Rudolph in prison with four consecutive life terms, they also lack the quality that could have caused Rudolph to build bridges instead of bombs: love.
The Bible tells the story of Jesus and a man named Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). Zacchaeus was a tax collector (and possibly a cheating one at that) and the sort of man about whom others muttered under their breath (Luke 19:7). Whether it was his fault or not, you might say that Zacchaeus was the kind of person with whom religious people disagreed. But instead of joining in the muttering, Jesus invited himself to be Zacchaeus’ guest, shocking those around him who would rather criticize Zacchaeus than associate with him.
What if Eric Rudolph had a real understanding of the Christian faith instead of a warped understanding of justice? Imagine how this world would be different if he had pursued peace instead of violence, but with the same determination. Instead of building bombs, he would have been building relationships, instead of lashing out with violence, he would have been reaching out through service.
In a famous sermon depicted in the New Testament, Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9). I believe that when Christians build relationships instead of condemning those with whom we don’t agree (whether it is morally or theologically), we are being peacemakers. In a world where violence is used too often to solve issues of religious difference, our faith compels us to be at the forefront of making peace.
Thus, we are also compelled to be interfaith leaders. And remarkably, when we create interfaith relationships, we find that there is plenty about which we do agree. These are not realizations that blur the boundaries between religions, but understandings that we are better working together for positive change. When we are building bridges instead of bombs – that is when we are peacemakers.
Bridge photo by ivanmarn (http://www.sxc.hu/profile/ivanmarn)