On Scripture: May April Tragedies Bring May Justice
Resurrection is the theme of the 50 days of Eastertide. Yet, for decades, the month of April has been filled with particularly horrific deaths:
- The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. (April 4, 1968)
- The murder of 13 persons at the American Civic Association Immigration Center in Binghamton, N.Y. (April 3, 2009)
- The shooting death of 32 students at Virginia Tech. (April 16, 2007)
- The end of the Waco siege and the death of 82 members of the Branch Davidians. (April 19, 1993)
- The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that killed one hundred sixty-eight children and adults. (April 19, 1995)
- The Columbine High School shooting resulting in deaths of 15 persons (April 20, 1999), a shooting that has been echoed in 31 schools since, most recently in Sandy Hook Elementary School of Newtown, Conn.
In 2013, April continues its trend. On Monday, April 15, someone decided to plant bombs along the route of the Boston Marathon. The explosions killed at least three people and wounded more than 100. Among the dead is 8-year-old Martin Richard.
Sadly, the tragedy in Boston is not the first violent act this April has seen. Earlier this month, a young man brought military grade weapons into New River Community College in Christianburg, Va., with intent to kill. On April 6 and April 8, two separate four-year old children in Tennessee and New Jersey each shot and killed a neighbor. April may be Eastertide, but for many, it will forever be marked by death.
What are a people of the resurrection to say in the face of the ongoing drumbeat of violent death that seems to haunt Eastertide? Two of the four assigned lectionary texts for this week, Psalm 23 and Revelation 7:9-17, speak defiantly to death calling the believer to fearlessness in the valley of the shadow of death (Ps 23:4) and revealing a vision of a God who will wipe away the tears of those who have gone through the great tribulation. But perhaps the most practical response we can make comes from the Acts of the Apostles.
This Bible passage tells the story of a little church in Joppa, near the Mediterranean Sea. In this church, one of its disciples, a woman named Tabitha (or Dorcas, in Greek) has sickened and died. Tabitha's death may seem completely unrelated to the violent, gruesome deaths of our April. However, Tabitha lived in a Roman-occupied world in which wealth distribution and the control of goods were in the hands of the 2 percent, and in which poverty, malnutrition, and illness were deadly siblings. Women like Tabitha would have had a life expectancy of fewer than 40 years. Her death was likely no more “natural” than those above. It too was an act of violence, an injustice as is all death caused by societally created impoverishment. In the first century, Tabitha, as much as any victim of Roman crucifixion or beheading, was a victim of mass murder, just as are those who die of poverty-related diseases in untold numbers in our rich nation today.
In the face of death, the little church in Joppa took action. First, they tended to Tabitha's body – an act of care that prevents any masking of the ravages of death. Like Emmett Till's mother in 1955 and Noah Pozner's mother in 2013 — both of whom kept their son's caskets open so the world could see what lynching and military weapons do to young boys — the little church in Joppa did not turn away from the violence that illness and likely malnutrition had done to Tabitha. They tended to her disease-ridden corpse as it was, holding the honest truth of the injustice of Tabitha's death in their hands.
Further, at the death of Tabitha, the widows gathered, weeping, and telling her story. There is a power in those who mourn and who will not let the story of a beloved one die. This is the witness of Rachel in Matthew 2:18, and of the devout men of Judea after Stephen's stoning in Acts 8:2. Even Jesus holds up the worth of mourners (Matthew 5:4; Luke 6:21b). This is the power of the President of the United States giving over his weekly broadcast to Francine Wheeler, the mother of six-year old Ben Wheeler, so that she could tell her story — a story of love and loss, of injustice and the need to protect our communities. And this is the power of those communities of faith who have been calling their legislators and telling the story to compel them to listen, to act.
Unlike the little church in Joppa, not every church can summon an apostle with the power to raise the dead. Peter's role in this story, although a witness to resurrection power, is outside of most of our capability. But even if we have no Peter, as we remember the named and unnamed death count of April, we can still follow the example of Tabitha's church. Like them, we can tend to the bodies, telling the truth about the fatal toll of guns, bombs, poverty, and disease. When we do so, we break death's ability to sever our responsibility to one another. Like the church of Joppa, we can tell the stories of those who have died. When we do, we break death's ability to relegate victims to oblivion and to glorify its acolytes. Like the widows of Joppa and like the devout men of Judea, like Rachel and like Jesus at Lazarus' tomb, we can gather to lift up our voices in weeping. For our weeping is an act of protest, a refusal to be silent in the face of the injustice of death, death from disease and malnutrition, death from domestic terrorism, death from the increasingly unregulated possession and use of military firearms.
So let the church “gather crying tears that fill a million oceans” (Sweet Honey in the Rock, 2003). For we are people of the resurrection. And we confess, despite all evidence to the contrary, that death will not win.
Rev. Margaret Aymer, Ph.D., D. D. is Associate Professor for New Testament at the Interdenominational Theological Center and a Teaching Elder in the PCUSA. She is the author of First Pure, Then Peaceable: Frederick Douglass, Darkness and the Epistle of James, and the 2011-2012 Horizons Bible Study, Confessing the Beatitudes.