Thirty-four years ago – and about that many pounds lighter than now – I ran a few marathons. To run a marathon was an effort to prove something to yourself. Could you train hard enough? Could you be disciplined enough? Could you endure long enough? Fortunately, this was accomplished with others who were working through similar questions while seeking to prove something to themselves; that close camaraderie of runners made it worth the effort.
The marathons I ran were at the tail-end of the “loneliness of the long distance runner” era. Therefore, while a crowd might gather at the start and finish of a race, the scattered pedestrians on the course looked at us askance as we competed with cars along roadways still open for use.
The Boston Marathon was always different. Though I never ran Boston, I did hear from runners who were amazed not only at the informality of the race – hundreds of unregistered runners regularly jumped in to compete – but also at the carnival atmosphere along the entirety of the route. Selecting the appropriate running shirt was crucial because it was how the thousands of cheering fans identified you, yelling encouragement to whatever was printed on your jersey. Today, many run not only to prove something to themselves, but also for a cause, a cure, or a memory. Thus, the names of charities and lost loved ones, printed on racing singlets, are evoked along the way as well.
My son, who went to Boston College, loved the festival atmosphere of race day. Not only were public schools closed for the state’s Patriots’ Day holiday, but universities cancelled classes as well since the festivities would far outdraw the lecture du jour. Boston College is located at the top of “Heartbreak Hill” which is actually a long series of ascents well into the race. If you are going to prove something to yourself, it will need to happen on Heartbreak Hill. Boston students congregate at the edge of campus to watch the leaders crest the hill and then cheer for classmates who are following far behind. There is an initial hush as the lead runners goes by, who, because their running form is so ultra-efficient and their pace so fast, look like a group of friends riding by in a convertible. Following this moment of awe, the raucous cheers break out for the common man – and since 1972 the common woman.
The Boston Marathon bombing is so shocking because it was obviously done by someone(s) who wanted to prove something not to himself, but to others. Could they display to the world his repressed rage enough? Could they divert attention to their cause enough? Could they maim and kill the innocent for some misguided agenda enough? That is what makes this act of terrorism so terrifying: a sick person or people trying to prove something to others by targeting those who are simply proving something to themselves, or trying to do something for others. It is jarring.
Ninety minutes before the bombs detonated, I was concluding a presentation on Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. That recent immersion into Luke’s narrative shaped my video viewing of the bombing’s aftermath. The one who “fell into the hands of robbers” was everywhere. The assaulted and bloodied were scattered by the side of the road, in this case, Boylston Street. Instead of people passing by on the other side, however, it was quite the opposite. Spectators and emergency medical personnel waded into the grisly scene and treated the wounded with exquisite care. Those pictures of the Good Bostonians are powerful: police lifting an elderly runner blown to the ground; runners pressing shirts into wounds to stanch the bleeding; strangers cradling the injured awaiting triage. No one is passing by on the other side – they are all in the thick of it: merciful, determined, compassionate, and resolute. The runners’ camaraderie expands exponentially with all this goodness in the face of evil.
The beauty of Jesus’ story is that we soon forget the brutality of the robbers due to the caring example of the Good Samaritan. It will be difficult for us to forget the butchery of a bomber on a festive day. However, while the investigation continues, and our yearning for justice endures, perhaps by keeping the image of those kindly ones before us we will know better how to respond in the face of terror: as neighbors who act justly, love mercy, and run humbly with our God.
Campbell Lovett serves as the Conference Minister of the Michigan Conference of the United Church of Christ in East Lansing, Mich.
Image: Silhouette of runner, Warren Goldswain / Shutterstock.com