The challenge of mercy

Worcester funeral diretor Peter Stephan, whose efforts to bury a Boston Marathon bombing suspect have finally paid off.
The Boston bomber has finally found a resting place – though whether it is “final” remains to be seen.
“As a result of our public appeal for help a courageous and compassionate individual came forward to provide the assistance needed to properly bury the deceased,” Worcester police said in a statement this morning. “His body is no longer in the city of Worcester and is now entombed.” Stefan’s funeral home has been surrounded by media, protesters, and Worcester police, whose chief, Gary J. Gemme, on Wednesday publicly appealed for someone to step forward and end the controversy that cost his department some $30,000 in extra expenses. We are not barbarians; we bury the dead,” Gemme said on Thursday.

“Barbarians” – that kind of hits you in the face, doesn’t it?

 I was struck by the juxtaposition of the words “courageous” and “compassionate.” Given the sky-high passions for the perpetrators of the bombing, which resulted in the deaths of 4 people and the wounding of nearly 200, I should not have been surprised that these words needed to be placed together. But courage and compassion, one generally associated with masculinity and the other with feminity, do go together well.

One of the features of Christianity that accounts for its longevity is that it challenges us to look beyond our instincts, habits and cultural values. To be hateful, to hold grudges, and to seek to harm those how hurt is natural. Our instincts are fight and to defend. By necessity, these are very deep-seated needs, from the very beginning.  Kids hit, yell and fight. Adolescents scrap and bully. Adults, especially the drunker ones, get belligerent and go to war. Fighting is verbally, too. Humans have perfected the craft of insulting their opponents. Comics use it as the backbone of their routines. Even when we don’t have an immediate response to an insult, we spend hours dreaming up the perfect comeback, the thing we wished we had said. Those with some level of foresight even develop a litany of stock responses, ready to deploy when the need arises. “It takes one to know one!” ”You and what army?” “Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?” “ “Gee. And I thought we were getting along so well.” The list is very long. For some people, it seems that their entire verbal repertoire is made of such time-tested, “witty” comebacks.

But Christianity teaches another way, one that goes against the need for defeating or demeaning the adversary. It is a teaching that I struggle with. Not because I disagree with it, but because it is so hard to master.  

One of the signal teachings of Jesus was about mercy – to decline the invitation to retaliate, even verbally, even when it is deserved.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.’ Matthew 5:43
Even plain old anger and name-calling are issues.
“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.” Matthew 5:21.
Rakah, by the way, means “blockhead.” Tough teaching, No-fun Jesus!

Yet mercy goes beyond refraining from doing evil in return for evil. It consists also of doing positive good, regardless of the worth of the person receiving it. The Beatitudes urge us to see the weak and marginalized – the sick, the poor, the naked, the hungry, the persecuted -- as blessed, not cursed. And the oft-quoted Matthew 25 imagines the judgment day, in which all humanity is asked whether it has lived up to the Beatitudes – treating the hungry, sick and persecuted as equal to their blessing. The Catholic works of mercy urge us to do the same – plus an admonition to bury the dead. And, as is true with books on etiquette, when someone goes to the trouble to tell you what is right, it is because most people are doing it wrong. Coming full circle to Jesus's teaching about retaliation, failing to burying the dead is a form of retaliation against them. It may be perfectly understandable reaction, but it is one that violates the code of absolute mercy that Jesus taught.

So hold your nose and bury the dead. Even the despicable dead.

It’s sad that the Worcester funeral director -- who worked so hard to find a burial spot for Tsarnaev – had to face angry demonstrators. His compassion, even if it is only in his job description, required courage and a willingness to face down implied threats. It will be a happy day, in this nominally Christian country, when the compassionate do not risk injury or ridicule for doing what they are obligated by their faith to do.