At the end of November in 1098, during the first crusade, those who set off in the name of Christ to free the holy land from the infidel, came to the Syrian city of Ma’arra northwest of Antioch. There was no army to defend the city, only a militia of citizens. It is recorded that in their attempts to defend the walls they resorted to throwing beehives at the invaders. Terrified, they eventually abandoned the walls and took refuge in certain buildings within the city.
The crusaders, unwilling to move into the city in the dark, waited until dawn. During the night, the citizens were given word by the Frankish commander, Bohemond, that their lives would be spared if they left the buildings in which they had barricaded themselves. Trusting his word, they left and took refuge in homes and basements. At daylight, the troops were loosed on the city in a three-day slaughter that killed or enslaved the entire population.
Radulph of Caen, one of the crusaders who chronicled the event, wrote, “In Ma’arra our troops boiled pagan adults in cooking-pots; they impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled.” A letter from Bohemond to the pope acknowledged the behavior of the crusaders and excused it saying they were starving. But the crusaders used the threat that they would eat their enemies to force other cities to capitulate. It was an act of terror that still reverberates through the Middle East and to our own shores.
I have no interest in adding to the condemnation of Christians or blaming the West for anything. My concern is the human heart. We can be such noble creatures. And we can be so brutal. I do not know how you can look a child in the face and see an enemy. I do not know how you can leave a bomb at his feet, or hack him to death with a machete, or drop napalm. None of it makes any sense to me.
But I know it happens.
And it also happens that people ran toward the explosion on the streets of Boston in order to help.
We are such strange creatures. I can understand why God would consider a flood – and why he could gaze upon Noah and change his mind.
I have heard stories of violence in homes, and have seen a husband walk each day to a nursing home to care for a wife who had no idea who he was. I have seen thieves steal the siding off a house as I sat inside visiting with the homeowner, and seen a man pay off the $12,000 funeral debt of a complete stranger.
We are extraordinary creatures. We build hospitals and death camps, rockets to the moon and rockets with warheads. We will fight to save one child in a well, but ignore the children of famine. How does God look upon us with love? Because of the good things or in spite of the bad things? In hope for what we might be or despite what we are?
It is tempting to go for a lifeboat theology: God will rescue the few good people and take us away from this sinking ship. But that’s not what we find in the Biblical narrative. We find a God who chooses to become one of us. And even when that ends badly, God doesn’t give up on the human enterprise – he infuses a few with his Spirit and sends them out to keep speaking the word of Grace, to keep healing the sick, binding up the wounded and freeing the prisoners; to keep announcing that heaven will reign.
This is all I have to say about Boston: we are strange creatures, but God carries the shrapnel in his body; his Spirit infuses the hands of the healers; and he sends us to keep announcing that heaven will reign.
Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.” (Revelation 11:15)