Last month, two events occurred in the same week that once again had us searching for answers. On Sept. 16, a heavily armed civilian contractor with a history of disorders fatally shot 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard. Later that week, terrorists attacked a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, in a three-day rampage that resulted in the deaths of at least 61 civilians and six Kenyan soldiers.
Such events are becoming all too common in our world, so common that they soon pass out of the news. The conversation in the last days of September was, however, revealing. Instead of any meaningful dialogue about mental health services or regulation of weapons, the conversation was about security at military facilities.
Not unpredictably, the response to Nairobi rapidly became sectarian, prompting one commentator to call for a ban on building any mosques until all Muslims undergo a security screening. Perhaps he was unaware that would be more than 2.6 million screenings, including two members of Congress.
Just days after those events came the Feast of Michael and All Angels. Mentioned in the Hebrew and Christian Bible as well as the Qur’an, Michael is most frequently depicted as a warrior against evil. It occurred to me that it seems to be in our nature to seek someone to blame when something terrible happens; to both externalize the problem of evil (it’s always “those people”) and develop a solution to it (which most of the time is some form of sacred violence).
Therein lies the problem. Michael had it easy. He was “up there” in heaven, or wherever heaven is, where bad guys are easily identified. Like an American Western: clean shaven good guys in white hats and bad guys needing a shave in black ones. It turns out that life on this planet is not nearly as tidy. Terrible things have been done by those who figured out who are the bad guys. And terrible things have been done in retaliation.
In 1965, Paul Saltzman left his home in Toronto and traveled to Greenwood Mississippi to help register African-American voters. He was arrested, jailed and assaulted by a teenage member of the Ku Klux Klan. Forty-three years later he returned in search of his assailant, Delay de la Beckwith. Five years of resulting conversations between them became the subject of Saltzman’s astonishing film, “The Last White Knight.”
They are still on opposite sides of the racial divide. Beckwith insists that there would have been no violence in the south if “you northern idiots” had not come to Mississippi and that the violence of white supremacists were acts of self-defense. Perhaps age has taken the fight out of them, or perhaps they have been touched, as Lincoln suggested, by the better angels of our nature, but Paul Saltzman and Delay de la Beckwith have come to like each other and to believe that reconciliation is possible.
I think that Michael is not some mythical winged being but is instead the struggle that goes on inside each of us as we make a multitude of decisions every day about how we will live. I think the battle between good and evil is not so much cosmic as it is individual. And I think maybe Michael is not so much a warrior, as he is symbolic of the better angels of our nature that lie within us all.
• Steve Hammer is the pastor at Esperanza Lutheran Church in Ahwatukee Foothills.