Friday, May 6, 2011

"God loves Jesse Helms . . .

. . . but he wouldn't vote for him" was a graffito I found carved into a bench in on a major shopping street in Durham, North Carolina back in 1990. Some remember may remember that Jesse Helms (1921-2008) was a conservative Republican Senator who had represented North Carolina for about a quarter-century. He was either reviled or lauded, depending on which side of the political divide you stood. The 1990 election between Helms and African-American candidate Harvey Gantt was particularly nasty and racially charged (Helms won that race by the way). And so, when I saw this carved message (and the difference in size of the letters between the first phrase and the second was equivalent to what I've shown here), I had to walk closer to see what the smaller print said. I was in North Carolina, after all, and such "religious endorsement" of candidates wasn't surprising.

The surprise, of course, was in the second phrase. It, too, had a political cast to it, but it served as a wake-up call that (according to Christian theology), God loves everyone, all the time. But that doesn't necessarily mean that God approves of everyone's actions . . . or politics. Parents (and sometimes wise children) get this distinction!

The memory of this encounter-with-a bench came roaring back to me this week as I saw pictures, and heard news reports, of the jubilant exultation over the death of Osama bin Laden—and the accompanying commentary. Assertions of bin Laden's "evilness" justified his being killed. "Justice was done" was claimed over and over again. I do not want to get into a debate/discussion over the "justice" issue, or his reputed "evilness". For the record, I appreciate the fact that the world does not have to deal with him any longer. I would hope that we've turned a page in our nation's history, and that we can move forward a bit lighter.

The voices, however, that have wondered (either to me privately or in print) about how appropriate it is to gloat jubilantly over the death of another human being have reminded me of the assertion that "God loved Jess Helms". And I was equally reminded of the verse from the Hebrew wisdom tradition: "Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble" (Proverbs 24.17). Even more pointed is the withering critique of the Hebrew prophet Hosea: "Do not exult as other nations do; for you have played the whore, departing from your God. You have loved a prostitute’s pay on all threshing floors" (9.1). Hosea's assertion is that few of us -- few nations, certainly -- have consistently clean hands.

What this episode in our national history most clearly points out to me is how broken we are as a species. Violence is seen as the only means to redress wrongs or grievances, and reciprocal violence then is seen as the appropriate response to that initial deed. We are all broken. The assassination of bin Laden is yet another reminder of that.

I'll save my jubilation for the day when we are free of our love of violence and hatred. In the meantime, I'll pray for the healing of our brokenness.

I wish I had taken a picture of that bench.




  1. Dear Gary,
    You have put into words so beautifully what I've been feeling but haven't been able to properly express. Thank you,
    A DU Neighbor
    PS. We should ALL have a picture of that bench!

  2. As a parent of a freshman this year, I have thoroughly enjoyed your monthly blogs. They consistently spark reflection and some fun conversations with my son at DU. You have a very special gift for communicating from deep within and articulating those ponderings in a way that is relevant to the day to day happenings in all of our lives. Thank you for touching on a delicate topic in a way that is honoring but also grants people an opportunity to pause and enter personally into self-reflection. Why am I reacting the way I am? To what am I reacting? What do I really believe about God, love and how precious life is apart from the evil that works to define us, bind us and ultimately blind us from the truth of that love?

  3. Thanks to you both! Amazing to think that I've touched a cord.

  4. Hi--I'm a DU grad student. I found this to be a thought-provoking and interesting commentary on human nature. We can be so much more than we are, but sometimes it seems like we don't want to be. We would rather hold on to anger over past wrongs -- whatever they may be -- and let that anger define our current actions, when it would be better to graciously let go.

    I think we are broken as a society, but I would rather acknowledge the broken bits and learn from them, then to pretend it's all right.

  5. I certainly agree that we need to acknowledge the brokenness and learn from it! In religious terms, if we do that, AND if behavior changes, we've achieved repentance! Maybe then we can enter into newness of life.

    Thanks for the comment!

  6. Such a powerful posting. Thank you for its depth and insight. These times really challenge our devotion to Christian principles. It seemed strange to me that I felt ashamed of my feelings of grief when I heard of the killing of Osama bin. I understand the need to close this chapter for the survivors and families of the 9/11 attack. I guess he had to be killed, yet he still is someone’s son, husband, father, brother and friend, and for their loss I mourn. There is a Christian principle to love our enemies and do good to them who despitefully use us. Yet that is not considered “practical” in today’s world. For me increasing love for my neighbor and reducing hate and revenge in my own heart is a very practical contribution to world peace.