Pondering Our Response to Burying a Terrorist

There may not be a single cemetery in Massachusetts or in the entire country that is willing to be Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s final resting place…and that has left Peter Stefan in a very difficult spot. “I think (the cemeteries that have been asked) probably fear reprisals from people who have loved ones being buried there, people who may potentially buy lots there,” the funeral director said.

Since this story surfaced a few days ago, the body has been buried in an unmarked location in Virginia. This action should relieve some of the unhappiness expressed by many in Worcester, Massachusetts exemplified by picketers outside the funeral home denouncing plans to bury the marathon bomb suspect in their community. One held a sign that read, “Bury the garbage in the landfill.”

Let me state right up front that I understand the emotion of the people who oppose Tsarnaev being buried in their community. What he did was heinous and horrendous. Only a terrorist would consider setting off a bomb at an event such as the Boston Marathon as anything but heinous and horrendous. I have to admit that I have had and continue to have feelings of vengeance toward these two brothers and toward all who assisted or encouraged them. I want them to be punished to the fullest extent. I grieve for the pain that they have imposed on the victims, their family and friends, and to the communities most affected by the bombs and the aftermath.

Having said that, something has been nagging at me that causes me to wonder if this is not one of those moments in which we have an opportunity to respond in a way that is different from what we would do on our own and from what seems most natural.

When I first read the story of the funeral director’s dilemma, two questions came to mind. In the spirit of Christ, should we be willing to bury him in a cemetery in our community? As followers of Christ, would we be willing to bury him in a cemetery in our community? These are not easy questions for me (and I assume for you) to answer. I want to be as far removed as possible from people who would have such blatant disregard for human life that they would murder and injure innocent people. Nevertheless, something about the way in which the burial has been reported and responded to makes me think that this presents us with an opportunity to respond in a surprising, Christ-like way.

Of course, I am speaking as someone who is significantly removed from the pain of the people of Boston. I grieve with them. I sympathize with them. It’s much easier to be gracious from a distance than in the middle of the situation; it’s much easier to think about a monumental act of kindness as a relatively uninvolved by-stander than as someone burying a loved one or as someone helping a family member deal with a life-changing injury. I hope that no one interprets my questions as insensitivity to the suffering or as some sense of a higher moral standard in which I am subtly and arrogantly chastising people who may be responding to the situation differently. I am simply trying to process the questions that are coming to me.

I can’t get out of my mind the scriptural admonitions for responding to people who are in the category of enemy—either from their perspective or ours. Jesus teaches, You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… (Matthew 5:43-44). Paul writes, Do not repay anyone evil for evil…Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads.”Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good (Romans 12:17-21, NLT).

In this case our actions would not be for the one to whom we do good, though it might affect his family; it is for us who do the good. We grow more like Christ (1 Peter 3:9). We learn a lesson about love when our inclination is anything but. We learn that we are called to something more: to love, to be generous, even to face ridicule because of our generous acts of love. This point was driven home to me by none other than Jonathan Edwards, perhaps most recognized for his famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.

In his sermon On Christian Love, Edwards said: We are to do good both to the good and to the bad. This we are to do, as we would imitate our heavenly Father, for “he (Matthew 5:45) maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust.” The world is full of various kinds of persons; some good, and some evil; and we should do good to all. We should, indeed, especially, “do good to them that are of the household of faith,” or that we have reason, in the exercise of charity, to regard as saints. But though we should most abound in beneficence to them, yet our doing good should not be confined to them, but we should do good to all men as we have opportunity. While we live in the world, we must expect to meet with some men of very evil properties, and hateful dispositions and practices. Some are proud, some immoral, some covetous, some profane, some unjust or severe, and some despisers of God. But any or all these bad qualities should not hinder our beneficence, or prevent our doing them good as we have opportunity.

Now that Tamerlan Tsarnaev has been buried, the precise scenario is no longer an issue for us, but the reality of life is that we all encounter people who hurt us, who treat us as enemies and whom we treat as enemies. What are we going to do about them? Honestly, I would rather just go on treating them the way I want to treat them, but I know that I can’t. It may take some time and healing to get there, but we are called to something different. Jesus seems to imply that how we respond to enemies is directly connected to making progress in our journey to be like Christ.