Wednesday, May 6, 2020
Mother's Day Murder
Stephen had a mother. So did Saul. On Sunday morning, when we hear the story of Stephen being stoned to death by the angry mob and are told that the onlookers laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul, I bet our minds and hearts will be somewhere other than the scene of that execution. We may not be in church. We may not be able to take our mothers out to lunch. But surely we're thinking about Mother's Day and not the martyrdom of St. Stephen or the violent persecution at the hands of St. Paul.
Some of us didn't know our mothers. Some of us are pained by their memory. Some of us have always wanted to be a mother but haven't been able to. Most of us knew and loved our mothers and were known and loved by them. Plenty of us have buried our mothers. Some of us are in the process of saying goodbye to mothers who are the victims of dementia or illness. No matter what, all of us had a mother.
This Sunday is Mother's Day, but it won't get much special attention in our church, but, as I read the lesson from Acts, I am drawn to the fact that both of these men--saints of the church, who both eventually gave their lives in witness to Jesus Christ--had mothers, yet, as Saul looked on while Stephen was stoned to death, that commonality must have been far from his mind.
The story in Acts wants us to recognize that the anger of the crowd was in direct proportion to the testimony of Stephen: "'Look,' he said, 'I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!' But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him." By that point, Stephen had spent a good bit of time explaining the story of salvation as it evolved throughout the history of God's people and led to Jesus. If you go back and read the rest of Acts 7, you'll see that the crowd is angry at him, but it is this last moment, when Stephen says that he can see the Son of Man at God's right hand, that their anger boils over to a murderous rage. The more Stephen spoke and the more conclusive his testimony became, the more enraged the mob became. Once they perceived him as irreconcilably different, other, blasphemous, they killed him.
Sometimes that happens to people. Sometimes the otherness of someone becomes so complete and total that their life is perceived as a threat to our own. In our sinful and enraged minds, their life becomes anti-life. They are no longer individuals with a different opinion or a different identity. We think of them as a threat to our very existence. And sometimes, in a murderous rage, we extinguish their life because we think that will help protect ours.
I don't know much about the circumstances surrounding the murderous lynching of Ahmaud Abrery, the unarmed black man whose death at the hands of a white father and son in Georgia has (finally) received the attention of the nation, but it feels a lot like anger, power, and prejudice, which become racism. That becomes murder at the hands of difference, which is unfairly, unjustly, and sinfully perceived as a threat. Somewhere Ahmaud's family, including his mother, is mourning the death of a son and calling for justice. And somewhere the family and mothers of those who committed the act are worried about what will happen to their sons. But that truth wasn't operative in the moment of the killing.
Think of the person who most threatens you and your way of life--not the actual individual but the concept. Who is it? Is it a terrorist? A murderer? Someone who persecutes you and your community because of your faith, your ethnicity, or some other part of your identity? Some of those people are real threats. There are people in the world who want to kill others simply because. I'm not suggesting that we give up self-protection, though Jesus did and that's another post. But so often what we think of as a real threat isn't all that real. It's just difference. It's just otherness. It's a separation we allow to grow until it feels as if it threatens everything we stand for. But even that person out there--those people who represent complete otherness to us--they have mothers, too.