For those who didn’t know, Thursday the 25th of September was the national Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims. When I told friends that I was slated to speak at the annual gathering sponsored by the Maine chapter of the group Parents of Murdered Children, the reaction was one of horrified sympathy. Surely this was going to be really, really depressing?
Actually, there is probably more hope and encouragement on offer for the average minister from this group than any I could imagine. This, after all, was a roomful of miracles: Fifty or sixty people of various ages, races and backgrounds who have been through (are still going through!) an unimaginable nightmare. And they somehow managed to get out of bed and, nicely dressed, went to a meeting where they smiled at one another, made friendly, supportive conversation and gave every evidence that they are somehow, in spite of everything, still upright, alive, and fulfilling the great commandment—”love one another.”
The chapter’s coordinator, survivor Arthur Jette, asked me to say a few things about memory, particularly the way in which the memory of how a loved one dies can intrude upon and obstruct happier memories.
For any mourner, memory is a tricky thing: Important…and intrusive. Excruciating…and sacred. I remember the day my husband died. I can give you a countdown of what he did and we did in the days, hours, moments before he died, because I go through it every year in April. Still, my children and I were lucky. Though too many American police officers are murdered every year, Drew wasn’t one of them. He died in an accident.
To most people, the announcement that I consider myself lucky because my husband was killed by a truck rather than a person sounds strange… but it makes perfect sense to the families of murder victims. They know: Murder is different. I could have discussed the difference in terms of trauma psychology, but I’m a minister.
It’s my job to study scripture, not only from the Christian tradition, but from others as well, and recently I compared the description of the death of the Buddha to that of the death of Jesus.
Siddhartha Gautama—the Buddha—lived a long time. He was an old guy, by the standards of his day, when one evening, at supper with his disciples, he ate a piece of pork that didn’t agree with him. He died of food poisoning, or at least, that was the diagnosis at the time. The whole story is about “yay-long,” like the shortest obituary in the local paper.
All four gospels in the New Testament, on the other hand, take pages and pages to describe Jesus’ death, giving a day-by-day, hour-by-hour and, at the end moment-by-moment account.
Why the difference? Jesus was murdered.
So if one who mourns a murdered family member or friend feels unable to “get past” the memory of how the loved one died, he or she is in good company. Jesus’ disciples couldn’t get past it either. Arguably, they created a whole religion incapable of getting past it, one that remains obsessively focused on the day and manner of the death. Given murder, this isn’t just natural, it’s good—up to a point. It is certainly human: We are driven by love to grieve a loss, and driven by murder to seek justice and find meaning, and to figure out what can be changed so that others won’t have to suffer what we have suffered. All these motives are present in the New Testament and in Christianity.
Still, there is a truth that bears repeating: Whether you’re Pontius Pilate, Heinrich Himmler or a perpetrator of domestic violence; if you commit a crime, you reveal much about yourself. If you murder, you reveal yourself to be a murderer. Being the victim of a crime, on the other hand, reveals nothing about you as a human being other than that you were, at that moment, vulnerable. The character and worth of the victim is not revealed (even a little!) by how he or she died, but only by how she lived.
This is why, I think, for all the attention paid in the Bible to the events of Jesus’ murder, Christians have traditionally set aside one day—just one, Good Friday—in which to remember his death. The rest of the time—364 days out of every year—we should remember his life: What he did and said, whom he fed, taught, comforted and healed throughout his mortal days, and remember all the ways he continues to live in love (his love, our love, God’s love) forever.
Jesus has been dead for 2,000 years. I hope it doesn’t have to be that long before each of the family members of beloved murder victims I met (and all the many more they represent) gets to have 364 days of good memories every year. This isn’t just a compassionate hope for them, by the way: It’s also a hope for myself. I am now the mother of a law enforcement officer, after all. Luck and only luck so far prevents me from being the Parent of a Murdered Child, and while I’m grateful for luck when it comes, I don’t trust it.
What I do trust is love. Being with the families of Maine’s murder victims let me hope and trust: If there is enough love to keep these folk alive, sane and still seeking justice and meaning, and still supporting each other every day, then there is more than enough love for any and all of us to see, know and remember that even those whose lives are cruelly taken from them are not defined by cruelty, not defined by murder. This is the good news: We are not defined by death but by lives lived in love—my love, your love, their love, our love, God’s love.