There are events that are so surreal that they almost inevitably evoke religious language. This was certainly the case with the attack on the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, so it is not surprising that such language erupted in its wake. But this particular event makes religious reactions especially appropriate, more so than would be the case with other mass gatherings.
The Boston Marathon has both ancient and more proximate religious roots. Marathon is a town in Greece, the site of a battle in 490 BCE in which a small Athenian force defeated a much larger Persian army. Supposedly a messenger ran all the way to Athens without ever stopping, upon arrival exclaimed “We have won!”, then collapsed. The name “Marathon” was then given to a running competition at the first modern Olympic Games held in Athens in 1896, intended to reincarnate the ancient festival—a sacred ritual going back to around 700 BCE, dedicated to Zeus, the head of the gods.
More proximately, its reiteration in Boston is held on Patriots Day, a public holiday—indeed a “holy day”—commemorating the battles of Concord and Lexington in 1775 that inaugurated the War of Independence. It is a holiday which embodies the soul of the city of Boston and with it the founding myth of the United States. An attack on it, beyond its horrendous brutality, has the quality of blasphemy.
On April 19, 2013 The Boston Globe provided extensive coverage of the religious ceremonies in the wake of the attack. There was a solemn service at Trinity Episcopal Church on Copley Plaza, right next to the crime scene. No doubt there were other denominational services. But here I want to make some comments on the informal and formal interfaith services, explicit manifestations of the civil religion and its relation to the several denominations.
Soon after the bombings a makeshift memorial was spontaneously put up. A Globe article described it as “an eclectic collection of crosses, candles, teddy bears, medals, running shoes, and hundreds of other personalized items that reflect a common sorrow.” I don’t know when or where this practice originated, but it has occurred on other occasions of shared grief, for example following the death of Princess Diana. There were a few overtly religious messages inserted into the display, but the memorial as a whole had a clearly ritual, quasi-sacral character. People were coming and going, stood quietly in an attitude of prayer, wrote messages. A six-year old girl laboriously wrote a message saying “We love you so much!”. That was the major theme—expressions of affection for the victims. Then there were affirmations of resolve against violence, and expressions of the intent to run again in next year’s Marathon. Sacral ritual or not, no denominationally specific religion was visible here.
The official memorial service took place three days after the attack, at the Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Cross. It was attended by President Obama and other top officials. Obama denounced the evil of the murderous deed, promised to bring the perpetrators to justice (the suspected bombers were still at large), and expressed his special affection for Boston. This is the lesson he took from the event: “That’s what you taught us, Boston. That’s what you reminded us—to push on, to persevere. To not grow weary. To not get faint. Even when it hurts. Even when our heart aches.” People in the audience said that they were comforted and inspired by the President’s message. It was by all accounts an effective sermon. But it was a secular sermon, despite its religiously distinctive setting.
The opening address at the Cathedral service was delivered by the Reverend Liz Walker, a Presbyterian minister. I was struck by the following passage: “How can God allow bad things to happen? Where was God when evil slithered in and planted the horror that exploded our innocence?” She said that she had no answer, and added, “But this is what I know: God is here, in the midst of this sacred gathering and beyond.”
I would not be misunderstood: I have no problem whatever for a minister not knowing “the answer” to the age-old question of theodicy. After all, I co-authored a book with the title In Praise of Doubt—by definition, I think, faith implies an absence of certainty—I don’t have to believe what I know. But that is not the point here. The point is this: The faith that Walker represents does have an answer, centered on the redemptive process inaugurated by the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, culminating on that Day of Judgment when all evil will finally be punished. But what is more: She could not (whether in tones of certainty or not) explicate this answer in the context of this service. Once again, I would not be misunderstood: I have no criticism of Walker’s reticence about the Christian faith she is supposed to represent. It would have been inappropriate here for her to come out with overtly Christian (let alone with Protestant or, if such there are, Presbyterian) references. But it is useful to reflect about the relation between any specific faith and the civil religion affirmed in this service.
I was not there, but the Globe account does not record any expression of a specific faith. Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the much admired Archbishop of Boston (he was mentioned as papabile at the recent Conclave), made no mention of any specifically Catholic “answer” either: “The tragedy… shakes us out of our complacency and indifference and calls us to focus on the task of building a civilization that is based on love, justice, truth and service.” Rabbi Ronne Friedman, who presides over the largest synagogue in Boston quoted a Hasidic source: “The entire world is a narrow bridge, but the important principle is to transcend, somehow, your fear.” An atheist might agree with this. The representative of the American Islamic Congress quoted a passage from the Koran, but that one too could be affirmed by any morally decent person. Needless to say, there are distinctive Jewish and Muslim “answers” to the question of theodicy (beyond the not unimportant point that the question was probably raised explicitly for the first time in the Hebrew Bible, in the Book of Job). In any case, as far as I can tell, this was an event in which anyone, even a very secular person, could feel at home—and, most importantly, experience a strong sense of solidarity with the community assaulted by an obscene act of violence. This was the experience reported by all the participants who spoke about the service.
Grace Davie, a British sociologist, has written about the way in which established churches, in moments of collective grief, become the official mourners of the nation, even though only a minority of citizens worship in their services. The Church of England played this role at the funeral of Princess Diana, as did the Lutheran Church of Sweden (it has recently been disestablished) when the cruise ship “Estonia” sank in the Baltic Sea and a large number of Swedish tourists perished. The United States of course has no state church, but all the denominations together serve to legitimate the civil religion that can be embraced by all citizens.
This is a very distinctive American version of the separation of church and state, a quite strict legal separation, yet with diverse religious groups noisily present in public life. I think that, by and large, this has been a very successful arrangement. It presupposes that a religious group, when it enters public space, must translate its commentaries into terms that can be understood and debated by all citizens, most of whom will not be members of the particular group. Put differently, if one wants to persuade fellow-citizens in public space, one must employ a secular discourse. That discourse does have a moral foundation, the value system of the “American Creed”. Adherents of this or that specific faith may find these values more vague, even superficial, than the ones derived directly from faith, and they themselves may understand their allegiance to the Creed in terms specific to their faith. Thus the secular discourse of the public space coexists with the plurality of specific (if you will, “sectarian”) religious discourses.
The American case is different from other cases where religious pluralism and religious freedom coincide. Yet it is similar in the need for a common discourse not identified with any specific denomination. This should not trouble people of faith, unless they are unwilling to recognize the right of other faiths to exist in the same society. The Dutch legal philosopher Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) was one of the founders of modern international law. He insisted that such law was to be a rational enterprise, which could be agreed upon by states with widely different religions. In his remarkable phrase, international law should be formulated etsi Deus non daretur” – “as if God did not exist”. Grotius was anything but an atheist. He was a pious man, belonging to the Arminian branch of the Dutch Reformation. I would call it its more humane branch, as against the grim Calvinism that dominated in the Netherlands for a while. (Indeed the Calvinist authorities then in charge forced Grotius into exile, in England and in Germany.) It seems to me that his formula is relevant to church/state issues today.