Russian deaths cry for 'more excellent way'

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, September 8, 2004

As I write these words, hundreds of innocent children and adults are being buried, victims of last week's grotesque act of terrorism in Beslan, Russia. Any moral claim Chechen rebels might have had in their fight for liberation has forever been lost in this vile deed conceived amidst longstanding ethnic differences and divisions.

The Orthodox bishop of Beslan, who was at the scene of the hostage-taking and shooting, sees this terrible episode as a call to unity.

"Humanity has no other option than to unite, so that terror will not take place," Eparch Feofan Ashurkov said, according to a ZENIT news service release on Sept. 6.

"When receiving news of the kidnapping, I arrived in Beslan in 30 minutes and offered myself as a mediator, but dialogue was rejected," he said.

"I approached the terrorists several times, but on their side there was no request, no dialogue; they had condemned all to death," he said.

"Can one call someone who commits such acts a liberator? To struggle for freedom through the death of children? Those who tried to escape were shot in the back. I myself closed the eyes of several children who were killed that way. How can someone who acts like that call himself a liberator?"

Eparch Ashurkov is right to distance true liberation from such senseless violence.

But there is a liberation – a unity – that comes from the pursuit of a certain kind of excellence, as I was getting around to in last week's column but never expected world events to set the stage so forcefully for this alternative.

This excellence is not about skill in taking revenge, not about skill in wiring explosives at the entrances of a school, not about skill in shooting children in the back – indeed, terrorists in general are strangers to true excellence, because of the higher values associated with the word.

In the Christian scriptures the Apostle Paul speaks of "a more excellent way":

"Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends."

There is a Sufi prayer, "The Perfection of Love," that is very much in the same vein:

"O Thou, who art the perfection of love, harmony and beauty, the Lord of heaven and earth, open our hearts, that we may hear Thy voice, which constantly cometh from within, disclose to us Thy divine light, which is hidden in our souls, that we may know and understand life better. Most merciful and compassionate God, give us Thy great goodness; teach us Thy loving forgiveness. Raise us above the distinctions and differences, which divide us. Send us the Peace of Thy divine spirit, and unite us all in Thy perfect being. Amen."

Perhaps out of this evil hour will emerge a commitment to the one truly excellent way that alone can bring about peace.

Some years ago I visited the Punch Bowl Crater War Memorial above Pearl Harbor. On a large mosaic wall commemorating the battles in the Pacific during the Second World War is a quotation from General Douglas MacArthur, delivered on the Battleship Missouri following the surrender of Japan.

Of the ending of war forever, he said: "The problem basically is theological and involves a spiritual recrudescence and improvement of human character."

"Recrudescence"? The word was new to me, so I began to explore its meaning. Sure enough, it was absolutely the right word for the situation. It means "reawakening."

And at the heart of that spiritual reawakening lies the challenge for each of us to outdo the other, no longer in the never-ending cycle of violence and revenge, but in love.

That call for each of us to excel in love is, I believe, fundamental to Eparch Ashurkov's statement: "Humanity has no other option than to unite, so that terror will not take place."

© 2004 Warren Harbeck

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