ANALYSIS: Where are the Christians on burying Tsarnaev?

BOSTON — Soon after the Boston Marathon bombings, local Christian leaders stepped swiftly into the public eye, convening vigils and … Continued

BOSTON — Soon after the Boston Marathon bombings, local Christian leaders stepped swiftly into the public eye, convening vigils and urging peaceful healing in the wake of senseless violence.

But their public voices have fallen mostly silent as noisy resistance grows to the prospect that suspected bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev could be buried in local soil.

Cemeteries and even some mosques have refused to take his body. His city, Cambridge, has urged family members to bury him elsewhere. Republican U.S. Senate candidate Gabriel Gomez and local talk radio host Dan Rae want him dumped in the ocean, like Osama bin Laden. Clergy have largely kept mum.

“The only signs of people who are showing some sort of moral conscience are those few who stand with a card near the funeral home saying (burial) is a corporal work of mercy,” said James Keenan, a moral theologian at Boston College. “To say,’we won’t bury him’ makes us barbaric. It takes away mercy, the trademark of Christians. … I’m talking about this because somebody should.”

The Christian silence is notable, observers say, in part because death rituals are typically the domain of the faith community. In matters of death, religious figures are primary sources for guidance in what to do — but not in this public episode.

“I’ve not heard a lot from the Christian community” on this issue, said Joel Anderle, senior pastor of Community Covenant Church in West Peabody, Mass., and president of the Massachusetts Council of Churches.

“This is one of those curious areas where Christianity, and in particular Protestant Christianity, has come to believe that it doesn’t have a voice.”

The issue isn’t theological uncertainty. Believers of all stripes would say Tsarnaev should be buried — in local soil if necessary, perhaps in an unmarked grave — as a matter of respect for personhood, for the human body and for God, according to Laura Everett, executive director of the MCC. She notes Christians are known for burying even pariahs, including those executed for heinous crimes or left to die in the streets, as acts of faithful witness.

Why then today’s reticence? Some blame the media. Christian leaders would love to tell why even a killer should have a burial, but reporters aren’t giving them a platform to weigh in, according to the Rev. Suzanne Wade, priest-in-charge at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Westford, Mass.

“We have a moral imperative to say yes to the burial,” Wade said. “But I wonder if the voices of those who would speak peace are being muted because the conflict is a much better story.”

Others suspect reticence serves particular purposes for faith leaders who must walk a delicate line in the aftermath of a devastating disaster. These purposes might be lofty and pastoral, or part of something less holy, depending on one’s perspective.

Because the bombings left more than 260 people injured and dozens maimed, pastors across the region are ministering to parishioners who were hurt or know victims and still feel the sting of the attacks. Such pastors might be too upset or angry to champion mercy and respect for a man responsible for their people’s misery, according to Wade.

“It’s much easier for me to be that public voice than it is perhaps for people who have somebody very close to them who was affected,” Wade said. “Distance allows a perspective that you can’t get when you’re living in the middle of it.”

What’s more, the best pastoral outcome would probably be for a burial to take place with consent from Tsarnaev’s family and with minimal fanfare, Everett said. In their reticence, faith leaders might be trying to keep the debate from escalating, she said, since no one is served well by a heightened, emotional spectacle.

“There’s deep consternation in the religious community and deep desire for this to be resolved,” Everett said. “Religious leaders are weighing how best to be useful in that.”

Some observers wonder whether something less charitable might be unfolding. Christian leaders in past centuries called for burning witches at the stake and having criminals buried at crossroads, where vehicles would run over them, said Gary Laderman, a historian who studies death rituals at Emory University.

Laderman said he sees “echoes from previous eras” in calls from the general public for burials to be denied to an enemy such as Tsarnaev. He warns that religious leaders can contribute to desecration by what they sanction, encourage, say or don’t say.

“There’s a way in which religious leaders and cultures can inflame the passions even more about wanting to desecrate (the bodies of) the most vile people on earth,” Laderman said.

Christians beyond the Boston area are taking steps to see that Tsarnaev gets a burial. The group Evangelicals for Social Action has collected 42 signatures for a new petition calling on Christian cemeteries to accept Tsarnaev’s body. Paul Keane, originally of Hamden, Conn., has offered the Tsarnaevs a plot beside his late mother in a church cemetery. It would be in her memory, Keane said, since she “taught me to’love thine enemy.’”

Boston Christians, meanwhile, worry some of their peers are cowed into silence by vocal opponents, such as those who’ve targeted funeral director Peter Stefan for saying he will find a burial site for Tsarnaev, perhaps in Russia if not the United States.

When Anderle said on his Facebook page that Christians should be “utterly scandalized” when a burial is blocked, others say he’s taking a risk.

“There is this sense of,’I really appreciate what you’re saying, but that sure seems a dangerous thing to point out in a society that’s hell bent on retributive justice,’” Anderle said. “We can’t engage without fear of being … vilified and attacked. That’s sad.”

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, Religion News Service LLC.

  • db-NJ

    The Boston area is predominantly Catholic, so where are the Catholic leaders of the flock?? Maybe Cardinal O’Malley of Boston should be acting as Jesus would: exercising his influence while setting an example for fellow christians in the ways of Christ: vis a v – finding a burial plot for the Boston bomber who lived in Cambridge and SHOULD BE buried in Cambridge!

    He is already ‘dead’ (his sins won’t contaminate you!) : and God alone passes final judgement! How about less ‘political and religious’ correctness and more about the gospel of Christ!!

    Christians awake!!! “

  • PhillyJimi1

    Tsarnaev should have been at the bottom of a public urinal. That is where he belongs.

Read More Articles

Screenshot 2014-04-23 11.40.54
Atheists Bad, Christians Good: A Review of “God’s Not Dead”

A smug Christian movie about smug atheists leads to an inevitable happy ending.

shutterstock_134310734
Ten Ways to Make Your Church Autism-Friendly

The author of the Church of England’s autism guidelines shares advice any church can follow.

Valle Header Art
My Life Depended on the Very Act of Writing

How I was saved by writing about God and cancer.

shutterstock_188545496
Sociologist: Religion Can Predict Sexual Behavior

“Religion and sex are tracking each other like never before,” says sociologist Mark Regnerus.

5783999789_9d06e5d7df_b
The Internet Is Not Killing Religion. So What Is?

Why is religion in decline in the modern world? And what can save it?

concert
Why I Want to Be Culturally Evangelical

I’ve lost my faith. Do I have to lose my heritage, too?

shutterstock_37148347
What Is a Saint?

How the diversity of saintly lives reveals multiple paths toward God.

987_00
An Ayatollah’s Gift to Baha’is, Iran’s Largest Religious Minority

An ayatollah offers a beautiful symbolic gesture against a backdrop of violent persecution.

river dusk
Cleaner, Lighter, Closer

What’s a fella got to do to be baptized?

shutterstock_188022491
Magical Thinking and the Canonization of Two Popes

Why Pope Francis is canonizing two popes for all of the world wide web to see.

Pile_of_trash_2
Pope Francis: Stop the Culture of Waste

What is the human cost of our tendency to throw away?

chapel door
“Sometimes You Find Something Quiet and Holy”: A New York Story

In a hidden, underground sanctuary, we were all together for a few minutes in this sweet and holy mystery.

shutterstock_178468880
Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

sunset-hair
From Passover to Easter: Why I’m Grateful to be Jewish, Christian, and Alive

Passover with friends. Easter with family. It’s almost enough to make you believe in God.

colbert
Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

emptytomb
God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

shutterstock_186795503
The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

egg.jpg
Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.