A Plea to Christians Regarding the Burial of Tamerlan Tsarnaev


I realize that in this country, there are people of many different faiths.  I would hope that our shared humanity would enable us to reach across our differences and find a common sense of good.  But in this entry, I am mostly concerned with reaching out to my Christian brothers and sisters.

The family of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the deceased Boston Marathon bomber, has requested that his body be released to them so that they can bury it according to Muslim standards.  I know very little of Islam–my knowledge is confined to an entry-level class on world religions in college and another world religions class in seminary.  I am by no means an expert, but it is my understanding that Islam forbids the practice of cremation.  This limits the options that the Tsarnaev family has in deciding what to do with his body.

The undertaker who has been given the very difficult job of finding a resting place for Tsarnaev has found it to be an  impossible task.  Much of this is due to the legitimate fear that cemeteries will see their resting places become the target of vandalism and destruction.

The discussion about what to do with Tsarnaev’s body has aroused deep emotions in all of us.  I am no different, and finding the strength to temper that emotionalism has been difficult.  But it is at times like this that I turn to Jesus with the simple, but pointed question, “What would you do about this?”

As a life-long Christian who has had some sort of relationship with Christ since I was a small child, I don’t have to wonder too long about this.  What Jesus would do is pretty clear:  He would bury Tsarnaev.  In fact, I have no doubt that Jesus would offer his own unused grave to the family.

In Romans 12:17-19 we are told:

Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good.

 If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people.  Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. It is written, Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord.

It is tempting to lash out at Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s deceased body and his still-living family with anger and rage.  The shock of that day has yet to wear off and when we see the replay of that sudden explosion ripping through the crowd we want revenge.

But revenge is not ours to be had.  It is the Lord’s alone.  Who are we to tell Jesus Christ that we are going to judge this man because we don’t trust him to do so?

It is tempting, when we see the face of eight-year-old Martin Richard, to refuse to do any good to Tsarnaev.  A terrorist doesn’t deserve it, we argue.  Martin Richard, on the other hand, deserved life.  He deserved the chance to grow up.  He deserved the chance to laugh, to live, to love… but he never got any of that.  There will be no first dates, first kisses, slow dances, or proms in his future.  And Tsarnaev is to blame for that.

But we are not permitted the luxury of returning evil for evil.

Scripture limits us in that capacity.  Instead, we are told to “show respect for what everyone else believes is good.”  And I don’t think there is any human being alive that doesn’t desire that their dead be treated with respect, whether that person has earned it or not.

It is difficulty to love people who live with so much hate in their soul that they would kill and maim innocent, unsuspecting people.  But, once again, Scripture leaves us with no alternative.

Matthew 5:44-46 says:

But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same?

Theodicy is a word we use in Christianity when terrible and evil things happen.  It is how we defend an all-loving, good God when evil rears its ugly head and seeks to destroy us.  From the beginning of time, humanity has struggled with this.  How does a Good and Loving God allow such terrible things to happen?

The early Christians were struggling with the same question.  How could a loving God allow Christ, the very flesh-and-blood manifestation of divine love, to be tortured to death?  How could that same God allow the faithful followers to be persecuted so maliciously?

The Gospel of Matthew gives us a short answer:  “He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.”

It’s not exactly the answer we had hoped for.  The mystery is still there.  The question of “why” is still left unanswered.  But one thing we do know, is that God alone is in control of these things.  We may not like it, but it is not our decision to make.

For whatever reason, Tamerlan Tsarnaev walked amongst us, enjoyed the same sun that we did, celebrated the same life-giving rains that we celebrated, and lived under the same blue sky that we have lived under.  He breathed his last breath of the same air we breathe.  And his body’s final resting place, in one way or another, will be the same earth where our’s will come to rest.

We were not able to play God when Tamerlan Tsarnaev entered the world, and we do not get to play God now that he has exited it.

The decision alone rests with the God-head.  God, the Creator; God, the Redeemer; and God, the Sustainer will decide what to do with the soul of Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

Which brings us to the realization that what we have, what we are lashing out at, what we are directing our resentment and anger toward is nothing more than a decaying vessel that will dissolve back into the earth.

We can deny Tsarnaev a burial because it offends our sense of justice.  We can demand his body be disposed of in a way offensive to the religion of his family.  We can spit on it, kick it, desecrate it… but it’s just an empty vessel.

The soul of Tsarnaev–the soul that allowed hatred and violence to spur it on to commit a malicious act of sinfulness against humanity–is already in the hands of God.  There is nothing more we can do to him.  So what is the point in whipping ourselves into a frenzy of emotion and losing our sense of decency over an empty vessel?

And finally, as a people who desire to live in the peace of Jesus Christ, remember the words of wisdom that come to us from Proverbs 16:7:

When a person’s path draws favor from the Lord,
even their enemies are at peace with them.

The war we have known for more than a decade–the violence we have witnessed over and over again between the acts of terrorism and our retaliation–will never come to an end by any deed of ours.

God alone is able to bring peace to this troubled planet.  God alone can bring peace to our troubled souls.  God alone can undo the anger and resentment that has been tossed back and forth all these generations.

We must be willing to trust God to do what is right.    We must be willing to release our need to control the fate of Tsarnaev and trust that God knows better than we what to do about his soul.

For those of us left behind in the wake of violence, we must continue to lean forward and push toward Christ.  We cannot allow wrath to consume our souls, but must continue to seek the peace that Christ is offering us, because it is in the peace of Christ alone that we are free to live.

And the only way we can know peace is to not worry about our own sense of earthly justice or to give in to our own heated emotions.  The only way we will know peace is when we turn our eyes heavenward and live our lives in a way that is pleasing to the LORD.

So, please brothers and sisters, let us live in the image and ways of Jesus Christ.  Let us open our hearts to love even the most unlovable.  Let us empty out our own desires from our soul and fill it up with the ways that are pleasing to God.

Your Sister in Christ,

Rev. Amanda Gayle Reed

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