Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Tomb Is Empty

The Empty Tomb, George Richardson

Why do you look for the living among the dead?

Sometimes, we do discover the living among the dead.  And in that discovery, we are given back our own life in ways we could not have dared to imagine. 

That is the theme of Jason Cohen’s documentary short film, Facing Fear.  No one was more surprised to find that the tomb was empty than Tim Zaal.  Tim grew up in the Los Angeles suburbs as part of a very homogenous Anglo community, yet he always felt like an outsider.  When his brother was shot by an African-American man, it reinforced his already nascent racism, nurturing a sense of bitter resentment against those who were different than him.

When Tim was exposed to his first hard core punk rock show, the sense of anger, fear, and violence that permeated the experience was intoxicating.  He found himself drawn into the neo-Nazi white power movement.  His life became centered around hate and violence.  He thrived on intimidating people and wreaking havoc.  It was like a drug to him.

The low point of his life came one night when his gang of neo-Nazi punks decided it would be cool to “kill some faggots.”  They drove into Hollywood looking for potential victims, and spotted a young gay kid on the street.  14 teen-age punks against 1 young kid.  They cornered him in an alley and started punching and kicking him.   He fell to the ground, but was still moving weakly. 

That was when 17 year-old Tim said, “What is wrong with you guys, don’t you know how to put a boot in?”  Then he kicked the kid as hard as he could in the head with his razor blade studded boots.  The kid stopped moving.   Tim and his friends high-fived one other, hooting and gloating over their sacrifice of this innocent victim, and left him for dead.

Later, Tim did prison time for attacking an Iranian couple.  He eventually married and began to raise his son in L.A.’s racist skinhead scene.  It wasn’t until he heard his little boy publicly parroting his own crude racist language that Tim began to look in the mirror.  Something shifted in him, and he was horrified to realize the person he had become and to acknowledge all the people he had harmed, especially the young kid he had killed in a dark alley. 

By 2001, Tim had divorced and left the neo-Nazi movement.  He was beginning to build a different life, and began volunteering at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, which is dedicated to inspiring people to act against prejudice and intolerance of all kinds.  He began working with a staff member, Matthew Boger, to develop anti-racism and anti-bullying presentations for school groups. 

Over several months, Tim and Matthew began to get to know each other and became friends.  One afternoon, as they were sitting in a coffee shop preparing a school presentation, they began to reminisce about their teen years in L.A. and discovered that they had frequented some of the same haunts.  Tim admitted he didn’t visit those areas anymore, especially in Hollywood, because of the shame he carried from the past.

Matthew began to ask more questions, and Tim confessed his participation in killing a gay kid in an alley off a park; a park with which Matthew was very familiar.  That was when it all clicked.  Matthew was the 14-year old boy that Tim had left for dead in the alley.  But Matthew survived, nursing his wounds alone for two months on the street.  The tomb was empty, and Tim now found himself confronted by the innocent victim he had sacrificed. 

Matthew grew up in a strict Catholic family just outside of San Francisco.  He always knew that he was gay, and became the target of relentless bullying in school.  Finally, when he was 13, it became too much and he just skipped his classes.  When his mother found out why he was truant, she grabbed him by the arm, drug him across the floor, and threw him out the door.  She told him never to step foot in her house again so long as he is gay.

Matthew survived on the streets of San Francisco for a couple of months, then tried to return home.  His mother slammed the door in his face.  Matthew was dead, as far as she was concerned.  That was when Matthew decided to catch a bus to Hollywood.  Maybe he could start over there.  That was when he met Tim and his gang.  He might as well have been dead after that.  In fact, he prayed that he would die.  But he survived.  More than that:  he lived.  Matthew was truly alive now.  And here he was with his new friend, Tim:  the man who had tried his best to kill him. 

What would you have done in Matthew’s place? 

Matthew did something truly amazing.  Not immediately, not readily, but slowly and completely, he forgave Tim.  No longer defined by the taunts of others or the pain of exclusion; free from the resentment of the past and the fear of death; given the capacity to see his enemy as a friend, a broken outsider much like himself, Matthew forgave Tim. 

The one whom Tim left for dead was now alive, and appeared to Tim in the form of forgiveness.  In so doing, Matthew gave Tim a precious gift:  the possibility of beginning to forgive himself.  “Forgiving myself,” writes Tim, “is an ongoing process, a daily practice.  It probably will be until the day I die.”

Strangely, Tim gave a great gift to Matthew in return.  As Matthew put it, “I also experienced a grieving process when I forgave because I had so identified with the events that took place when I was 14 that by letting that part of me go, I mourned the person I’d known for so long.  But that’s also a very beautiful thing because what got replaced was a person who was more tolerant, more open hearted and a lot stronger.”

Tim and Matthew shared a moment of hate.  Now, they share a lifetime of forgiveness.  Shame and fear no longer trap them in a kind of living death.  They are being given their lives back in ways they never could have dared to imagine.  They are far more alive together, than they ever were apart.

Why do you look for the living among the dead?

Jesus confronts us much in the same way that Matthew confronted Tim.  God loves us so much that he comes to us in Jesus to occupy the place of shame, willingly, freely, as an innocent victim left for dead.  He does so to free us from our fear of vulnerability, so that people like Matthew can receive their lives back.  God loves us so much that he raised up Jesus, vindicating his innocence, so that he might also be for us the Forgiving Victim, lifting the weight of our shame, so that people like Tim can receive their lives back too. 

Matthew and Tim are a kind of contemporary Peter and Cornelius.  Peter was a Jew living under the brutality of Roman occupation.  Cornelius was an officer of the Roman army, complicit in the everyday violence of Roman rule.  Yet, Peter, who experienced the love of the Risen Jesus, who forgave Peter his betrayal, says to Cornelius, his bitter enemy, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”  The Innocent Victim is risen, and everyone who trusts him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. 

The tomb is empty.  The Innocent Victim turns out to be the Forgiving Victim, and continues to appear.  He was sighted at the Museum of Tolerance.  He occasionally even appears at a congregation near you. 

Why do you look for the living among the dead?

We can choose to live small lives defined by a moment of hate, or we can accept a lifetime of forgiveness.  In fact, we can become the means by which others are given their lives back.  Christ is risen; not just back then and there, but here and now, in us.

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life!
Alleluia, alleluia!  Amen!

Note:  The story of Tim and Matthew can be found at The Forgiveness Project.

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