Monday, May 9, 2011

Emmaeus and Osama

The image of journeying down a road has long been an important one in prose, poetry, music, and film. The meaning of the metaphor, of course changes over time and circumstance, but we seem to return to it, perhaps because it is such a common experience. Roads, in particular, are built with the express purpose of making it easier for us to get from one place to another. It is no wonder that the story of the Disciples meeting the resurrected Jesus on the Road to Emmaeus is such a powerful one for us.

One way we imagine roads is as a symbol of our attempt to discover something, particularly something about ourselves. Jack Kerouac's, On the Road comes to mind. Under this metaphor, the destination fades in importance and it is the trip itself that becomes most valuable.

Long before Kerouac came along, though, the Church had encouraged pilgrimages. While Christians have holy sites that we encourage people to go to, there is no one place that is required. Some go to Jerusalem or Rome, others head to Iona, the Taize community in France, or a hundred other places around the world. It is the idea of taking extended periods of time out of our lives to reflect and learn about ourselves and our relationship with God that becomes most important, not the destination.

When it became clear that many would not be able to make such a pilgrimage, we adopted the labyrinth as an alternative. In a labyrinth, unlike a maze, there is only one path that you follow to the center. There is no need for decision making, and there is no great city waiting at the end, so the pilgrim has nothing to focus upon other than making the journey, which becomes more of a journey into the soul than a physical event.

There is a second way in which the road is used, however, one that contrasts significantly with this one: it is the idea of the road as the place we go to get away from something. When someone says, "It's time to hit the road." they mean that they have stayed too long. The reference may be to a relationship that has come to an end, or to a life that has become complacent. We may hit the road when we are angry, frustrated, or feel trapped. When one takes to the road in this meaning, it quite often is a literal leaving town, but not always.

It is this second image of the road that seems to be behind the story of the Emmaeus road. After the empty tomb is found in Luke, the women meet angels who tell them that Jesus is alive. They run to the apostles and repeat the story. However, the apostles have trouble believing their tale.

Thus, we find two disciples on the road. Suddenly Jesus appears to them, though not in a way they recognize. When he appears to not know what has happened in Jerusalem, they make clear that they believe the body has been stolen. They also tell their walking companion that they had thought Jesus would restore Israel--i.e., lead a rebellion to overthrow the Romans. With his death, though, comes despair. And so, they apparently abandon this failed venture and hit the road.

However, Jesus takes this journey and redirects it from 'hitting the road' to a 'journey of discovery.' He teaches them about himself and reveals himself in the bread. In the end, they never make it to Emmaeus, but return to Jerusalem to tell the story of their encounter.

At this point, it is probably important to mention that archeologists have never positively identified the location of Emmaeus. Luke tells us it was about seven miles from Jerusalem, but does not say which direction. Today, there are several sites that have been identified as possibly being Emmaeus, but not definitively. In a certain sense then, the trip's destination really is not the point.

There is one more road metaphor worth mentioning here, that of coming to the end of a road. We use that image when we want to talk about something running out of energy or steam. People talk about a romance coming to the end of the road, but this metaphor is just as easily used to talk about a failing business venture such as a restaurant or a plan that has failed to produce the desired results.

For almost ten years, the United States has hunted Osama bin Laden. It was part of the strategy had led us into two wars, increased our security budgets exponentially, and brought many attempts to curb freedoms in America in the name of security. This kill, however, was long seen as an important step towards making the U.S. safe from terrorists.

Did it? Do you feel safer now?

The reality is that little changed last week when we raided that compound. Don't get me wrong. I wanted to see justice done for 9/11. I'm not sure that is what we got exactly, but I did not think bin Laden should go unpunished, just that a trial would have been better. That was not to be, apparently.

But I maintain that little changed. We are still in two wars--and no, we cannot just go home now after tearing up two countries for all these years--and al Qaeda is still out there too. And declaring plans to retaliate. No one is safer.

The fact is, we are at the end of the road. We have pursued this policy of righteous indignation since 2001, and there is no sign of it working yet. And why is that?

For one thing, it is because we have chosen to hide behind labels of evil and insane to justify any action we take towards the perpetrators without regard for the reasons they might have had for what they did. We never stopped to ask why they hated us so much because we assumed our complete innocence.

Don't get me wrong. The 9/11 acts were never justified. They were wrong pure and simple. But when people organize and spend millions to plot acts of terror like the ones of that day, there is clearly some sense of desperation involved. And for every extremist willing to blow him or her self up, there are a hundred or a thousand other people just as angry, but more restrained, feeling the same anger. And so far, we have not explored why.

We never mention the economic poverty, the propped up dictators, the exploitation of their natural resources. We never mention the way they see us benefiting from their cheap labor or our failure to respond to human rights violations by their governments. We never mention being the ones who buy the drugs that are grown instead of food plants.

At some point we have to stop and ask ourselves why they hate us so much. And we never have asked it in part because we have some pretty good ideas about what the answers would be. So now we find ourselves down this road which is ending right before us. It should never have been this long.

For Christians at least, this does not have to be a dead end. The other road has always been there for us to take should we choose to do so. It is a lot less traveled, and will require more work on our part to traverse. But it is not a road of death. It is the road that Jesus walks and calls us to walk as well, the road of discovery we so desperately need to walk if we ever wish to find reconciliation and life.

Which way are you going? Which road will you be on?