“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
In the Monday edition of The Providence Journal, on the opinion page, there is a letter from the Rev. Harry Bronkar, a retired American Baptist minister, who was pastor of the First Baptist Church in East Greenwich from 1981 to 1999.
The letter is gentle and kind and thoughtful, exactly what I would expect from Harry.
Harry wrote to say that his “heart goes out to Jessica Ahlquist,” the young woman who challenged the prayer displayed on the wall of the auditorium at Cranston West High School. He noted that what he has read about her indicates that she is “intelligent and thoughtful,” and that, “Apparently she holds deep values,” as illustrated by “her tearful reaction to slavery and the Holocaust.” And he comments that “Whether or not she is an atheist depends on your understanding about God.”
He concludes his letter by saying that “the deepest tragedy . . . lies in the reaction of ‘believers’ to her position.” She has been bullied and threatened and called a “stupid atheist” and a “witch.” “If this is the way they manifest their religion, then I say, ‘God bless you, Jessica.’ We all need more of your ‘God.’”
If you Google “Harry Bronkar,” you will get a link to the Providence Journal web site. There you will see the letter, as well as comments on the letter. I was shocked by the hatefulness of the responses. They attacked Harry for not being a real Christian; they questioned whether the holocaust really happened; they attacked evolution. It was bizarre. Looking carefully, I found that what initially looked like an avalanche of hatred was really only a handful of people writing over and over, attempting to silence the few sane voices. But it was still unsettling.
One lesson is: Don’t ever read the comments. It will just make you crazy. Apparently I am a slow learner because I have to learn this lesson over and over. A second lesson is related: There is a lot of anger out there. But beyond that, it is another incident that should give us pause as Christians. Hatred and bigotry in the name of God is still hatred and bigotry. And worse, it is a form of blasphemy. It is, quite literally, taking the Lord’s name in vain.
I am tempted to believe that once upon a time we were kinder and gentler. But that’s more about nostalgia than history.
I am grateful for Harry’s witness. It reminds us who we are and whose we are. It reminds us that Christians need to act like Christians. If we do not define ourselves, others will do it for us, and it won't be a pretty picture.