28 January, 2006

Peacemaking and Peacemakers

This story doesn't have a tidy conclusion. Stop reading now if that bothers you. I'm still not sure what it means or where it goes, but I can't escape feeling that it ties into recent troubling headlines out of the Middle East.

This past week, I found myself talking to my sister-in-law, (or 'Sis', or 'J', or 'hey you', or whatever it is that one is supposed to call the dear widow of one's recently deceased brother), about childhood memories of him. Most were stories she'd never heard, or if she had, she'd only heard his version in bits and pieces over the years. It's possible that other people would remember the same scenes, but I haven't been in touch with any of them in almost 30 years.

It's a funny thing being the keeper of such things: at once very heavy (gulp... I'm the only one who remembers now!) and also very light (it feels like he's listening as I tell them...)

I spoke mostly about the summers my brother and I spent at an all-boys overnight camp in Maine. They were delightful times - not without their adolescent conflicts and anxieties, but formative and important and pleasant to recall: the struggles of closely fought games of 'capture-the-flag', the way the setting sun filtered through the pines during the evening softball game, the mist on the lake during the early morning swims, the talks around the campfire and in the cabins after lights-out...

As I recalled things I hadn't thought about in decades, I kept coming back to one kid: Abel. That was his real name. Abel, as in the brother that Cain murdered in the book of Genesis.

Abel was about my age. He was also black - one of a handful of inner city kids given a chance to attend camp on scholarship. The significance of that went largely over my head at the time. For the most part, our camp had been lily white for the first couple of years that my brother and I had gone there. That wasn't particularly anybody's fault. The owners and staff were perfectly enlightened - quite liberal in fact. It just hadn't occurred to anyone until the mid '70's to think terribly hard about integration or diversity of any of the things that pervade the culture now.

I first met Abel a couple of years after the forced bussing debacle in Boston. Tensions stayed mostly below the surface but there were fights. Some were interracial. Many were not. I don't remember any weapons, or anyone getting hurt beyond the occasional bloody nose. Skin color just didn't have a lot to do with it. Fighting is and always has been just part of what boys do.

One thing that stood out about Abel was that he was never party to those fights - at least not to my recollection. He was the only boy in a large family. I don't know if that had anything to do with it, but in hindsight Abel was a pretty mature kid for his age. Whenever someone had a conflict - violent or not - Abel was often there, helping to break it up, helping the counselors cool things down, helping kids to talk it out and move on and get back to the business of being kids and playing sports and having fun. He seemed drawn to be the peacemaker.

My brother was desperately homesick his first year away at camp. (He was only nine.) Abel took him (and many other younger kids) under his wing. Peacemaker. Consoler. Friend.

Ten years later, Abel was dead.

I remember riding in a cab on my way to the airport when I found out. August, 1987. Leafing through the paper... wham! A name I hadn't heard in years. Abel... No way, I thought. It can't be him. The story made clear that it was. Abel was shot twice in the head while attempting to talk down a cocaine-crazed gunman who'd entered the bar where he was working. The crowd had peeled back, crouching low as the music stopped. (Pardon the link to an otherwise... unusual website but it's by far the best firsthand account of Abel's last days that I could find.)

Abel leaped the bar and walked towards the guy firing into the ceiling - his palms outstretched in a gesture of peace, according to witnesses. Abel died a few days later. About the same time, they caught the guy who'd shot him - on the run in Kansas. He's serving a life sentence for first degree murder back here in Massachusetts. This post is not about the death penalty.

What this post is about is a guy with an exceptional gift. Abel. A black guy perfectly comfortable and friendly and trusting in places that logically he shouldn't have been - at least not at that time: Abel, the guy who felt it his calling in any situation to make friends with everyone, to be the peacemaker, the arbitrator, the guy to cool things down.

Why was I suddenly drawn to think about Abel last week after almost twenty years? I don't know. What I do know is that my brother was even more shocked and crushed than I was when he'd heard the news of Abel's murder - disconsolate for days in a way that's uniquely true of the first time that a true friend and contemporary passes on. My brother: a patient man (far more patient than I). Abel: the guy to toss oil on angry waters even when he had every reason to jump into them. What I sense also in this serendipitous meander down memory lane is that Abel was there to greet my brother when he died. And that puts a huge smile on my face.

This incredible, instinctual, highly gifted peacemaker - someone able to confront pure evil and save others without a thought for his own safety - just happened to come vividly to mind at the end of a month that's seen one of the biggest escalations in tensions in the Middle East in decades. I don't think of Abel as the kind of patsy some so-called peacemakers seem to be. He was street smart. He knew an aggressor when he saw one and didn't let other factors color that judgment. He liked to party. He was cool. I could tell other stories. I won't.

And yet, when the time came to step in, he did the right thing without a second thought. What does it mean? Again, I don't know. I'm just comforted in the knowledge that he and my brother are together, that saints both named and unnamed are watching over world events as they unfold, that angels ride in the whirlwind, directing the storm... in ways we cannot know.

Why Abel? Why now? I can't help wondering as the news continues to unfold...

Genesis 4:6-16
Then the Lord said to Cain, "Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it." Now Cain said to his brother Abel, "Let's go out to the field." And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?" "I don't know," he replied. "Am I my brother's keeper?" The Lord said, "What have you done? Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth." Cain said to the Lord, "My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me." But the Lord said to him, "Not so; if anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over." Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. So Cain went out from the Lord's presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
UPDATE I: The friend of Abel's who was in the bar when he was shot in 1987 and who put up the website about his final days points me to this trip he felt called in a dream to take to Rome to witness the election of Pope Benedict XVI last April. He recounts the unlikely pilgrimage, as well as the odd 'coincidence' of finding "the camera transfixed for a long shot of me, singled out from a crowd of a half million...a long receding shot" on worldwide coverage immediately after the puff of white smoke. If I wasn't sure where the main part of this story was heading when I wrote it, I'm even less sure now. But my spidey sense is tingling...

UPDATE II: Less than 24 hours after I posted this ("still not sure... where it goes"), I was confronted with this short prayer by one of my favorite spiritual authors, Trappist monk Thomas Merton, on the inside flap of our church program:
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.