A Reflection by HDS Dean Hempton on the Boston Marathon Bombings

Hempton - Remarks - News
David Hempton. Photo: Tony Rinaldo

Eerie puffs of smoke, loud bangs, screaming people, bloodied bodies, and debris-strewn sidewalks, followed almost immediately by remarkable acts of courage and compassion. This was Boston on Marathon Monday, April 15.

I was reminded of another city and another time. I was a native of Belfast and a student at the local university when the "troubles" broke out in the late 1960s. Belfast was then the bomb capital of Europe, an apparently ugly blot on the civility of Western civilization. On a single Friday in 1972 there were 22 bombs detonated in just over an hour in the city.

Although most bombs in Northern Ireland were accompanied by short warnings, the terrible ones, like those in Boston, were no-warning or late-warning explosions that hurt the innocent. But innocence in Belfast was contested territory. In the twisted logic of no-warning bombers, those who suffer are not innocent, but somehow collaborators in an evil system that has to be terrorized and ultimately destroyed. Of course, rival paramilitary organizations identified evil in different ways. Evil, like innocence, was in the eye of the beholder.

Whatever the cause being promoted—or, more likely, disgraced—there are commonalities in the terror of no-warning, public-space bombs. They are often planted by or designed by young, disaffected males, radicalized by angry ideologies (many of them religious) and a deep sense of grievance about the world around them. Often interstitial figures, they entertain and cultivate hatred of "others" or "oppressors" and see no viable avenue of change apart from violence. Force gets attention. Terror is news. Pain hurts. Sufferers deserve it. Death is revenge. Carnage is a form of communication.

Belfast came through its trial by fire. Political solutions were eventually found. Steady professionalism endured. Resilience triumphed over destructive violence.

Boston will also survive its trial for many of the same reasons. Its first responders, medical professionals, security forces, civic leaders, and humane people will stand down terror. Unflinching determination to maintain a way of life will win in the end. Our better angels are stronger than our inner demons.

What is there to be done? As Dean of Harvard Divinity School, I find it especially distressing when religious ideas are used to promote violence. As a young adult in Belfast, I had a special contempt for religious leaders who supplied some of the rhetoric of conflict, even as they distanced themselves from its grim consequences. In response, I hoped for greater secularization, singling that out as the solution to the problem. But religion was no more the sole cause of violence than its absence would have produced instant peace. Conflict is complicated; so is religion.

Religious leaders nevertheless have influence. Radical clerics, of whatever faith tradition, who endorse violence, are a tiny minority in our world. Those religious leaders who make disaffected young men angrier and more violent are deeply dangerous people.

Thankfully, such clerics are not to be found in Boston. But what is true locally needs to be contended for internationally. Our divinity schools are increasingly places of greater pluralism and tolerance. Along with the eerie smoke and terrified screams, my memory of the Boston Marathon bombings also includes beautiful services of interfaith meditation and reflection. Faith heals more often than it hurts.

Good religion will not solve all our problems or make terrorist bombs obsolete, but we can be sure that religious extremism and illiteracy will surely make things worse. That's why HDS has collected some thoughts and analysis from faculty, students, and colleagues on or relevant to the attacks. Some of these works may provide some perspective on last week's events; others some comfort as we all try to move forward. 

Religious leadership matters, perhaps more than we think. Every day I get to be inspired by a new generation of these leaders. We are in good hands, but there is work to be done. 

David Hempton
Dean of Harvard Divinity School