Marathon Man

HDS experience helps Chris Lisee make sense of the violence in Boston

Chris Lisee-News-2
Chris Lisee after finishing the 2013 Boston Marathon.

The bombs went off about an hour after Chris Lisee, MTS '13, finished the 2013 Boston Marathon; after his parents, aunt, and fiancée—all up from New Jersey to cheer him on—wrapped him in their arms and a foil blanket to keep him warm; after his legs briefly stopped working while he waited in line to pick up his bags.

Lisee was with his family at a nearby eatery tucking into a well-deserved post-race burger and beer when an announcement came over the intercom:

"Attention: Police have warned us of potential criminal activity in the area. We've been asked that no one enter or leave the building."

While others turned to their cell phones and to the television sets behind the bar, Lisee turned to the people he loved. He returned to his apartment and was embraced by his HDS classmates who waited there for him. Scores of others left messages of comfort and support.

The following day, Lisee attended a memorial service on campus where he was asked to pray not only for the victims of the attacks and their families but also for the perpetrators.

"Where else but HDS does that happen?" he asks. "HDS helped me understand that the problem of religious violence and radicalism is complex and systemic. There's something that happened to the attackers that caused them to lash out like they did. It's exactly the type of approach that's needed."

HDS's approach to the study of religion taught Lisee much during his years in the MTS program. He learned to understand and respect people whose beliefs differed from his own through contact with classmates who became close friends.

He solidified his own beliefs and developed a vision for his career and for life after HDS. And when the bombs went off at the finish line on April 15, Lisee was uncommonly prepared to engage with the question of why bad things happen to good people.

"This was a real-world application of our study of theodicy," he says. "We'd talked about it in abstract terms during class, but then the bombing happened, and it happened here. I was able to see how what we do at HDS really matters."

In divinity school, Lisee came to the conclusion that the question of whether God allows evil to happen is not actually important. What matters is what he does to help another person in pain and to make the world a better place to live.

"It comes down to compassion," he says. "What I've discovered in my time here at HDS is that people are compassionate individuals who minister to their fellows in a lot of different ways. It's all about that deep understanding; the empathy and being able to relate to one another."

Lisee says that he could also begin to understand the motivations of the bombers because of his work with HDS faculty—particularly Diane Moore, Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies and Education at HDS—who taught him to see religion as the nexus of many different aspects of human experience, rather than as an isolated phenomenon.

"When I looked at religion before HDS," Lisee says, "what I mostly saw was the two major expressions: belief and practice. But religion is informed by more than that. People say Islamists, for example, try to use religion for a political end. But if you just look at that dynamic as religion, you miss the oppression that leads to violence, the deep feelings of fear."

After graduation, Lisee hopes to go into journalism. Last summer, he interned with the Religion News Service, where he covered everything from the shooting of a security guard at the offices of the conservative Family Research Council, to research on the way that worship at megachurches actually changes the brain chemistry of congregants and produces a spiritual "high."

At HDS, Lisee served as videographer for the Office of Career Services' Career Stories and Advice Video Library Project, a collection of interviews with HDS alumni that illustrates the range of career paths available to graduates.

"I love to tell stories," he explains. "I want to tell true stories about religion in order to increase understanding and empathy, and I want to do it in some form of media. I want it to be digestible by the public and understandable [outside] academia."

Along these lines, Lisee has a few irons in the fire. Maybe the most intriguing is the one closest to HDS: a job making documentaries on hot-button issues with Diane Moore's Religious Literacy Project. Wherever his career path takes him, however, Lisee says that he'll work to spread the knowledge that made his HDS experience so powerful.

"What I really would love to do is to relate the lessons I've learned here at HDS," he says. "As long as I'm in the media telling these stories, that's what counts."