Finding religion in the Boston Marathon attack

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino pauses after speaking at an interfaith prayer service for victims of the Boston Marathon attack titled "Healing Our City," at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross on April 18, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts.
Spencer Platt

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Speaking at the Harvard Divinity School about the role of religion in the Boston Marathon attack and its aftermath Tuesday night, Rabbi Sally Finestone offered specific advice for the clergy-to-be in the audience.

“People will come to you as religious leader and ask you, ‘How can God let this happen?’ she advised. “That’s the question that pastoral leaders will face after events like the marathon, which brings the question front and center.”

Three weeks after brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev allegedly detonated two bombs at the finish line of the marathon, killing three and wounding 264, Finestone joined a panel that offered insight into the Tsarnaevs’ relationship with Islam and an America that theologian Harvey Cox called “suffused with violence everywhere we look.”

Panelists drew parallels between Boston's experience and past bloody campaigns in Northern Ireland and the Balkans — as well as those now gripping Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other targets of US military action and domestic terrorism. 

“There is only one response that makes any sense to acts of violence,” Cox said, recalling his own work organizing for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference under Martin Luther King’s leadership. “And that is an active, non-violent confrontational response to those who are the source of it.”

Jocelyne Cesari, a scholar of Islam and Middle Eastern politics at Harvard Divinity School, discussed the Tsarnaev brothers’ fractured relationship with Islam in the context of violence. A poll by the Pew Research Center this month found that 42 percent of Americans “say Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence among its believers.” Cesari said Muslim violence-seekers tend to be shunned from mosques.

“These two young men were attending mosque but they were not part of the congregation,” Cesari said, referencing the Cambridge mosque where Tamerlan Tsarnaev reportedly disrupted services after a speaker there compared the Prophet Muhammad with Dr. King, then was sent out of the building. “You need much more training and hard work to really understand the tradition than to listen to radical preachers online.”

The alienation, rage and disenfranchisement visible in the character studies of so many of the country’s accused and confirmed domestic terrorists is consistent with the sentiments of the “young, disaffected males who are not tied into community networks in proper ways and have lingering sense of oppression” that David Hempton, dean of Harvard Divinity School, lived among in Northern Ireland during the worst of the Troubles, he said.

Lacking a sense of community and experiencing what Cesari called an “ontological insecurity within the world at large,” young men like the Tsarnaevs are attracted to extremist religious figures who convince them that the only community worth joining is that of global jihad.

“This is not about religion as a spiritual quest,” Cesari said. “We need more Islam and much less ideological position on Islam.” 

Anti-Muslim backlash was minimal, and Rabbi Finestone said she was heartened by the immediate public response to the Boston attack, both on the ground and online.

Answering a question from the crowd about the seemingly nondenominational Twitter hashtag #PrayForBoston that became a global phenomenon in the hours and days after the bombings, Finestone offered a warm response.

“It didn’t matter what your religious background was, there was an online community that thought these events required a response that was ‘religion writ large,’ she said. “I found that to be a very comforting response.”

Finestone said that all religions wrestle with the concept of theodicy: “Why does evil exist in a world created by a good and just God? Throughout all religious traditions, this is the question that’s asked, usually in response to tragedy,” she said. “An evil so vast that it cannot be ignored.”

She continued, “Perhaps God is to be found in the response to the tragedy rather than the tragedy itself. Perhaps God is to be found in the hands that reach for other hands.”