We were all heartbroken by last weekend’s horrific assault against two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. We wring our hands and ask ourselves, “when will these despicable acts of violence against others—Muslims, Jews, refugees, people of color generally—ever end?”
As the news unfolded, I was struck by the implication of two simple words that emerged from the story. When the gunman first approached the Al Noor mosque, he was greeted from within with two simple words, “Hello, brother.”
If there are lessons to take from this horror, they may be embodied in this greeting. The words are simple, but the implications are profound. What does this moment mean for us? First, the word—hello—is meant to welcome someone into a conversation or a private space. We have too often forgotten this word, quickly replacing it with expressions that mean “do not engage” or “stay away.”
Yes, it is risky to invite someone in—especially a stranger (though statistics on domestic violence indicate that even in the most intimate relationships, each of us can be a stranger). So, this simple greeting carries with it unspoken courage by welcoming someone into a private space without knowing where that invitation may lead. But when we do not say “hello” we are driven into silos of isolation. Fear increases, beauty is eclipsed, negativity abounds, hope is quashed. Take the risk, therefore, and say “hello.”
The second word—brother—speaks to our commonality as human beings. When we call someone brother or sister without knowing them, it signals a willingness to engage on a basic human level. It is a word that, by definition, implies hope. Certainly not all biological brothers live harmoniously with each other and so the ideal is often shattered by reality. But, calling someone brother is akin to signaling a willingness to sustain the interaction over an extended period of time.
There is an old Kazakh proverb that when we meet for the first time, we are acquaintances; when we meet a second time, we are friends; but when we meet a third time, we become brothers. If we are brothers, we can be in relationship, for better or worse, for a lifetime. So the gunman was greeted at the door of the mosque with an unspoken hope—indeed, expectation—that he would return and continue to engage the congregation inside. Realizing this heightens the tragedy, but also speaks to the hope, joy and generosity that is integral to the Al Noor mosque—the indominable spirit of optimism in the human heart.
Another lesson to emerge from Christchurch this week: the response of New Zealand’s Prime Minister must not go unnoticed in an American society riven by divisive rhetoric about gun control. Jacinda Ardern immediately leapt to the defense of refugees in her country. Shortly after the tragedy, she tweeted, “what has happened in Chirstchurch is an extraordinary act of unprecedented violence. It has no place in New Zealand. Many of those affected will be members of our migrant communities – New Zealand is their home – they are us.” She called out the gunman for his white nationalism while refusing to use his name in public and promised immediate action to change New Zealand’s gun laws (some gun owners have already begun turning in their weapons).
Then, according to CNN, “the day after the attack in Christchurch, Ardern wore a hijab as she stood in the center of a room, surrounded by families desperate to hear words of reassurance…Even before she said a word, Ardern’s simple decision to cover her hair served to show families she respected them and wanted to ease their pain.”
Her example, instead of seeking the political spotlight or accusing her opponents of being enemies of the people, offered New Zelanders a leader that all could rally around.
In this tragic incident, we can see examples worth emulating. This is not to diminish the incredible pain experienced in Christchurch; but rather to lift up those who were afflicted by this violence—from common members of the Muslim community to the Prime Minister herself—as exemplars of grace and courage in the midst of the most unspeakable horror.