On Death Threats

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Dear Friends,

Melkam Fasika — Happy Ethiopian Easter! This season has taken on a new significance for me, and I want to share a very personal reflection with you as we meditate on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

On Good Friday 2020, I started receiving dozens of death threats. People sent me graphic images of death, demons, and heavy weapons. They said they would butcher my body, run me over with a car, or throw me off a bridge. I can feel my heart beating faster and my body becoming tense as I recall these violent words and images. It was a life-changing season.

Why did this happen? Powerful people were outraged that I was trying to build bridges between extremely polarized leaders, and they unleashed a campaign of fake news against me, including a lie-filled YouTube “documentary” that got 55,000 views. Soon enough, people who mostly identified as Christians started promising they would kill me.

I never thought I’d say this. But I’ve discovered that even death threats can be a hidden gift. I have learned important insights from them, and these insights continue to work their way into my life and transform me. As Joseph said, “What people intended for evil, God intended for good.”

I’m taking the following lessons with me as I reflect back on these Good Friday attacks and walk forward on my journey toward resurrection.

First, death threats focused me on what is truly important in life. What am I living for? Is it worth dying for? Have I committed my life to something that is higher and stronger than power, fear, and self-preservation?

No one wants danger or death; I don’t. I cherish ordinary life. Our life’s work doesn’t need to be grand or “great.” Much of our most important work is often hidden, small, and mundane.

But if I can’t answer, “Yes, what I’m living for is worth dying for,” then perhaps I’m living for something less than God’s best and everlasting life. I choose to continue living for God’s vision of seeing and treating others as my precious neighbors. Jesus promised, “Do this and you will live” (Luke 10:28).

Second, death threats forced me to confront the fear, anger, and aggression in my self. Those people are not “those people.” Those people are me too.

Death threats ultimately come from hate, and hate comes from insecurity and arrogance, the imprisoning feeling of being lower or higher than the other. There’s hate inside of me too. There’s insecurity and arrogance in me too.

Death threats have forced me to learn more about myself and my need for healing and liberation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it best soon before he was imprisoned by the Nazis: “Nothing of what I despise in the other is foreign in my self.”

In this way, death threats have radicalized my experience and practice of empathy: my capacity to feel what others feel and to recognize these same things in myself. The death threaters are not evil monsters; they’re people just like me who have let their fear and hate dominate their lives.

I’m learning to look inside and seek a deeper understanding of human complexity and character, starting with my own. If I want healing and liberation for myself, why not for others?

Third, death threats intensified my commitment to nonviolence. Whatever our disagreements, death is not the solution.

Simply from a pragmatic perspective, threatening and harming one another doesn’t move any of us forward. Some of us get hurt; some of us get spiritually poisoned; our society gets collectively sick. This threatening approach doesn’t help any of us have more dignity, opportunity, or joy. We all lose.

I have never craved or more intentionally practiced gentleness, listening, and patience in my life like I do now in the face of death threats.

And this experience has taken me much deeper into Jesus’s teaching about loving our enemies. Jesus said that when your enemy curses you, bless them back. When they persecute you, pray for them. When they seek to harm you, seek their wellbeing.

This loving response is an extremely powerful, creative agency that refuses to reactively mirror another’s behavior. It’s an embodiment of radical freedom that works toward healing and requires a self liberated from the shackles of fear, anger, and hate.

In this way, death threats drove me closer to Jesus than any previous season in my life and showed me the radioactive beauty of Jesus’s creative, nonviolent response to hate. Amazingly, Jesus says that loving our enemies is the birth certificate of God’s children — the most distinct “family resemblance” between God and people reborn in God’s love. Ultimately, loving our enemies is a seed of heaven. It’s literally our life’s work, now and forever.

Fourth, and mixing together all of the previous three lessons, death threats have energized me to continue learning. They’ve given me life-changing questions to guide my quest of being human:

How can I communicate my ideas more clearly and more sensitively?

How can I better build bridges between polarized people and win their trust?

How can we nurture a society where people don’t feel like they want or need to use intimidation to feel secure and successful?

How can I become a more courageous, composed, centered person who responds to murderous hate with patient, healing love?

I want to be and become this kind of person more than anything else. If this isn’t a worthwhile life’s work, I don’t know what is. It has sent me on a fresh journey of learning, listening, and personal transformation.

Looking back and forward, I don’t wish death threats for anyone, including myself. But perhaps like gold in fire, they’ve showed me what’s worthwhile, what lasts, what is truly beautiful and good and worth becoming. They’ve shown me how to become a child of our Father who “is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” according to Jesus.

Is what I’m living for worth dying for? Am I working on the fear, anger, and hate in myself? Have I discovered the precious value of nonviolence and the fiercely creative love for enemies that leads to everlasting life? Am I a learner who is actively studying how to speak and act for reconciliation in my world, or am I passively being conformed to the cultural patterns around me?

I return to Joseph’s powerful insight into his painful experience: “What people intended for evil, God intended for good.” I bear witness to this liberating truth.

Let me conclude by thanking Lily and many dear friends who have walked with me, comforted me, and counseled me through this life-changing year. I will never forget and will always carry gratitude for your extraordinary care.

Our love is stronger than death and points the way to unkillable hope. Jesus is alive.

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