God’s Hands Across America

Had We Found the Threshold at Which Love Stops?

Sam Bush / 11.12.20

In 1986, there was a nation-wide campaign called Hands Across America, in which 5 million people held hands in a human chain for fifteen minutes along a path across the continental United States. It took a staff of 400 people and a slew of celebrity cameos nine months to prepare and publicize. The event was deemed a success — money was donated to charity and there was an increase of “homelessness awareness” — but it didn’t exactly bring everyone together. While some cities had enough participants for lines to be six to ten people deep, there were inevitably big pockets where the chain was broken, specifically the low-population areas of the midwest and the desert southwest. According to the Los Angeles Times, there were big gaps in some of the dodgier sections of East LA, and volunteers had a hard time recruiting people to join the chain from their front porches.

Logistically speaking, it’s pretty impressive that so many people held hands for fifteen minutes. On the other hand (!), I’m not sure anyone cares, at least, not anymore. Can you imagine a publicity stunt like this happening today? At this present moment America couldn’t be less interested in holding hands with each other. The divisions among us have become so jarring and self-evident that any notion of handholding leading to the solution has been shot to pieces. We prefer to hold the hands of those who have the same viewpoints as we do. As for the others, all contact can be easily avoided via the mute button on Facebook.

Kate Braestrup offers us a worthy alternative. If you have 13 minutes to spare, I invite you to check out her entire story called “The Blessing” via the Moth Radio Hour. Braestrup is a chaplain to the game warden in rural Maine. “Game wardens don’t usually deal with violent crimes other than, like, violence against trout or moose,” she says, but if there’s a violent incident that takes place in the woods, game wardens are often the first responders.

Braestrup tells of one of the darkest days of her career, when she responded to a crime scene. A man had tragically shot his family — his ex-wife, his daughter, his son — before turning the shotgun on himself. As state policemen and crime scene investigators are coming in and out of the house, Braestrup realizes that this community is so interconnected that every responder has some piece of information about the victims (one of the paramedics’ kids was in seventh grade with the shooter’s daughter, for instance). When the funeral van arrives and the medical examiner comes out to meet them, she intercepts them and asks to say a blessing for each of the bodies.

I was prepared to explain this — I’m here to comfort the family and there is no family. Or I’m here to give pastoral care to all of these guys in uniform, holding their faces so carefully blank as their skilled eyes evaluate and measure — they are forestalling their own rage and grief that they might bring justice. But what justice are we going to bring to this? The murderer murdered himself, too. I want to retrieve this moment from evil, I want to redeem it, I want to pull it back here for all of us.

When the first body bag is brought out and the medical examiner stoically announces, “Alright everybody, Kate’s gonna pray!” she steps up to the gurney and raises her hand to place it on the head end. As her hand makes its descent the medical examiner says, “You know, that’s the shooter.” Later on, one of the wardens later told Braestrup that he saw her hand stop over the body bag and admitted to her, “I did wonder what you were going to pray because all I could think of was ‘Sorry, you bastard, you’re on your own.'” This is Braestrup’s response:

And I had to admit that it was all I could to not snatch my hand away. So, had we found it? Had we found the threshold at which love stops? God’s love, but translated as it must be through our hands and our voices. And, if not at this, then at what moment can we honestly say that love no longer makes its absolute, implacable, and holy demand: ‘Love one another’? It was easy to pray for the mom and the kids … but, I didn’t know what to say for the shooter. He was dead. He was cooling in his bag. His life was over, and his memory had been irremediably contaminated with pain and rage and grief. And the destination of his immortal soul was very much in question as far as everyone at that scene was concerned. He needed a blessing more than anyone, but that blessing was gonna have to come from God. I did lower my hand eventually all the way and laid it on the head end of his body bag. All I could do for him was lay my hands on him and say, “Oh God, I am sorry.”

It’s been said before that we live in the horizontal and that our horizontal grace is only a glimpse of the vertical grace that comes from the source of Love itself. Being what we are, that horizontal relationship is often a broken chain. The world’s depiction of loving each other is, sadly, often little more than a Hands Across America publicity stunt. Left to our own devices, we often find it unbearable to truly love and forgive each other — not only for things like murder, but for anything. And yet, in those moments when we are unable to hold each other’s hands or even come into contact with each other, we can know and trust that God does not withhold His hand from anyone. He readily extends His divine forgiveness even to the people who seem to be too late to accept it. We know this much is true through the Cross where our Savior extended His hands to the entire world.

Unlike Hands Across America, the gospel is where questions of real pain and real sorrow are met with real hope and real comfort. It is where life’s real questions find listening ears and comforting answers in the name of Jesus. It is where God’s hands embrace every sinful one of us. While the gospel may be the last place we turn to as a country in the days ahead, we can trust that it will ever receive us. Or, better yet, that it already has.