Oz and the Cross: Reflections on God’s Love and the Boston Marathon Bombings
Oz and the Cross: Reflections on God’s Love and the Boston Marathon Bombings
Tuesday was my 31st birthday. In the days leading up to it, and on the day itself, I didn't really get the chance to reflect much. But now that a few days have passed, and I've sown up several loose ends, I'm looking back with renewed vision, and deep gratitude. Not only have I lived to see another year, I am also incredibly blessed with a wonderful family and greater clarity as to my calling in life than I've ever had. When I look back on who I was at 16, before I became a Jesus-disciple and entered this adventure called discipleship, I can't help but stand amazed at who God has made me, and continues to pour out grace on my life. I was a rage-filled, violent teenager on a self-destructive path. But the love of God transformed me, and every day I get to tell my story and witness God at work in the lives of others. I am a richly blessed man!
Several days ago, I had an idea on how I could mark the occasion in style while also spending some quality time with my two sons. The last regular season Celtics home game also happened to be on April 16th, so I purchased tickets and told my boys, Tyson and TJ. I was excited; they were excited! Unfortunately, the game was canceled due to the Boston Marathon bombings, so we never got to go. As a consolation, we decided to see Oz the Great and Powerful. More on this later…

Getting the News, Praying for Peace

Monday afternoon Osheta woke me from a nap to tell me the news. We watched the reports together on TV in horror while texting and calling loved ones. It was surreal to view scenes on television of family-friendly locations in downtown Boston suddenly transformed into a war zone. Our immediate reaction was to think of the families affected by this tragedy, and to pray for them.
As we tucked all three of our children in that night, we already knew some families would be missing a member, and many would be spending the night at hospitals while loved ones were in surgery or the ICU. We enlisted our children's help in remembering those families of the injured and those just beginning to process their grief. We prayed for the doctors caring for the wounded, for the families, and for the perpetrator(s).
Yes, we led our children to pray that God's restorative love would reach the person or persons responsible for this evil act. More on this later too…


A few hours before the bombings at the Boston Marathon, I was all alone at home while Osheta was out with the kids, so I made myself a sandwich for lunch. I decided to watch TV while I ate, but nothing live was catching my eye. So I loaded a pre-recorded episode of a new show called "Vice". The show follows investigative journalists around the world to explore the lives of people in the most dangerous places on earth. The particular episode I watched was called "Killer Kids" and it profiled the lives of several Afghan teens and pre-teens, trained by the Taliban, who were apprehended while on their way to kill themselves in suicide bombing attacks. The episode was especially gripping to me because of how close in age the attempted bombers were to the age of my oldest boy Tyson (10 years old). These very young boys were illiterate, told the Koran condones suicide, and told that God commands them to kill all infidels. Some were promised paradise when they died; some were told they wouldn't die at all—only the infidels around them.
"Vice" is a word that means an evil, immoral, or wicked habit or practice. The program with this name sets out to expose such evil in the world. Overall, I think the program has good intentions. However, I couldn't help but notice the show's strange sense of self-righteousness. Every reporter was a white male Westerner, and everywhere they went there was a sense of disdain for the non-Western cultures they encountered. The result is that viewers are left with the sense that the West is righteous, and everyone else is unrighteous; the U.S. is the "us" and everyone else is the "them." This didn't sit very well with me, as I began to think about all the ways the U.S. and the broader West has itself participated in evil. (This was before the bombings).

Finding Oz

On Tuesday, our first attempt to see Oz was rebuffed, and I was beginning to think that the birthday gods had decreed what I would have no fun at all. As we showed up to the theater, we were met by firetrucks and a crowd forming outside. Two dueling thoughts entered my mind at once: 1) "There was a fire in the theater and our movie is now canceled"; 2) "My luck can't be this bad on my birthday." Sure enough, it was. The manager met us at the doors and informed us the fire alarm had be pulled and the building was being evacuated. With no clue how long it would take to reset the fire alarm, all afternoon showings were canceled.
With free passes for another showing in hand, we headed to the Cold Stone to clear our heads and eat ice cream. While Ty and TJ scarfed down their sugary distraction, I looked up the nearest theater showing Oz in 3D. "Of course it's an hour away, because why would anything go right today," I said to myself on the inside, while I texted their mom to tell her what happened.
Nevertheless, our hour-long drive gave us ample time to talk and even some time to peruse a book store and eat chicken McNuggets before the movie. The boys were loving this side-trip. "Best. Day. Ever. Dad!" 🙂

The Oz Prequel [Spoiler Alert]

If you're not already familiar, Oz the Great and Powerful is a prequel to The Wizard of Oz. It establishes just how Oz came to be the kind of place Dorothy finds when her house crash lands there, killing the Wicked Witch of the East (who is named Evanora in this version). Like Wicked, the wildly successful Broadway musical, Oz builds a back story for the wicked witches, providing some basis for how they became wicked. As Greg Boyd has brilliantly pointed out, we all have a prequel. And imagining a backstory for those who make themselves our enemies, or those whom we are tempted to hate, can help us manifest grace and forgiveness for them, love them with Christ's love, treating them the way Christ has treated us.
The fact is, all of us have a 'prequel.' From the mass murderers to the terrorists to the pedophiles to the prostitutes to the gang members — and, yes, even to the gossipers, gluttons and judgers — there’s a story which, if we knew it well, would help explain why they are the way they are. People don’t just decide one day to be wicked. Things happen. There’s always a story to be told.
The primary character in Oz is of course Oscar Diggs (aka "Oz"), the "Wizard" the Land of Oz has been waiting for. But, the only trouble is, he's not a true wizard at all. He appears to be nothing more than a selfish fraud. He has no interest in helping the people of Oz. He's greedy and vain. Perhaps his biggest vice is his womanizing. He deceitfully cons women into falling in love with him, only to break their hearts when he leaves town or leaves them for the next woman.
Theadora, played by Mila Kunis, is a neutral witch with a temper, caught between her sister Evanora and Glenda the Good. Her own encounter with Oz's charms and deceit lead to her transformation into the Wicked Witch of the West (of Wizard of Oz fame). While she is certainly willing in the transformation, by choosing to partake in an evil spell, her own sister is the one who convinces her Oz has betrayed her and deceives her into joining her evil plot.
Like each one of us, Oz is full of characters who crave significance, purpose, but are looking in all the wrong places. Oz, the wannabe Wizard, wants to be "great," to have fame and fortune. He thinks those things will give his life meaning. But meaning in life is not found in the amassing of material possessions or accolades from others (Luke 12.13-21; Matthew 6.1-6).

God's Love and Jesus's Cross

When we encounter the Jesus of the New Testament, He has declared His mission is healing for the afflicted, liberation for the oppressed, and the demonstration of a new reign—the reign of God's love (Luke 4.16-21, 43). In every act of His brief ministry, this new reign of love was demonstrated. Through preaching, healing, forgiving, and welcoming, Jesus loved the unlovely, the despised, those on the margins, even those who were His sworn enemies. Jesus shows us a new Way to be human.
In the end, Jesus's Way was so radical it shook the foundations of power, and He was seen as a threat to the religio-political establishment. Jesus was executed because He challenged the religious and political status quo. Jesus was executed because He refused to agree with their definitions of "us" versus "them." For Jesus, those considered outsiders were those to whom he was drawn, and those who considered themselves insiders were repelled by his outrageous grace. Jesus embraced every group of people that were stigmatized and rejected. Both Zealots and tax collectors, the extreme ends of the political spectrum of His day, abandoned their ideologies to become His disciples. Both prostitutes and aristocrats sought His wisdom and warmth. For Jesus, there was no one too far gone to receive His love. Jesus came for the violent and the shamed, the self-righteous and the self-loathing. Jesus came for all His children.
On the Cross, Jesus destroyed the barriers that we built with our sin-soaked systems. All the dividing walls that separated people from God and people from each other were destroyed (Ephesians 2.14-18). By laying down His life, He disarmed the powers that be, who sought to destroy Him. Instead, He made a fool of them—and triumphed over them through His self-giving love (Colossians 2.13-15). The death that Jesus died, He died for us all. And since He died for everyone of us, every one of us should no longer live for ourselves. Instead we should live for the One who died for us—and demonstrate God's self-giving reign of love to every person (II Corinthians 5.14-21).

Oz Versus Them

When a tragedy like the Boston bombings, or the Sandy Hook shootings, occurs, it's way too easy for Christians to buy into the narrative produced by the media and others: that the person or persons responsible are the evil other, and we who condemn their actions are the righteous. Remember, like the witch, and like the teen suicide bombers, the evil committed is not simply something we can pin on a single person, much less a particular race, religion, or ideology. We must not oversimplify evil!
Jesus told a parable about this self-righteous attitude:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
 - Luke 18.9-14
There is no doubt that the murderous hatred and violence perpetrated by those responsible for these crimes is wickedness, evil, vice, condemned by God and God's people. But we must not let our grief and anger over these acts deceive us into thinking we are righteous for our indignation. God's love extends even to violent criminals and hate-filled terrorists. God's love restores both the broken-hearted families who mourn the loss of their loved ones, as well as those who have rejected God's ways of peace and resorted to the ways of death.
Contrasting ourselves with an evil other does not produce the wholeness of God's loving reign (shalom). Setting ourselves up against those who are trapped in sin, have succumb to a spirit of violence and death, does not magically make us the peculiar people who reflect God's love. Instead, the only way for us to become the embodiment of God's loving reign, is to model our love after the love of God demonstrated on Jesus's cross: a love that prays for its murderer's forgiveness. In Jesus's death and life, he modeled a love that identified with those who were wounded, as well as those who were stigmatized—even with violent Zealots. The Apostle Paul, himself a violent murderer, was transformed by God's love and called to herald the glorious Gospel of God's Kingdom among the Gentiles. That's the power of God's love that is at work in this Jesus movement we call the Church!
Oz reminds us that wickedness is not unexplainable or indomitable. Oz teaches us that wicked people are people who were once just like us, and have the potential to be transformed by love. Like Oscar Diggs, the fraudulent illusionist who becomes the true Wizard of Oz, we too have both falsehood and truth in us.
A couple questions that remain for Jesus-disciples are:
How will we see ourselves in relationship to those who the media portrays as the evil other, or those who the religious establishment stigmatizes as especially sinful?
How will we live out the radical, loving reign of God that Jesus demonstrates on the Cross?  Father in Heaven, forgive us for viewing ourselves in contrast to those who we think are evil and sinful. Forgive us for our self-righteousness. Instead, make us more like Jesus. Let our lives be shaped by the love that is best seen in the death that Jesus died for us all on the Cross. Empower us with your Holy Spirit to love the unlovely, identify with the hurting, the broken, the disenfranchised, the hate-filled, and the violent. May your grace and peace flow throw your people to those who have not yet experienced it. Amen.