On Sunday 50,000 people left the security of their homes to gather in Manchester, United Kingdom. They mourned the deaths of their recently massacred friends, weeping and singing in the streets of the very city where the horror had taken place days before. There were threats of more attacks. People came nonetheless. Leaders took turns offering spoken messages of consolation, and everyone looked on in amazement. Participants testified that the event brought healing and new life. The crowd was diverse. There were travelers from numerous nations. They may not have shared a common language, but they witnessed to a single message loud and clear: love always wins.
The June 4 Ariana Grande Benefit Concert bears many of the marks of the birth of the early church. Both are stories of people who witness brutal deaths but soon find the courage to proclaim the victory of life and love over fear and death. Both are stories of people who gather from different nations to hear a transformative message of hope in the wake of tragedy. More to the point, like the early apostles, the performers and attendees of the Manchester concert claim two basic beliefs: (1) death is not the end and, therefore, (2) we should have the courage to stand for mercy and peace even when it puts us in great danger.
Concertgoers took comfort in the reality that the victims were now “angels” in heaven, as numerous signs attested. The powers and principalities of terrorism brought about the death of their bodies, but their souls remain unscathed. From above, the victims can hear the cries of love ascending to them from the crowds. They can see every gesture of solidarity. Justin Bieber preached movingly, “God is good in the midst of the evil… He loves you, and he is here for you. I just want to take this moment to honor the people that were taken. We love you so much… Put both hands up to honor those people right now.” Tens of thousands of hands darted into the air, and voices shouted in unison, “We love you.”
These words were not the product of empty optimism but rather the fruit of steadfast hope. This hope brought them out into the open where enemies could strike again. This hope cut through the probability of more danger to come–another attack did take place within 24 hours of the concert. This hope resembles the hope of the early Christians, who risked everything to honor Christ, a victim of terror whose life did not end in death. It was the Spirit who gave the apostles the courage to proclaim the victory of mercy, and I believe this same Spirit was moving in the hearts of those who gathered in Manchester. Ariana Grande’s personal Twitter message is prophetically Christ-like: “Our response to this violence must be…to love more, to sing louder and to live more kindly and generously than we did before.” The singer feels deep, lasting pain for which she cannot find words, but she maintains that the only way to proceed is radical mercy and generosity.
She does so in contrast to some who see the attack as an opportunity to act out of fear. President Trump tweeted in response to the recent attacks, “We need to be smart, vigilant and tough. We need the courts to give us back our rights. We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety!” In choosing fear over courage, he’s acting out of desperation rather than hope. He turns away from the Pentecostal gifts of faith, hope and love. Ariana Grande and her benefit concert send a message that contradicts this ideology of fear. Instead, she echoes Christ and the early Christians, who would rather convert the terror-inspiring Roman Empire through love and martyrdom than through weapons of war or the safety of isolationism.
Ariana, Justin, and all the concertgoers–you are brave. You haven’t let fear of violence stand in the way of your call to holiness. You haven’t cowered behind the artifice of “national security.” You’ve turned the other cheek when you might have lashed out in anger. You’ve told us it’s time to be like Christ and his disciples. It’s time to let the power of the Holy Spirit into the world once more.