upper room daily devotions

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Words, Violence, and Society

On Thursday, a shooter open fired at Seattle Pacific University, a Free Methodist university just down the hill from the church where I serve. There are students and faculty who have ties to my congregation, and there are members of my congregation who have long and deep connections with the school. I have been deeply impressed by the responses of students and the institution as a whole to this unimaginable horror. They are taking care of each other, rooting their grief in prayer, offering laments, and holding one another in love and tenderness. They are doing what they need to do, so I am not going to write about this particular shooting. Even referencing it here leaves me feeling dirty, as though this real and deep tragedy is fodder for casual conversation. I am also not going to use this space to talk about the politics of specific legislation. That, too, I believe cheapens the real grief of this moment. Rather, this brief reflection is about our culture of violence.

In fact, many people in the country are unaware of the shooting in our sleepy and peaceful neighborhood. Perhaps this is because the next day there was a shooting in Georgia at a courthouse. On Sunday, there was a double murder in Seattle, possibly a hate crime. On Sunday there was also the rampage in Las Vegas in which the shooters prepared for a lengthy battle. Just today, another school, this one in Oregon, also became a school shooting statistic as yet another gunman entered a high school and took the life of a student. In just school settings alone, there have been 74 shootings since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

There is something deeply insidious about how easily our culture turns to violence, and this trend requires deep examination. The ease with which we kill our children and with which our children kill one another says something truly disturbing about our culture. Many want to say that mental illness is the culprit that needs addressing, and we do need to address the flawed mental health system, but there have always been mentally ill people in our communities, and they have not acted with violence as we have seen in recent decades. Others will say that we need to address the proliferation of guns in society, and we do, but guns have always been part of American culture. Again, the presence of guns does not necessarily equate with violence, much less public acts of violence, especially violence directed toward our young. The increase in indiscriminate violence, especially in public settings, is a symptom of the isolation, despair, and anti-social disposition of our culture at large. And, it is tragic.

As this community begins the long hard process of grieving, I realize that families and communities across the country are sadly dealing with similar feelings of grief, and are struggling to make sense of the ease with which we turn to one another in violence.

It is imperative that we take a bald and unflinching look at ourselves. It is time to peel back the veneer that we have deftly placed over society in order to begin to understand the "why" of violence, especially violence in public places, especially violence perpetrated by and at children and youth. Why are so many young white men loading up and strapping on? This "why" may scare us all, for we may all may be implicated by the answer.

In our public square, politicians routinely demonize one another. They openly refer to one another as unpatriotic, of wanting to inflict harm on the country, of not caring about its citizens, even of being traitors. In the public, media personalities "report news" that is nothing more than innuendo. These, of course, are easy suspects to name, but throughout society a trend of demonization is at work. We say unspeakable things about one another. We think horrible things about "them." We isolate from one another. We live in fragmented communities divided into "us" and "them." Even as we move in greater number into urban areas, we isolate from one another, segregate ourselves, and live in suspicion of our neighbors. It's how we have structured our world. And, it needs to stop.

One of the basic premises of the Judeo-Christian narrative is that words make worlds. In Genesis, God speaks creation into being. While some look to this as a science story, I look to it as "truth story." We speak our worlds into being. If I say that I hate you long enough, I will hate you - with my mind, soul, emotions, and even the chemistry of my body. When Christians say that a group of people will go to hell, it becomes easy for that group to be reviled, marginalized, and preyed upon. When atheists demean people of faith, it becomes easy to think that people of faith are less than human. If someone buys into a philosophy of self-preservation and self-advancement, the natural outcome is that the neighbor doesn't matter, especially the vulnerable neighbor. If someone tells another person that he or she is worthless, over time that untruth is internalized and becomes a dangerous part of a troubled and troubling inner world. The old saying that "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me" is a lie. It always has been. Words matter. How we talk to and about one another matters. It matters in our interpersonal relationships. It matters in public discourse. And, it affects how we treat one another.

Violence does not begin when a troubled person picks up a gun and shoots another person. It does not begin when the bully hits a victim. It does not begin when a rapist rapes. It begins in our heads. It begins in how we think about one another. It begins in how we understand community. It is made real when we use hurtful and hateful words. And, it transforms into something grotesque when the word is turned into action.

I wish I had an answer to our culture of violence; I don't. The best I can muster as a pastor is that I have been called to be a person of peace amid violence. As a follower of Christ, I am compelled to speak publicly about peace in the face of violence. As a member of society, I have an obligation to atone for the ways in which my thoughts, words, and deeds contribute to violence. Like so many other important things, examining ourselves in light of the violence we create and in which we are immersed is complex and hard fraught, but it is imperative that we rise to the challenge. Another young person was killed today. In a school. The last day before summer. This should be unconscionable. A reasonable society will not allow this to continue. A compassionate people will not stand for this.

I suppose I am left wondering if there is any reason left in us. Is there any compassion?

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