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The Vessel: God Wears a Pink Dress

She sat in the emergency waiting room, hoping that the doctor would come with some good news. Her husband just suffered a massive stroke. And I stood outside the waiting room door, trying to think of the perfect thing to say to this wife in the midst of her pain.

I was the hospital chaplain that evening. In my brief time as a chaplain, I learned that nothing can prepare you for such moments. What’s the right thing to say during such an unexpected tragedy? Sometimes there’s nothing you can say. Sometimes the most important thing you can do is listen.

When I opened the door, I was greeted by the woman and her teenage daughter. After building some rapport with them, I asked how they were doing. The woman’s response was odd, but it also amazed me. She told me a story about a time she was at a local amusement park.

She was walking through a haunted house when a toddler started screaming in fear of the darkness. The child’s mother looked around for a way out, but she couldn’t find an exit. She started to move back towards the entrance, but the park employee managing the house stopped her. “Ma’am,” the employee began. “You can’t go back. The only way out is through.”

The only way out is through.

The woman whose husband just had a stroke repeated that phrase. She told me that everyone has options during times of tragedy. We can seek to blame someone else. We can hide in the dark corners of the “haunted house.” We can numb the pain with drugs or alcohol. But she told me that she only had one option in the face of her tragedy: the only way out is through.

That’s good wisdom and it’s reflected in the move The Vessel, starring Martin Sheen, who plays a priest named Father Douglas. To be released in theaters later this year, The Vessel is about a tragedy that strikes a small coastal town in South America. A tsunami sends an enormous wave that engulfs the town’s school, tragically killing all the town’s children.

The Vessel is a story about the different ways this community moves through the darkness of their tragedy. It begins with a classic example of scapegoating. The women manage their pain by creating a prohibition that none of the women are allowed to wear color; they must wear black and they must refuse to have children. The main character, a young man named Leo, explains the situation like this,

They all agreed that the first woman to wear color again is the worst mother in town. Well, my mother wears pink.

Pink is a sign of hope in the darkness of tragedy. It’s a sign that they can move through their tragedy, but the women largely ignore Leo’s mother. Since the wave killed the children, she no longer talked and she isolated herself from the other women. It’s Leo’s new girlfriend, Sorayah, who receives the wrath of the crowd. After finding love with Leo, she decides to wear a bright blue dress. The women and men of the town manage their pain by uniting against her, attacking her at night with torches. Fortunately, Leo comes to her rescue.

The people were stuck in their pain. They were victims without a path toward healing. So they inflicted their pain on a scapegoat. And soon, they would blame God. A woman cries out to Father Douglas,

If a man murders a child, we sentence him to death. But when God kills 46 children we are told to praise him. Sometimes it does feel like God has abandoned this place. If we only had a sign. Just the tiniest glimpse that He still cares…

Where is God in such tragedies? Did God cause the tsunami? Does God cause strokes? Where is God in the darkness? Theologians call these kinds of questions the problem of theodicy – if God is all powerful and good, then why do bad things happen?

The Vessel’s answer to that question is partly found in a vessel. Leo creates a boat from the wood that remains from the school. Father Douglas thinks the vessel could be a sign of hope for the community, but after Leo saved Soraya from the crowd, the crowd marched to the boat and set it ablaze. Just then, Father Douglas ran to the boat, attempted to save it, but he was too late. He reprimanded the crowd. The people then witnessed their destruction of the harmless vessel that could have given them so much hope. They repented of the violent destruction that they caused.

God is like that vessel, but God is also like Leo’s silent mother who wears pink. Why is God silent? Why doesn’t God answer our questions? Maybe God’s answers wouldn’t be helpful. Maybe the most helpful thing God can do is show up through a mother who doesn’t talk, but who listens. Maybe God is like a mother who wears a pink dress – pointing us to a more colorful world.

Eventually, the people do move through their pain together, not by uniting against a woman who wears pink or blue, or against a vessel. Rather, they move through their pain by uniting for a common purpose. Their new form of unity includes all the people of the town.

The Vessel symbolizes hope in the darkness. The boat holds us together in community, not united in scapegoating, but united in reconciliation. That’s where we find God in the midst of our darkness. We also find God in one who is like a mother wearing a pink dress in the midst of dark times, and moves with us through the darkness of tragedy into a more colorful world of hope.

For more on The Vessel, read Jason Jones’s article A Resurrection Movie: The Vessel. Jason is the president of Movies to Movement, a nonprofit that seeks to promote “a culture of life, love and beauty through the power of film.”

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The Global Day of Listening and Judaism’s Most Important Spiritual Practice

We generally think that spiritual practices have to be difficult. No pain, no gain tends to be our mantra in the physical and spiritual realms. But if you are anything like me, you avoid pain like the plague! Jesus said that if you have enough faith, you can move mountains.

That sounds like way too much work for me. I’d rather take a nap…

But what if spiritual practices don’t have to be so difficult? For example, take the most important spiritual practice in Judaism. It’s called the Shema. For thousands of years, Jews have been repeating this phrase at least twice a day, when they wake up and when they go to sleep. In reciting the Shema, many Jews have believed that they receive the kingdom of heaven. The Shema goes like this,

Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.

The word “shema” is the Hebrew means “to hear” or “to listen.” The most important Jewish spiritual practice is based simply on listening.

Listening shouldn’t be very difficult, but in a world filled with so much noise, taking the time to listen can be challenging. News networks, political debates, family conflicts – the “winner” is often the person who doesn’t listen, but instead yells the loudest.

Clearly, our culture is off balance. There is too much noise. And so we need to bring back the Shema. We need to bring back the ancient Jewish spiritual practice of listening.

Importantly, the Shema was given to the Israelites after the Exodus from Egypt. It was in Egypt that the enslaved Israelites cried out in their pain and God heard their cry. God listened. God was the first to practice the Shema and models for us how to listen to the cry of the oppressed and the marginalized of human culture. In listening to their cry, in practicing the Shema, we become more like the God who listens to the cry of those who suffer.

The Shema for Today

Today is part of the Global Day of Listening. It is a project of the Afghan Peace Volunteers and it seeks to promote active listening around the world to foster healing from traumatic events and to create a more peaceful world.

A few days after the tragic shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, I was listening to NPR and was reminded about the importance of listening. They were interviewing a pastoral therapist from Roseburg. The interviewer asked him a very important question, “You are a therapist. You’ve been trained to handle these kinds of traumatic situations. What can the rest of us do after events like the shooting at Umpqua Community College?”

The therapist replied with the ancient spiritual wisdom of the Shema. He said, “I’m persuaded that the best counsel in times of trauma and tragedy is less speaking and more simply being present … You don’t have to be trained to listen and sometimes people just want to talk.”

Secular and religious therapists will all say the same thing – in times of suffering, people want to be heard when they cry out. We don’t have to worry about saying the right things or solving their problems. In fact, imposing our words and answers upon them often just gets in the way of their healing.

But the corollary to being heard is to talk, to talk about our emotions and our pain. This is where our culture has problems because we’re taught to not be a “burden” on others. Few of us want to admit to ourselves or to others that we have pain and that we are vulnerable. We’d much rather handle it ourselves, put on a tough exterior, and bury our pain deep within.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t lead to healing. Rather, it leads to more harm as our bottled up emotions explode during times of stress. Controlling our emotions by bottling them up never works in the long term. When we us that method, we soon discover that we don’t control our emotions; our emotions control us.

The Shema calls us into a different way of life. It invites us to listen to the pain within ourselves and within our neighbors. In doing so, we find healing. And we find very presence of God.

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Don’t Tell Me that God Is In Control: On Sovereignty, Tragedy, Sin

“God is in control.”

The statement comforts many people because deep down we know that we are not in control. We can do everything we can to protect ourselves and our families, but we know that despite our best efforts, tragedy can strike at any moment. And so it’s comforting to believe that if we aren’t in control, Someone else is.

But something inside of me recoils whenever I hear the phrase, “God is in control.” Many believe that God’s sovereignty means that God is behind everything that happens. But I find no comfort in that view of God. In fact, a God who micromanages and controls every event isn’t a God worthy of belief.

How to Respond to Tragedy

My community was struck by tragedy last week. A mother and her three children were walking to the grocery store. They waited for the crosswalk sign to signal that it was safe to cross the street. But it wasn’t safe. A driver ran the red light, severely injuring the mother, and killing her three children.

How does one respond to such tragedies? First, by mourning. The community held a vigil at the site to support the mother and father. People held candles, prayed, and sang hymns like “Jesus Loves Me” and “Amazing Grace.” Mourners turned the crosswalk into a memorial site with teddy bears, balloons, and other toys.

As the local paper reports, “There were children at the vigil, and parents held onto children tightly or kept a close eye on them. ‘Do not run!’ said one woman to a child near the street.”

Second, by empathizing. Every young parent knows that this tragedy could have happened to any of us. It could have happened to me or to you. I can do everything I can to keep my children safe and yet tragedy can still strike in an instant. Empathizing opens our hearts and minds to compassionately suffer with others as they go through their pain.

How Not to Respond to Tragedy

But there is a theological response that I find extremely pernicious. In the face of such tragedies, many people claim God’s sovereignty in an attempt to provide comfort, but it’s actually quite harmful. They say things like, “God is in control,” or “It’s part of God’s plan,” or “Everything happens for a reason.” But after experiencing tragedies like the one that struck my community, I can no longer believe in that notion of God’s sovereignty.

Please, don’t tell me that God is in control of such events.

Don’t tell me that they are part of God’s plan.

Don’t tell me that these things happen for a reason.

While these statements are usually delivered in an attempt to provide comfort in the midst of suffering, they aren’t comforting. They’re harmful because they actually minimize suffering. The statements imply that, since God is in control and tragedies are part of God’s plan, people should “just get over” their feelings of grief, suffering, and loss. But people don’t “just get over” these kinds of tragedies. The best way to manage the feelings that emerge from tragedy is not to repress them or get over them, but to go through them. The way to go through those feelings is to talk about them. Unfortunately, phrases like, “God is in control,” serve to stifle honest conversation about those painful emotions. Thus, it stifles the healing process.

Tragedy and Sin

But if God isn’t in control of those tragedies, why do they happen? The best answer I’ve found is summed up in one ugly word: Sin. The concept of sin has become taboo in many progressive circles, but I think progressives need to reclaim it. Sin says that there is something wrong with the world, that the world isn’t how it’s supposed to be, that a man running over three children is not part of God’s plan.

In his book, The Wounded Heart of God, Andrew Sung Park states that, “Sin is a conscious offense committed against God or neighbors.” To sin is to go against the desire of God for us to love God and love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Sin rightly puts the responsibility for such tragedies on humanity; it refuses to allow us to project our own responsibility for violence upon God.

Unfortunately, some Christians don’t intend to comfort so much as to blame when they say that “God is in control.” They claim that if something bad happens in your life, you deserve it because you must have sinned. In other words, God causes bad things to happen to bad people. Well, let me be as clear as possible – that’s theological bullshit. It’s an abuse of the concept of sin. This mother did nothing wrong to deserve such horror and neither did her children.  Any religion that blames victims of violence by piling on guilt and shame is a religion that should be thrown into the garbage dump of history.

This tragedy happened because a man decided he was in a hurry and so he ran a red light. My community is now turning against this man, but part of me empathizes with him, too. Who among us hasn’t been in a hurry? Who among us hasn’t ran a red light?

By all accounts, he’s not an evil monster. And so, along with the legal consequences of his actions, he will have to face the fact that he destroyed the lives of three children and their parents. He knows as much as anyone else that this was the result of sin. He knows that he should not have been driving recklessly. He knows that this tragedy should not have happened.

Sin names events that shouldn’t happen. The theological concept of sin is a protest that claims the world isn’t right. It claims that these tragic events are not part of God’s plan. Sin claims that God is not all-powerful and in control of these tragic events.

Of course, I want to believe that God is like an all-powerful superhero in the sky, keeping me and my family safe from tragedy. That might provide me comfort, but where was that god on the night those children were killed?

The fact is that God doesn’t promise to keep us safe from what’s wrong in the world – not from reckless drivers, not from cancer, and not from violence. But I do believe that God is sovereign in two ways.

Reinterpreting God’s Sovereignty

First, God is sovereign in God’s promise to be present in our suffering. As Park claims, in the face of suffering caused by sin, God’s heart is wounded. God suffers with us. In Jesus we discover that God empathizes with our suffering. God enters into the violence and despair of human sin and by doing so, God seeks to heal us in mind, body, and soul. It takes a certain amount of control to be present in the midst of suffering. The Atonement is God’s ultimate way of entering into the tragedy, violence, and absurdity of suffering caused by human sin. As Lindsey Paris-Lopez puts it, in Jesus God exposes “himself not as the commander of our violence, but as the victim of it.” The cross tells us that we are not alone in our suffering. It tells us that Jesus, God in flesh and bones, doesn’t orchestrate suffering, but rather goes through suffering with us.

But that’s not enough. God calls the church to be the Body of Christ on earth. The church is to receive its identity from Christ. As the Body of Christ, the church’s mission is to enter into suffering with our fellow human beings. The world needs the church to do its mission because sometimes the absurd happens. Sometimes tragedy strikes. In the blink of an eye, our children can be taken from us. And our best response is to walk with mothers and fathers and all who hurt through the immense suffering caused by sin.

Second, God is sovereign in God’s ability to heal, reconcile, and restore the world to himself. As the Book of Revelation claims, in the end God will wipe away every tear. Until then, God is working for the “time of universal reconciliation.” And, until that universal reconciliation happens, we have work to do. God is calling us to participate in God’s sovereign reconciliation of the universe because, as Second Corinthians claims, “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their sins against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”

God’s sovereignty has nothing to do with causing violence, pain, and suffering in the world. Rather, God’s sovereignty means that in the end, sin doesn’t have the last word. In the end, everything that’s wrong will be put to right, every tear will be wiped away, and every life will be restored to God’s loving embrace. The good news is that we don’t have to wait for that day. We can participate in God’s universal, loving embrace of the world right now. Indeed, that is our mission. In the face of absurd suffering and sin, that is what God is calling us to do.

Guns: Cause or Cure?

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Win McNamee/Getty Images

Adam and I did a series of four articles following the Newtown massacre in December. Our focus was on the culture of violence in which we live, breathe and have our being. We wrote that the logic of violence is woven through the fabric of our culture. In entertainment, religion, politics and war we act as if it’s true that there are two kinds of violence: our violence which is always good, and our enemy’s, which is always bad. This logic gives us tacit permission to use violence to achieve our ends, and in the third article in the series, I wrote about how the mentally ill who randomly kill others are acting out our own faith in good violence with a relentless, devastating logic.

The national response to Newtown is now crystallizing around political solutions. Vice-President Biden, Governor Cuomo of New York, and Governor Malloy of Connecticut where the massacre occurred, are all leading task forces or calling for a response that involves gun control measures. Arguing over guns is nothing new in America. We have a long, rich tradition of demonizing each other over the shape and limits of gun ownership. Passions run high on both sides because each side believes with an almost religious zeal in the rightness of their cause and the evil intentions of their adversaries. With apocalyptic fervor, each side claims that our freedom depends on their side winning control over guns in America. The mimetic insight of René Girard alerts us to what is really going on: When adversaries are most passionately proclaiming their differences in a contest over an object they both desire, that is when the object is most meaningless and the differences between the adversaries virtually disappear. If that is true of most conflicts, is it becoming true in this case? If it becomes true, what does it mean for our national political debate?

Girard explains that the end result of an ongoing conflict over some object of contention is rivalry for its own sake. What that looks like in the gun debate is that while both sides insist they want to find a way to protect innocent victims from random violence, the rivalry has escalated to such an extreme that they are no longer interested in what that solution might look like… unless, of course, it is their solution. The search for a sensible response may be the content of their rhetoric, but the reality is that what each side truly wants is to win. Winning is all that’s left and each side wants it so badly that the goodness they both claim to seek and to represent, is emptied of all meaning.

This is the risk we run now in our debate about guns. Guns are not the problem, as those who defend gun ownership are fond of saying. Nor are less guns the solution, as those who advocate for gun control contend. The problem is that both sides believe in the power of guns, believe in it so completely that they run the risk of becoming mirror images of each other, enemy twins as Girard calls them. The differences each side insists exist are superficial and irrelevant. The thing that matters, the truth at the heart of the conflict, is that what they share in common has become a bigger problem than guns. When each side shares the same faith in the power of guns and the same desire to defeat their rival, it’s not the “madness of violence” that consumes us, as Gov. Cuomo said in his state of the state address. It is the madness of our own escalating rivalry and self-deluded sense of goodness.

What would it look like if we actually cared more about ending violence than our own victory? One suggestion came from the Connecticut House minority leader, Lawrence F. Cafero, Jr., as reported in the New York Times: “But he, like others, said one response to the Newtown shootings should be a commitment to civility and bipartisanship in the Legislature.” Civility would require dropping the false accusations of wicked intent against our opponents and bipartisanship would shift the focus from claims of differences to see more clearly what we have in common. Hopefully, once we were able to see just how much our faith in the power of gun violence unites us, we would be able to see that it is that faith which has generated the culture of violence of which gun violence is but a symptom. When we drop the pretense of sole possession of being right on the issue, we may discover that we share a mutual responsibility for the violence and have all become obstacles to meaningful change.

New York State Senator Timothy M. Kennedy expressed our nation’s deepest hope when he said, “When you hear about these issues all across the nation, whether it’s in the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., or Columbine, something needs to happen – something transformative.” The only truly transformative thing would be for both sides of the gun debate to find the moral courage to drop their pretense of difference and to face the underlying problem obscured by the smokescreen of rivalry: America believes in the power of violence more than we believe in anything else, more than we believe in freedom or democracy or love or community or God or peace. Nothing short of a culture-wide shift in our fundamental belief will end the scourge of gun violence. Culture-wide shifts begin one person at a time. Are you willing to go first?

Saved From Violence Part 3: The Social Dimension of Mental Illness

As the nation seeks a meaningful policy response to the Newtown mass killings, the role of mental illness is rightly being examined. We need to make whatever changes are necessary to ensure adequate care is readily available. Alleviating the suffering of individuals is the right thing to do. But mental illness is not, strictly speaking, an individual illness. It has a social component as well and that’s the subject of my reflections today.

The easiest social component to see is what those we label mentally ill suffer as a result of our culture’s response to them. Being misunderstood, judged, ostracized and bullied is unfortunately a central part of their life experiences. A friend of mine who suffers from learning disabilities, mental illness and has been diagnosed with autism! recently sent me a poem about his experience of being abused by so-called normal society. It’s called Autism is a Gift. Here’s just one stanza:

Do you know what it’s like to be the victim of name calling?! the bullying?! and the stigma?! Do you have any idea what it’s like to be such a lonesome enigma?!  Do you know what it’s like when no one wants to be your friend?! Do you know what it’s like when the torment seems to have no end?! You don’t know how any of this feels! it may seem really strange to you, but for me it is normal and ever so real, but I’ve got to find a way around it so that I can begin to heal.

My friend deserves more compassion from our society not as a defense against potential violence, but because he’s a human being. As the poem’s title suggests, his difference does not torment him. We do.

Would it be so hard to understand the social component, if my friend had suicidal thoughts now and then? I think not. But there are those whose suicidal thoughts stem from depression, a mental illness that seems to strike without rhyme or reason. It’s harder to see the social component to depression and by raising the question I am not trying to suggest that society is responsible for suicide or that we could have done something differently to prevent it. But rather than see depressed individuals as isolated, autonomous actors, we need to understand that suicidal thoughts do not arise spontaneously. They originate in the connective tissue that binds the individual to the culture at large.

For example, it is hard to deny that our culture is fixated on death. We live so much in fear of our mortality that we marginalize the old and idolize youth. By trying to push death to the margins, we paradoxically place it at the center of all our psychic energy. We also use our suffering, what might be thought of as little deaths, as a weapon against others. Acting the martyr means that we are resentfully occupying the place of victim as an accusation against our persecutors. And let us not forget the complex life-death calculations we make as part of our armed invasions, drone attacks, and the endless war on terror. We target some for life and some for death, tolerating the collateral deaths of women and children as the cost of killing our enemy. Death and calculations about death permeate our culture. That death would occupy a central place in the mind of an individual, then, is not so strange or abnormal. Perhaps their “illness” lies in a weakened ability to practice sophisticated forms of denial. My point here is that if we diagnose someone who is fixated on death as mentally ill, then perhaps our entire culture is suffering from the same illness.

Let’s turn to the social component in the use of violence by those we label mentally ill. In a recent article in the New York Times, author and professor of criminal justice Adam Lankford shared the results of his three year study of the causes of both suicide terrorists and suicide rampage shooters and found that they shared three things in common. The first we have already discussed, a desire to die. Another is the desire for fame and glory through killing. That hardly needs my commentary – we glorify violence and those who use it on TV, at the movies, in video games, and in war. If it’s a symptom of mental illness to think killing will bring you glory, then again, we all suffer that illness in common.

The other thing Lankford discovered that they shared in common is “a deep sense of victimization… the aggrieved individual feels that he has been terribly mistreated and that violent vengeance is justified.” I’d like to suggest that the sense of victimization and the justification of violence against persecutors is hardly a symptom of mental illness. Victims hold a privileged position in our society. We listen to victims, we feel compelled to take their side and punish whoever they identify as their persecutors. Feeling like a victim is not an illness; it is part of how we experience ourselves on a daily basis. We feel insulted, aggrieved, annoyed, misunderstood and ignored every day. The problem with mentally ill people, we assert, is that their claims of victimization are delusional or exaggerated while ours are reasonable. When they use violence we say that no matter how aggrieved they may have felt, they are no longer victims but perpetrators. If that is true of the mentally ill, then I’d like to suggest that it is also true of us. When we use violence to soothe our wounded pride, even to retaliate for violence perpetrated against us, we are no longer victims. We have become perpetrators just like those we seek justice against, just like suicidal rampage shooters. But we continue to insist the opposite is true: Our violence is different; our violence is justified, noble, necessary. And we insist that our victims are the right victims, but I wonder how long we can maintain the charade that it’s not okay to kill children in Newtown, CT but it is okay to kill children in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Our mentally unstable suicide killers are the mirror image of ourselves, using our own logic against us, and haunting us with the consequences of our love affair with violence. We label people mentally ill, we bully and name-call to avoid seeing the painful truth about ourselves. Adam Lanza (Newtown), Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (Columbine), and Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Polytech) are the identified patients but our whole society is sick. If we want to develop a meaningful response to suicidal violence, we will need to develop a treatment plan for all of us.


(This is part 3 in the Raven Foundation’s series on the Newtown tragedy. Click here to read Saved From Violence Part 1: A response to the Newtown tragedy, by Suzanne Ross and here for Saved from Violence Part 2: What we owe our children in a violent world, by Adam Ericksen

Saved From Violence Part 2: What We Owe Our Children in a Violent World

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” John 1:5

That verse has become my mantra. I constantly pray it, so that I might come to believe it.

During the last week darkness has spread across the United States. First there was the shooting at Clackamas Town Center. I grew up near Clackamas, Oregon, and went to that mall frequently as a teenager. The familiar images of the parking lot, the façade of the mall, and the images of the food court where the shooting occurred brought that tragedy home for me. I easily identified with the holiday shoppers who were interviewed on the morning television shows. That could have been me; that could have been any of us.

Then there was the horror of Newtown. I left work early on Friday to pick up my children from school. All I wanted to do was hold them in my arms. My heart ached for my children as I drove. And then it dawned on me – there were parents who wouldn’t be able to pick up their children. It was easy for me to identify with the shoppers in Clackamas, but I felt a deeper connection with the parents of Newtown. As I picked up my first of three children and held him in my arms, a mother came up to me holding her daughter’s hand. We made eye contact in a sad, sorrowful way. She put her hand on my arm and said, “I did the same thing.”

The darkness deepened that very night. My brother-in-law texted from his house in Las Vegas to tell my wife there was a shooting in the lobby of the Excalibur hotel. We stayed at Excalibur just a few weeks ago when we visited my brother-in-law and his wife on Thanksgiving. The gunman killed a vendor at the hotel’s concierge desk and then killed himself. reports the event sent “many patrons fleeing in fear.” Once again I was able to identify with the victim and witnesses of yet another shooting. We could have been there. My brother-in-law ended his text with a question that we’re all asking: “What is this world coming to?”

It has been hard to see any light shining in the darkness of this past week. President Obama attempted to shine some light during the vigil for the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary. He said many of the right things, but what struck me was his statement, “We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.”

He’s right. We must change. But what about us must change? The president is likely to use his political capital and the emotions of the moment to change gun control laws, as well he should. But that is not enough. I think we must start here: It’s easy to identify with the victims of these tragedies, but the darkness is in all of us. This is not about “us” good guys and “those” violent bad guys. If we want to find darkness in our world, we need look no further than ourselves and our culture of violence.

Obama said that our first task is “caring for our children. It is our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.” I wonder if that’s also how we will be judged as a national member of the world community. The hard truth that we need to hear is that those shootings were a product of an American culture of violence. The tragedy of the last week is a common occurrence in Pakistan. Because of American drone attacks, Pakistani children are now without their parents, and civilian Pakistani parents are now without their children. As an American parent of three children, I can’t help but identify with those Pakistani parents and those Pakistani children suffering in the darkness of our violent attacks. Those children are our children, too. Yet we turn a blind eye to their suffering as we continue this counterproductive War on Terror. The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism claims that terrorism across the world has increased nearly every year since 9/11. Using violence in our pursuit of peace has created more violence abroad and at home, making all of our children less safe.

So, what’s our world coming to? A violent hell of our own making.

Of course, the United States is not solely responsible for the violence in our world. But whenever we use violence in pursuit of our “national interest” we send the message to other nations that violence is an appropriate means to achieve their national interest. We also send the message to individuals, including our children, that violence is an appropriate means to achieve individual interest. Our uncritical use of violence as a legitimate means to achieve our ends is what we must change. Violence is a monster that we cannot control with more violence. Violence only strengthens that monster. Using violence to cast out violence is, as Jesus revealed, akin to Satan casting out Satan only to become more satanic. If we are going to change in any meaningful way as a nation or as individuals, we must change the way we respond to physical, verbal, and emotional violence. If we respond by imitating that violence on a personal or national level we will only ensure that darkness will continue to spread. The only alternative to darkness is to shine the painfully bright light of truth into our national and personal lives. That light is painful because it requires us to see our own darkness, our own tendencies toward violence. Yet that painful work is required if we are to change, because only then can we move forward in a spirit of all-embracing love, compassion, and forgiveness. Indeed, it takes great courage to shine that light in the midst of a violent world, but that’s the light of courage we need to change and finally end these tragedies.

We owe that change to our children living in the United States and throughout the world.


(This is part 2 in the Raven Foundation’s series on the Newtown tragedy. Click here for our first article in the series, Saved from Violence Part 1: A response to the Newtown Tragedy by Suzanne Ross and Saved from Violence Part 3: The social dimension of mental illness.)

Saved from Violence Part 1: A response to the Newtown tragedy

“Guns are why we’re free in this country, and people lose sight of that when tragedies like this happen.” Scott Ostrosky, Newtown resident, owner of informal shooting range, as quoted in the New York Times.

“We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.” President Obama, speaking at a Newtown, CT prayer vigil

In the wake of the tragedy in Newtown, CT on Friday, who has not been touched by the grief of the parents who lost children, of the children who lost mothers? Coming in the midst of the Christmas season, it could not help but bring to my mind a part of the birth narrative that is rarely recalled amidst the serene scene of animals, shepherds, angels and kings paying homage to the newborn child. It’s the story of King Herod’s massacre of all the boys under two years old in Bethlehem in a desperate attempt to kill the one child who was foretold to take his throne. The New Testament quotes the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah in response to the long ago horror with words that feel all too fresh: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning; Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted.”

Yet we offer comfort – family and friends, ministers and priests, grief counselors and politicians, and President Obama on behalf of the nation – we rush to embrace and cry together. What can we say now except, “You are not alone. We will not leave you to endure this without community, friendship and love.”

That’s America at our best. We respond with open hearts and a generosity of spirit in times of tragedy that always comforts me. And we ask not just what can we do in the wake of this devastation, but how we can prevent future suffering and loss. It’s right that we do so. It’s right that we continue the debate about America’s gun culture with a new urgency. As we wrestle with an appropriate national response, I want to point to one truth that, though overlooked, is central to our search for a response that will actually bring about the change that President Obama called for.

I quoted a Newtown resident, Scott Ostrosky, to begin this article because his observation that this nation’s freedom was won at gunpoint is undeniably true. We wrested political control from Great Britain through war and violence. What is not true is what his historical memory leaves unspoken: that what we won through war was true freedom. Scott is a prisoner of his own faith in violence, as is our nation. We are enslaved to violence through our belief that it is only through violence that we can protect ourselves and our freedoms. It is not just gun rights advocates who believe this. Almost all of us, whether we own a gun or not, believe without question that violence is the most powerful force in the world and if we want to be free we had better have bigger, better and more lethal weapons than our enemies.

This is a lie. Violence does what we have witnessed in Newtown, CT: it destroys life, generates fear, causes us to retreat, retrench and rearm. And if that is how we feel, I hope you can see that those on the receiving end of America’s superior violence feel the same. This is not freedom, friends. When we enshrine violence we become its puppets, dutiful marionettes dancing to strings pulled by the gods of war. Here’s the truth: King Herod failed to kill the threat to his reign of violence, a threat that appeared in the form of a defenseless infant. This child became a man whose only weapons were love and mercy and who we celebrate as our Savior. If you have ever wondered what exactly he came to save us from, let the victims of Bethlehem and Newtown, and all the victims of violence in the two thousand years separating them, lead you to the most obvious answer: Jesus came to save us from our faith in violence. We must change, but the call to change is millennia old. Our response is overdue.


(This was part 1 in the Raven Foundation’s series on the Newtown tragedy. Click here to read Saved from Violence Part 2: What we owe our children in a violent world, by Adam Ericksen and here for Saved from Violence Part 3: The social dimension of mental illness, by Suzanne Ross.)

Human Dignity: The Sense and Senselessness of Violence

Violence is a paradox. It makes sense. And it doesn’t make sense. Whether or not it makes sense or is senseless usually depends entirely upon which side you are on.

J. Christopher Stevens, the United States ambassador to Libya, and three members of his staff were tragically killed yesterday as a furious mob attacked the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The mob became violent in reaction to a short movie recently posted on YouTube that insults the Prophet Muhammad.

There have been two reactions to this violent act. One that sensibly justifies it; another that claims it is a senseless act of violence.

A mosque preacher named Mohamed Abu Gabal participated in the mob. He, of course, justifies the violence, claiming, “We sacrificed dozens and hundreds during the [Libyan] uprising for our dignity. The Prophet’s dignity is more important to us and we are ready to sacrifice millions.” A year ago, Libyan rebels fought for their dignity in a violent uprising against the oppressive regime of Muammar Gaddafi. The United States financially supported and trained the Libyan rebels to fight Gaddafi, who had become our common enemy. When Gaddafi fell, we celebrated along with Libyan rebels, rejoicing our victory against Gadaffi’s tyranny for the success of Libyan dignity and freedom. That celebration revealed an important belief about dignity and violence that we and the Libyans share: if you feel insulted, the most effective way to regain your dignity is through violence.

And so we’re confronted with this latest tragedy. A member of a mob wants dignity and he’s willing to use violence to achieve it. That use of violence makes perfect sense.

This morning, President Barack Obama offered his response to the tragedy. At a press conference he stated, “These four Americans stood up for freedom and human dignity. Make no mistake: we will work with the Libyan government to bring to justice the killers who attacked our people … we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants.” The President makes it perfectly clear. The United States will promote freedom and human dignity in Libya and we will use violence against anyone who gets in our way. From the way Obama has conducted the War on Terror, we know what he means when he talks about “bringing people to justice.”

And so the President of the United States wants dignity and he’s willing to use violence to achieve it. His use of violence makes perfect sense.

Let me be clear: The Libyan mob and Barack Obama have at least two things in common: a desire for dignity and the willingness to use violence as a means to achieve it. Whoever “wins” this battle will only send the senseless message that violence is an appropriate means to fight for dignity. Violence always makes “sense” to those wielding violence. There is always a “reason” for violence. Paradoxically, that’s exactly what makes all violence senseless. We live in a world where the greatest threat to our dignity, indeed, to our very lives, is the never ending cycle of escalating violence.

We humans, though, are not enslaved to the senseless cycles of violence. The truth is that dignity is never achieved through violence. Dignity is always relational, and it is only achieved through loving, compassionate relationships that hope for reconciliation with the other.

I’ll end with a helpful quote from the Qur’an that speaks to this hope: “Good and evil cannot be equal. Repel evil with what is better and your enemy will become as close as an old and valued friend” (41:34).


I am Trayvon and I am George

Good people across our nation are trying to find answers to the following questions: Was Trayvon Martin’s death a racially motivated murder or something else, an act of self-defense or a tragic accident? Is George Zimmerman a racist or something else, a decent man or emotionally ill? Is President Obama’s response measured and appropriate or something else, too timid a challenge to racism or too dismissive of concerns for safety and security? Is this incident unique or something else, a symptom of culture-wide racism, of too many guns in civilian hands or not enough?

Strident voices are shouting at each other from all sides, confident that they are in the right and that anyone who disagrees with them is willfully, undeniably wrong. As the conflict polarizes and we are forced to take sides, it becomes harder and harder to believe in the goodness of those taking opposing views. Here is the eerie thing about all this for me: it is sadly reminiscent of old, tired patterns of debating moral issues that go back to the Civil War. Let me explain.

When an issue is morally charged, good people take sides. That’s what’s happening here – the death of a young person from gun violence is a moral issue, and this death has become even more morally complicated by the charge of racism. Racist violence, unarguably a moral wrong, has a long history in this country: the violence of slavery, of white race riots and lynch mobs, and the institutionalized racism of the Jim Crow South. One of the tragedies of the Civil War, and there are many, is the way in which the North was able to hide from its own racism both before and after the war by shifting all the blame onto the South. Christian rhetoric from North and South provided cover. Pro-union sermons claimed God’s divine support for the union; pro-secession sermons claimed God’s divine support for secession. Each side believed they were fighting for God, liberty, patriotism and to claim their place as the true heirs to the Revolution. As Abraham Lincoln said, God cannot be for and against the same thing, so at a minimum one side is wrong. As if that were not enough of a minority position, Lincoln nearly became a minority of one when he dared to suggest that God’s purposes might be something neither side had yet imagined.

But wasn’t there a clear right side, an assuredly Godly side, when it came to slavery just as there must be a clear right side with Trayvon and George? Some must think so, especially the ones wearing the “I am Trayvon” t-shirts or speaking publicly in defense of George. But what seems clear at first often gets blurred on closer examination. Take slavery – talk about a clear moral issue! How could it be possible not to condemn the side that would fight to preserve it? The problem with framing the Civil War that way is that the Civil War was not about slavery. Look at that list of causes mentioned in the sermons – nothing about slavery there at all. It is a deafening silence that casts shame on our entire nation. The moral issue that divided the nation was the idea of the nation itself, a sacred cause that justified the killing and the dying. That we did kill and die in unprecedented numbers was taken as proof of our nation’s goodness. Bloodletting always creates hallowed ground. When the war ended and slavery was abolished – a clear moral good – we swept aside the shameful truth that slavery was made possible by a deep-seated racism in the North as well as the South. War erupted, raged and ended without Americans ever openly acknowledging and repenting of racism as a national moral failing. This misunderstanding at the heart of our national memory about the war continues to force the issue of racism underground.

And then it resurfaces in Florida and we take sides again thinking for sure we know what the moral issue is and for sure we are on the right side of it. But what if the real moral issue is something else? What if it has to do with the moral failure of thinking we are right? We all know that feeling of righteous rage, or moral indignation when we are sure we have the devil by the tail. Both sides of the Trayvon case are feeling it passionately right now. Maybe that night Trayvon and George were both feeling right, sure the other was wrong. I don’t know, and I don’t want to shift blame from a truly guilty person, especially in a murder case. I think that it is vitally important that the investigation proceed to determine why Trayvon was killed. But I raised the example of the Civil War because the bloodshed was largely due to everyone thinking they were right. Racism continues to rear its ugly head because we have persisted in refusing to share responsibility for what was and continues to be wrong with our nation. Shared responsibility means sharing being wrong, not forcing all the wrong on someone else. The insistence on being right and on accusing others of being wrong allows us to justify our own hatred and violence, the very thing we denounce in others.

As we deal with the tragedy of Trayvon’s death, perhaps we might step back from our accusations and self-righteousness to ask some difficult questions: Can I find the grace to listen to, maybe even to learn from, the ones I think are wrong? Can I give up my need to be right and be honest with myself about where I am wrong? Am I strong enough to gaze upon everyone who is suffering, even the ones whose suffering I have ignored or even celebrated? Do I care more about being right than I do about ending racism and making our communities safe for all our members? Can I seek the good in a spirit of forgiveness?

I’d like to leave you with the thought that the real obstacle to ending racism may be our need to take sides. It is 150 years overdue, but maybe we can find the grace to stop needing so desperately to be right so that we can embrace both Trayvon and George, an embrace that is generous and large enough to include the good and the wicked, the innocent and the guilty, the right and the wrong. Perhaps peace will have a chance if we can say together, “I am Trayvon and I am George.”

Peace Building Opportunity: If you’d like to learn how to give peace a chance in our schools, listen to the interview of Ted Wachtel recorded on Friday, March 30 on our web radio show, Voices of Peace Talk Radio. Ted is the president of the world’s first graduate school devoted entirely to the teaching, research and dissemination of restorative practices.