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. Salon.com 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.)