One of the hardest things about living outside my home country is the sense of disconnection in times of national tragedy. When something as alarming and devastating as Saturday’s shooting occurs, we all struggle to make sense of it and find a way forward. Although the internet makes it possible for me to stay up to date on news and reactions, the physical and emotional distance is a heavy weight.
I’ve been remembering the feeling of hollow emptiness and impotent sorrow that came over me in March 2003, when I heard the news of “Operation Iraqi Freedom” from rural Uruguay, where I served as a Young Adult Volunteer. I could hardly have been farther away from home, and had no way of participating in the protests and prayer vigils going on in the States. All I could do was gather with my fellow volunteer, Keegan, and lament what was happening so far away. But when I returned and sat with the neighborhood children at the community center where I worked, it quickly became clear to me that, in spite of the distance, the reality of that violence reached even the placid, rolling hills of Uruguay.
I remember my young friends asking if the planes and bombs would come to Rosario and hurt them. While I felt confident in my assurances that they were safe, it chilled me to the bone to realize that, in these children’s minds, the violence perpetrated half a world away seemed a real and personal danger. Today I think that they were right to be afraid, even if the bombs they heard about on TV didn’t seem to pose an immediate threat to them.
There is a deep spiritual and theological truth, key to the identity of the Christian Church: we are all one body. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). But this is not only a matter of religious conviction. For those with the means in our globalized world, physical distances pose little impediment to travel and communication. It seems that every day there is new scientific evidence to support the idea that this planet and all its inhabitants are one interdependent body—in a very tangible, biological sense. What happens in one corner of the world affects all of us. And times of tragedy and crisis help us to understand this truth, move us to compassion, and open the door to a response that builds the true security of loving community.
In the wake of Saturday’s shooting, we’ve heard a lot of talk about who is to blame, what factors led to this extreme and devastating choice of violence. And while it is true that the widely-cited examples of violent political rhetoric were irresponsible and should be corrected, they are only a bold expression of a more insidious and generalized violence that has been growing in our public discourse. The desire to shut out, dominate, and overpower the other, to imagine ourselves as opponents and try to forcefully impose “our” way–the “right” way–at the expense of dialogue and engagement with the humanity of the other, lies at the heart of this violence. And this attitude is not unique to any political party or ideological persuasion.
“If I don’t have the imagination to realize that you and I are one despite our physical separateness and the differences in our outlook on life, what’s to prevent me from using violence if I think you’re getting in my way?” —Michael Nagler
“Right now, we need some sustained spiritual reflection on how badly we have behaved in recent years as Americans–how much we’ve allowed fear to motivate our politics, how cruel we’ve allowed our discourse to become, how little we’ve listened, how much we’ve dehumanized public servants, how much we hate.” —Diana Butler Bass
Today, as I pray for the recovery of Congresswoman Giffords and the other injured individuals, and mourn the loss of six extinguished lives–may their memories be a blessing–I find myself particularly moved by the death of Christina Green. Born on a tragic day in 2001, Christina died last Saturday, collateral damage of the assassination plot of a disturbed individual fueled by a climate of intolerance and vitriol and easy access to semiautomatic weapons. Her death reminds me again of the fears of children her age in Uruguay who felt threatened by the violence of a faraway war.
The task before us today is not to determine who is most to blame. We have a responsibility to denounce violence generally, an opportunity to examine our behavior and confess our complicity, and commit to lend our strength, energy, and creativity to living in a different way. “We can never lock up the last offender . . . but we can create the kind of community where we know that, whatever the future holds, we will be surrounded by love and support” (Ruth Morris). And perhaps in that kind of community, there will be fewer offenders.
We are all connected, and we all have a responsibility to build the sort of society we want for ourselves and for the world’s children, and “not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). I, for one, am convinced that the only way to build the world I want to inhabit is through the consistent, unglamorous, hard work of love.
God, give us strength and courage to follow in your more excellent way.