A Meditation on Violence
“So then, we must always aim at those things that bring peace and that help strengthen one another.” –Romans 14:19
The tragedy of the Aurora, CO movie theater shooting reverberates through American culture with our grief, our questions, and our groping for where we go from here. For now we are collectively following an all too familiar pattern through the aftermath.
First, there is the media blitz of on-site reporting, eyewitness accounts, breaking news, and social media chatter. Then comes the research on all the back-stories—of the victims, the perpetrators, the witnesses, and any others who have even tangential connections to what happened. We want to gather as much information as we can about “them.” Some of that desire for information comes out of genuine concern and compassion, some from strange curiosity, and some because we want to find ways to assure us that what happened is not about us and that it won’t happen to us.
And from this information gathering stage some move on and resume normal life and others move into the stage of doing something about it—pushing through a new law, starting a charity, speaking out, or getting involved in a new way in a related problem.
Tom Mauser is an example of this “I’ve got to do something” stage of the aftermath of an explosion of violence in our culture. His 16-year-old son, Daniel, was among thirteen people killed at Columbine High School in 1999. Mr. Mauser recently wrote a book about his walk since Daniel’s death as an advocate for stricter gun laws. When Mauser does his advocacy work he actually wears the shoes Daniel had on when he died. The course of this father’s life was changed forever by what happened to his son. He will not let his son’s death be in vain. He will not let his son be forgotten.
Would that we all find a sense of purpose and resolve that makes the world a better place in the face of the devastation violence brings.
Those of us who live our of lives with the inheritance of a direct hit from violence have little choice but to be changed forever. Life is never the same. What was lost cannot be recovered. A new life folds out of the shards of what was lost, what was taken. And, somehow, someway we can find spaces of vitality, of resurrection that knit themselves through a present and a future that are worth living.
What I’ve wondered about for a long time—and I wonder about it anew every time these terrible moments in time grip our world because of violence, is what will prompt a collective resolve to put our energy, our intelligence, our very hearts and souls toward becoming wiser about the roots of violence.
We will all search for clues in the coming days for what made James Holmes do what he did. And we will befriend, in our own way, the stories of the victims, and we will gather in some small measure of the immense grief of their bereaved loved ones. And we will wonder aloud and secretly to ourselves what we can do to insulate ourselves from the terror of life in this world. People come up with all sorts of ways to protect themselves—from denial to avoidance, from substance abuse to more locks on doors and even our own gun purchases, we will all think about how to head off such a nightmare at the pass.
But how many of us will take a good hard look in the mirror and think about the conditions that we help to create that give rise to and authorize violence in our world? How many of us have the courage to explore the shadows of our own anger and hatred and fear? The whence of violence is chillingly banal if we stop to think about it. We eat, sleep, and breathe it—and I mean that literally. The world runs on violence.
Our actions help to create suffering and even death. Rage, hatred, and the capacity to do harm are knit through each and every one of us. This is not a statement of blame, but a statement of fact. We breathe in toxins that distort and contort our well-being. And we breathe in the collective devastations of abuse and suffering and poverty that are all around us all the time—no matter how hard we might try to remove ourselves from these things. I say these things not to put us all into a pit of despair. I say these things to invite us all to tell the truth. Otherizing violence gets us nowhere but farther away from changing the world in a way that can really stick.
There is horrible symmetry in a man opening fire in a space for entertainment in which some first mistook it for part of the movie because of the shooting in the movie itself. Life imitating art. Art imitating life. The boundaries become blurred past our capacity to distinguish. And we become blind to the causes and conditions that make us all ripe for this kind of annihilation. And demonizing the other becomes a comforting way to cope with such disturbing ambiguity.
You see violence is like a weed. It doesn’t need a lot of care and feeding to thrive. It is resourceful and it lives off the nutrients and resources of others. Weeds can be hard to distinguish from the plants we need for life. And if you don’t pull weeds up by the roots, they will find another pathway to live. Weeds also know how to capitalize on weak systems. And they can get a chokehold in places you thought were immune if you are not vigilant.
No matter what kind of justice comes down in the aftermath of this horrible chapter in American life, we are all left with a residue of responsibility. What are you doing, what am I doing, what are we doing together to cultivate and strengthen peace? How are we nourishing the better angels of our created nature? And how are we telling the truth about our shadows so that they will not be what destroys us?
I don’t have the answers. But I do believe with every part of who I am that the way we ask the questions can change things—even the air we breathe.