Saturday, July 21, 2012

Sad reflections on yet another shoot-out in Colorado....

Yesterday, as the news reports about the shooting in Aurora escalated and the gory details became ever more unnecessary, I experienced a deep, deep sense of sadness.  But it wasn't until even the PBS News Hour spent time exploring the minutiae of this ugly event that it hit me again:  my culture has no ability to make room for either the ambiguity evil or tragedy.  All the news commentary - from MSNBC to PBS and FOX - became obsessed with layer upon layer of facts - as if more details might explain how such a horror could happen beyond our control.  It was as if the whole United States had become one big CSI show - where experts and civilians frantically excavate the crime scene for clues in the belief that they will bring meaning to the pain - and solve yet another problem. 

But the sobering and sometimes terrifying truth is there is no meaning in these details - and collecting more of them won't solve anything.  It is busy work that creates the illusion of control when both evil and tragedy are beyond our ability to manage or comprehend.  Yes, there is a case to be made for a return to the ban on assault weapons. Of course, there is something to be said about our attraction to violence as a form of entertainment. And without a doubt part of the problem is rooted in mental illness and a society without meaningful boundaries. (Did it strike anyone else as clarifying that when asked about the gunman, his neighbors said, "I didn't notice anything weird or out of the ordinary. He was a regular guy.  He didn't have much to say to anyone and mostly kept to himself."  Like this was a good thing?)

But gun laws will not eliminate evil and more compassion will not destroy tragedy: it is built into the order of creation.  More education, better laws and a healthier social compact can always help, but we deceive ourselves if we think more of anything can exorcise reality from sin and tragedy.  And this is not cynicism, but a worldview shaped by the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition.

Evil, wrote Reinhold Niebuhr, manifests itself time and again in the world through the sin of pride.  Individuals and groups act in selfish and uncritical ways until they wound and often destroy other selfish individuals and groups.  Clearly evil and pride were at work in the Colorado shootings.  Niebuhr teaches that we can minimize evil through communities of compassion and encounters with the healing forgiveness of God's grace. But we cannot eliminate evil nor can we force every person into communities of support and love.  So evil will endure... and not just in wounded or crazy other people but also within us, too.

And what of tragedy?  Niebuhr writes that throughout history tragedy tells us that the titanic forces of human existence" cannot be easily brought under the control of some little scheme of prudent rationality."  There are always the unintended consequences of noble and selfish acts.  There are often ironic developments from both compassionate and destructive commitments.  Again individuals and societies can acknowledge the truth of this paradox - and use what Niebuhr calls the modest resources of ethical coercion to manage - but given human nature tragedies will continue - and often take us by surprise.

As a culture, we have chosen to celebrate the individual - whatever we want and 
whenever we want it - is the rule of the day. (See this morning's NYTimes re: the challenge of curbing the public viewing of pornography at Internet cafes, libraries or planes @

And in our mean-spirited gilded age this ethos works to wear down and denigrate any commitment to the common good.  Add to this the ever more violent nature of our entertainment industry and yet another layer of social conditioning has been weakened and polluted. Further, we are addicted to the conviction born of our westward expansion that with enough force we can bend any and all opponents to our will (even if our adventurism overseas since the Vietnam War and our experience with global warming tells us differently.) 

Small wonder we are shocked when evil becomes public and bewildered when tragedy hits home. We send in the experts to dig up more details to help us make sense of the incomprehensible.  And maybe we will even grieve a little before moving on to the next commitment or distraction.  But when business returns to usual we will keep on spinning until the next act of evil or tragedy surprises us again... and it will.  There is another way - one that grieves with the broken and sadly accepts the reality of sin - that is grounded in the very rhythm of the Lord.

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:

2 a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
6 a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
7 a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
8 a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace...
15 Whatever is has already been,
and what will be has been before;
and God will call the past to account.

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