On Senseless Violence

I am a writer, and I feel as though I should be able to express something meaningful after an outbreak of absolutely senseless violence.  I have not been able to.  It is not through a lack of opportunities to try– Virginia Tech, Aurora, Tuscon, Newtown, and now Boston.

Each time I have sat with my pen and looked at the paper.  I went back to Earnest Hemingway’s writing prompt: “Do not worry.  You have always written before and you will write now.  All you have to do is write one true sentence.  Write the truest sentence that you know.”

But what I found was something inarticulate.  The truest thing I know is a scream.  It is the wail of a child, before words.  Verbal expression eludes me.

I’ve been watching the follow ups, the familiar stories of the “heroes running towards,” the search for clues, the manhunt, the endless speculation about why.

I’ve been watching two stories dance around one another in the news.  The story of the families of the victims of Newtown campaigning for gun reform and the search for the Boston bombers.  They start to blend into one dark narrative about good and evil, and the different reactions people have to it.

As New York State Senator Greg Ball tweets “Who wouldn’t use torture on this punk (the surviving bomber) to save more lives?”

The Huffington Post asks the religious if they will pray for the perpetrators as well as the victims.

I keep thinking about a passage in an article I read yesterday on a Christian blog called “Mercy Not Sacrifice.”  The article had the attention getting title “How did Jesus Come to Love Guns and Hate Sex?”

The Arkansas legislature this February passed a law overturning the ban on carrying loaded guns into church… But there’s something else going on here. Let’s say I do go to a “right-to-carry” church. The reason that I’m not going to tense up if Deacon Billy’s pistol falls out of his pocket while he’s passing the offering plate is because good people like Deacon Billy don’t shoot people; bad people do.

If I carry a gun into church, I am embodying a two-fold doctrine of sin: 1) There is no danger that I would be tempted to sin with my gun (like in the heat of an argument over the church budget or a sermon that sounds un-Biblical). 2) There is enough danger from the wickedness “out there” that I should be armed in case the bad people storm our building and start shooting. This two-fold doctrine of sin could be termed the total depravity of everyone else.

This is a quote from an article in the UU World by theologian Paul Rasor, which I put in my journal after Aurora:

Most theologies include what theologians call a soteriology, a doctrine about salvation or deliverance. In the theology of violence, violence itself brings salvation. Theologian Walter Wink calls this “the myth of redemptive violence.” Like religious myth­ologies everywhere, its story is ritualistically told and retold so that its explanatory power is continually reinforced. The basic story line is always the same. Think of any Western movie or any modern equivalent, such as Star Wars, any police or detective story, any superhero story. In every case, “bad” violence, symbolizing the evil we must conquer, is overcome by “good” violence. The good guys bring the bad guys to justice by applying superior force, and sometimes, superior intelligence, either by capturing or killing them…

Good violence vs. bad violence.  The goodness of my group and the depravity of those outside it.  “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a bomb is a good guy with a bomb,” someone posted on my Facebook feed.

We know that Decon Billy is one of the good guys, because he is a member of the church.  But do you trust your instinct to tell the good guys from the bad?  Today, I am not so sure I trust mine.

I’ve been looking at the photos of 19 year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the news. There is something deeply disconcerting about it.  His face is so young, his big brown eyes so innocent looking.  He is the kid beside you in psychology class.  He’s the guy who bought the beer.   He’s the one you chatted with yesterday in the gym.  His image was found in someone’s Facebook album titled “Happy Days.”  There he is with a red carnation in his lapel, the perfect prom date.  Doesn’t he look like he should be one of the good guys?

The thing that continues to haunt me about the Mercy Not Sacrifice article is this observation: “There is no danger that I would be tempted to sin with my gun.”

How certain can I be that I am the good guy?  Those who do evil often do so believing in the righteousness of their cause.  The Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho had the deadly delusion that he was righteous and Chirst-like.

“Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ, who inspired generations of the weak and defenseless people,” he said in his manifesto video.

To his diseased mind, he was the good guy.

I look at Dkhokhar Tsarnaev and I wonder, are there circumstances in which I could be so deluded?  Are there situations in which I could become a Tsarnaev brother?

Even posing the question terrifies me.  It is much easier to say that I know I am good and that evil comes from the outside.  My goodness is something I can build a fortress around and protect with guns.

In the midst of their killing spree the Tsarnaev brothers carjacked a man and rode with its owner for a half hour as they tried to take cash out of ATMs with his bank card.  At the end of the ordeal, they let him go unharmed.  Why?  I suspect that they had spent enough time with him that he had become a human being to them, not simply a target, one of “those people.”

I think about this as people debate whether the bomber is entitled to Miranda rights, about whether “that punk” deserves torture.  The dehumanizing hatred is natural after what he has done.

But when we dehumanize “bad guys” aren’t we engaging in the same mindset that allows someone to bomb a street full of strangers?  If I see the person I hate as an inhuman monster who deserves to be tortured and killed without the benefit of a fair trial, can’t I write off someone else as too bad to be treated as human?  Couldn’t I, conceivably, justify to myself killing or maiming a crowd of these non-people for the greater good?

And the gun debate goes on with its dehumanizing language about “those liberals,” “those teabaggers,” “those gun nuts.”

Arkansas State Rep. Nate Bell (R) sent out a tweet Friday morning, asking “I wonder how many Boston liberals spent the night cowering in their homes wishing they had an AR-15 with a hi-capacity magazine?”

I don’t have a conclusion for all of this.  When I try to sum it up with the “truest thing I know” the only thing I find is a sense of heaviness.

I am optimistic about humanity.  I do think we humans are naturally empathetic, we want to do good and to make the world a better place for our having been here.  Real horror, like that unleashed in Newtown and Boston is the exception not the rule. Maybe the only reassurance I can have that I am one of the “good guys” is that I am willing to accept that there are times when I might not be, to correct, to atone, to keep trying.

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4 comments

  1. I’m very honored to be a part of this conversation. It is so tragically ironic to me that my faith which is supposed to provide a means of dealing with the fact that everyone one of is both a good guy and a bad guy ends up being so misrepresented by Christians who divide the world into “us” and “them.” I wish that people knew that who Christians are supposed to be is the opposite of how we often are.

    1. I thought about what you had to say about misrepresentation of Christianity when watching Meet the Press today. The older bombing suspect was described as “a devout Muslim.” I have to say, I think if you don’t drink alcohol but you blow people up, you are not a “devout” Muslim.

  2. Thanks for your reply. The last few years I was doing a lot of New Testament study, and I couldn’t help thinking about the meaning of Christianity and a lot of what I think I understand the message of Jesus to be. I didn’t want to go off on too much of a theological tangent in my post, although I’ve been thinking about these things a lot as I watch these debates.

    I was thinking about a book I read about a year ago called Jesus on Death Row by Mark Osler. Osler decided to have his law students at a Christian college act out the trial of Jesus as if in a modern court room, with some playing the prosecution and others the defense. The text on the jacket of Jesus on Death Row asks: “Wouldn’t it matter that God, then, created his hero as a criminal defendant? The fact that God’s son came to Earth as a man subjected to capital punishment seems to reveal God’s intent that we care not only about that man, but that process.”

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