As the news began to pour in about the bombing at the finish line, I went through a familiar routine.  I lit a candle and started to pray, and then I began searching for information.  I let myself cry, and experienced the horror and the disbelief.  Like others, I posted reassuring words and articles.  I took comfort in accounts of heroism and the words of Mr. Rogers.  I turned off the television (because images are more upsetting than stories) and I went for a walk.  I hugged my children a little tighter than usual.  I gave thanks for my many, many blessings. 

However, this morning, a new and different emotional response has been bubbling up in me.  I am mightily pissed off.  My friends, we should not have to do this.  We should not have to mourn innocent victims of senseless acts of violence on a monthly basis.  Our culture is sick.  Our nation is sick.  Can we start talking about what we might do to help it heal?

Here are some of my preliminary thoughts:

1.  The media could take a good hard look at the way they cover tragedies.

People want information, so we are all glued to our screens when these terrible events occur.  That translates into good ratings.  However, it also means that the perpetrators get the fame and notoriety they are craving.  It also means that all of us watching wind up with secondary traumatization.  The media needs different priorities.  Ratings should not be the be-all and end all.  What would happen if the networks and reporters admitted that sensationalist coverage is making the problem worse, and then asked, “What can we do to make it better, instead?”

2.  We could have a nationwide campaign to ‘know your neighbors.’

In order to commit an act of violence, you have to de-humanize your victim.  That’s only possible in isolation.  Regular contact with actual people keeps us in touch with our natural empathy.  People with healthy and supportive social networks don’t kill people.  People who respect the inherent worth and dignity of all people don’t kill people.  And what enables us to respect the worth and dignity of others is the experience of being respected, ourselves.  Reach out to the loners, the lonely, the hurting, the isolated.  Don’t leave it to the government to weave the social safety net.  It’s our responsibility to make sure that no one slips through the holes.

3.  We could go cold turkey on war.

This country is addicted to war.  The military-industrial complex has convinced us that our economy depends on it.  Our identity seems to rest on being the biggest military power on the block.  But the truth is that we are being bankrupted, morally and financially.  As if the trillions of dollars we spend weren’t enough, the human cost of war is incalculable.  We need to pay attention to the damage our troops are doing in our name…the lives lost and the spirits shattered.  We need to pay attention to the damage done to our troops by multiple deployments.  Their lives and spirits and families are often shattered, too.  How can we create a domestic culture of compassion and respect for life when internationally, we are the ones with the highest kill rate?  We live with this cognitive, emotional, and spiritual dissonance between our stated ideals (“All people are created equal”) and our government’s actions on our behalf.  People ARE NOT ‘collatoral damage.’  They are people. 

4.  We could treat this epidemic of violence like the sickness it is.

The conversation about gun control is just the tip of the iceberg.  I want our nations best scientists to have all the money and support they need to figure out where this disease comes from, how it spreads, and how it might be prevented.  How do we immunize our children against becoming perpetrators?  Can the early symptoms be identified, so that sick people can be treated before the disease gets out of control? 

So today, I am remembering the helpers and enjoying the sunshine while keeping a candle lit.  The prayers and the tears keep on coming.  I will follow the stories, and learn the names of the victims, because we owe them that much, at least.

But I am also standing up and saying:  this is not acceptable.  I do not want to live in a country where almost every month we have the wind knocked out of us by yet another story of senseless violence.  I do not want to raise my children in a culture where bombs and school shootings are the norm.  And no, I don’t want to move, either! 

The “Take Back the Night” movement helped us mobilize against the rape culture.  We need to mobilize against the violence culture.  I want us to take back our society, take back our country, take back our peace of mind.  Who is with me?  And what ideas do you have as to how we can achieve this goal?

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When I was in seminary, I spent some time doing street ministry with drug-addicted teenagers. We brought them sandwiches, clean socks, sterile sharps, and hot chocolate. In return, they offered their stories.

One young man in particular has haunted me ever since. Beautiful, intelligent, and articulate, he shared that he had a typical upper-middle class upbringing. He’d done well in school, and had gone on to get a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture. It was while he was working on his Master’s degree that someone slipped him some Heroin. Unfortunately, it only took once for him. Now, his good looks made him popular with the men who looked to hire him for sex. He had enough cash to keep himself in drugs, but he no longer had any hopes of making it out of his life. “I expect I’ll die fairly soon,” he said, with very little affect. “I’ve got to be HIV positive by now.” As I prayed with him and then later for him, I noticed that in the midst of the grief and sadness, I felt a healthy dose of fear. It hit me hard: there was really very little difference between his story and mine, right up to that pivotal moment where he became addicted. It gave the phrase, “There but for the Grace of God go I” a whole new resonance.

This experience became the seed of a key realization for me. When we hesitate to interact with the homeless, the disenfranchised, the suffering, it’s not necessarily because we are afraid of ‘the other.’ Rather, we’re afraid we’ll realize that ‘they’ are just like ‘us.’ We cling to an artificial sense of safety that depends on our ability to blame people for their misfortune. “I would never behave that way, and so what happened to them would never happen to me.” When we get to actually know the stories of the people who are suffering, that sense of safety falls apart, and we who are ‘successful’ realize that we were, in so many ways, simply lucky.

I offer this as an example of the way we are transformed and enriched by our experiences out in the ‘real world.’ As we allow ourselves to come into contact with suffering and loss, misfortune and injustice, our intellectual defenses are shattered, and we must embrace a more complex and realistic world view. Our hearts are broken, and we become more compassionate and empathetic. Our spiritual understandings are challenged, and in response, we reformulate them to be wider and deeper.

Meanwhile, people who spend all their time out in the world can easily burn out, or become overwhelmed by their feelings of grief and impotence. Spiritual practices that enable us to process our experiences are essential to our survival. We need the clarity and focus that can only come out of slowing down and breathing deeply. Our spiritual practices empower us to serve the world in the right way, and for the right reasons.

I believe there is a feedback loop that happens when we embrace both service in the world and a spiritual practice. Our experiences in the world give us fodder for growth in our spiritual lives. Our spiritual lives provide us with sustenance and focus for our continued efforts out in the world. Meanwhile, spirituality without service is shallow and brittle, while service without spiritual grounding leads to burnout and cynicism.

I’ll be preaching on this topic on May 19th. Please share your thoughts, feelings and reactions!