After Lamentation

June 19, 2015

My colleague, Ron Robinson, posted on Facebook today that ‘after lamentation’ he feels moved to work on mentoring young the white men and boys in his neighborhood.  While I was impressed by his clarity and transparency, my heart responded, with a great surge, to those two words.  After lamentation…

When something horrible happens…for instance, the shooting of nine innocent people who had gathered to pray…we have an emotional response.  Grief.  Shock.  Horror.  Lamentation is both a corporate and a personal act of expressing those emotions.

Sometimes, I find myself wanting to skip over lamentation, and jump right into problem solving mode.  Sometimes I get stuck in lamentation.  Ron’s words reminded me that lamenting is a necessary stage through which we must pass if we are to arrive at right action.  We grieve, and then we pick ourselves up and we find a way to make the world a better place.

It’s been just over five months since we here in Moscow experienced our own horrible happening.  A young man shot four people, killing three, one of whom was his mother.  You would be hard pressed to find anyone in our little community who wasn’t close to at least one of the victims.  This is one of those cases where I may be a little ‘stuck’ in the lamenting stage.  Grief takes as long as it takes, and I’m still grieving.

However, this latest tragedy has pushed me to start thinking, again, about what needs to come after lamentation.

With regards to the Charleston shooting:

  • Continued focus on racism and discrimination here, in the local community
  • Continued focus on systemic racism in our country
    • self-education (listen, listen, listen– especially to the voices of the oppressed)
    • constructive dialog (help keep white folks I know ‘moving forward’)
    • Be an ally (listen and respond to requests, like that from the NAACP to petition SC government to stop flying the Confederate flag.)
  • Talk about the violence culture, be active in supporting gun control measures

With regards to the shooting in January, the third item, above, plus:

  • Work to increase the number and quality of resources for people with Mental Health issues locally
  • Continue to provide pastoral care for everyone impacted by the shooting.

My current wild and crazy idea is to require not just a criminal background check, but two ‘recommendations’ from family members, clergy, or mental health professionals before anyone is allowed to buy a gun.

I have to be honest…I’ve got a case of lamentation fatigue.  It’s too much.  I figured after Newtown, for sure, we’d have some reasonable legislation passed.  Enough is enough.  As a nation, we need to figure out what steps we might take ‘after lamentation.’


When the verdict came in for the George Zimmerman trial last summer (was it just last summer?) I became painfully aware of the way violence perpetrated against unarmed black teenagers taps into deep fear and centuries of pain. Trayvon’s death woke up memories of whip-scarred backs and people hung from trees by white men in white robes. My eyes opened and my heart broke.

Actually, I could write a very long list of other books, articles, trainings, and stories that opened my eyes and broke my heart. (Like this article: and The New Jim Crow.)

Racism is a sickness that runs deep in our society, and I don’t believe any of us can truly be whole until and unless we admit that and find a way to heal it.

After Mike Browne was shot in Ferguson, the reports began streaming in about the police response. I watched video of tanks and tear gas and wounds from rubber bullets, horrified. I chose to pay attention, to keep my eyes open, and let my heart be broken again. It seemed the least I could do.

In the midst of the chaos, there have been moments of hope and optimism. I’m convinced this might be a turning point for us as a nation. There are ways forward that don’t involve killing more black teenagers. The Wall Street Journal (believe it or not) published this article on body cameras: I’ve signed petitions asking for a demilitarization of the police force, as well as outside investigation for police homicides.

But when the police in Ferguson are claiming this is a “Race War” and when they are raiding churches (CHURCHES!) to confiscate Maalox, petitions aren’t enough. The call went out asking clergy to go to Ferguson over Labor Day weekend, and I am moved to answer that call.

Now, normally, when bodies are needed, I don’t consider my body a good candidate. My Lupus limits my energy, and I have a lot of people counting on me. But it shouldn’t just be black bodies on the line. I am hoping that my presence, my middle-aged, white body can somehow make a difference. I know a lot of people who would go if they could; I’ll carry their prayers and well-wishes with me. And I believe it will be powerful and transformative to bring stories of what’s happening in Ferguson back to my congregation.

My understanding of what it means to be human and on a spiritual path involves keeping mind and heart open, and then responding mindfully and with authenticity. I try to walk my path one step at a time, and I try to trust the ‘still small voice,’ even when I am afraid or unsure. The voice is telling me I need to go to Ferguson to stand with the people there who are insisting that black lives matter. Because I believe that black lives matter, too.

Bombing Syria=Bad Idea

September 6, 2013

I have been thinking and reading and praying about Syria a lot lately; I think most of us have.  It’s a messy, complicated situation with no elegant solutions.  To sit by and do nothing in the face of chemical warfare?  Genocide?  That would be inhumane and unconscionable.  Sanctions?  Humanitarian aid?  Mobilizing global condemnation?  Apparently nigh on impossible, and unlikely to be effective.  And so the president seems to be falling back on ‘surgical strike’ as the correct response.

I actually understand and agree with a number of the arguments in favor of the attack.  In particular, Joe Lieberman and Jon Kyl had an op-ed piece in today’s Wall Street Journal that struck a chord.  They believe it’s important to respond militarily because we have said we would, and that our integrity and trustworthiness are just about the only thing preventing the total explosion of the powder keg that is the Middle East. Meanwhile, some of the arguments against don’t hold water with me.  In particular, the one that posits that we shouldn’t be helping other nations when our own is still a mess plays into a tribal nationalism that rubs me the wrong way. 

Nonetheless, I’ve come to the conclusion that bombing Syria is a very, very bad idea.  First of all, I fear that it will make things worse.  The fact that extremists in Iran are already threatening to retaliate indicates that the conflict will not remain ‘surgical’ or contained, but will likely spiral out of control.  Secondly, I have little hope that it will make things better.  Assad is a madman, by definition.  Anyone who would do what he did has lost touch with his humanity.  The bombing of his people will make him angrier and crazier; it won’t lead him to change his strategy.  Nor will it reassure our allies, as Mssrs. Liberman and Kyl assert.  After all, no matter how carefully the missiles are targeted, there will be civilian casualties.  There’s not a country in the Middle East where pro-American sentiment and anti-American sentiment don’t live shoulder to shoulder.  Putting myself in the shoes of our allies, I would be terrified that the next strike would be against my extremist neighbors- and that my own children might be civilian casualties.

Morality consists of an ever-evolving global consensus as to what is right and what is wrong.  We are getting closer and closer to complete consensus that chemical warfare is unacceptable.  The issue I have with the proposed strategy in Syria is that I believe missile strikes are just as bad.  Modern warfare distances the killer from the victim, dehumanizing both ‘targets’ and ‘non-combatant casualties.’  Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite, believed that the capacity to destroy whole cities as the touch of a button would inevitably lead to peace, as no one would be willing to press the button.  History has not played out that way, though.  We keep playing on the edge of atrocities, and I, for one, don’t want to be complicit. 

I am not a military strategist.  My children will tell you that I refuse to even play strategic board games with them.  I find them confusing and uncomfortable; I can’t separate chits on a board from the human lives they represent.  This is the connection we all need to make and embrace, most especially the congresspeople and actual military strategists who are debating and discerning the best path forward.  Human nature and the global moral consensus will guide us toward preserving innocent life, doing the least amount of harm possible, providing humanitarian relief, and continuing to seek those elusive diplomatic solutions.  There has to be a better way.


Let me begin by confessing:  I didn’t watch any of the coverage of the trial itself.  I guess I felt like the work had been done, the verdict was a foregone conclusion, and it didn’t much matter whether he got Murder 2 or manslaughter; the point had been made.   We may not be able to stop police from stopping young African American men for ‘driving while black,’ but we (meaning people who care about justice) can at least insist that vigilantes who do so and then shoot the young man are held accountable.

The first sign I had that something had gone wrong was seeing people holding a “We Remember Trayvon” sign by the side of the road on my way home from dinner.  I didn’t think much of it.  It was late Saturday night; did juries even deliberate on the weekends?   I actually went for a walk, still ignorant, and didn’t sit down and watch the news until about 9 pm.  Primary emotions:  shock and fear.  Shock that such a thing would happen; fear that it might lead to riots or violence a la Rodney King.

It’s been about forty-eight hours since then, and I’ve read many thoughtful reflections and checked out many powerful memes.  What stands out to me the most is the difference in musical selections.  My Unitarian Universalist friends immediately started sharing Sweet Honey and the Rock’s “Ella’s Song,” with its triumphalist refrain:  “We who believe in freedom shall not rest….until the killing of black men, black mother’s son, is as important as the killing of white men, white mother’s sons.”

Meanwhile, my friend Kelle Brown, a brilliant and dedicated African-American pastor, first posted “Strange Fruit”, complete with images of young black men who had been lynched, burned, or tortured.

  I almost didn’t make it through ‘Strange Fruit’ because the images were so violent and horrible.  But I thought to myself, “watching this is the least I can do.” 

The next day she posted “The Women Gather,” also by Sweet Honey.  I cried all the way through “The Women Gather”, and when it was over, found myself thinking that it was too bad that we don’t wear mourning clothes anymore.

I wanted to go into full mourning, complete black, not just for Trayvon, but for all of the young black and brown men and women through the ages who have been killed because of who they were, where they were, or the color of their skin. 

The questions this raised for me, though, included “Do I even have the right to do that?  Is this my grief?  It sure feels like it is.  But maybe I only have the right to bear witness to the grief within the African American community.  After all, I don’t have to worry that my sons might be shot on their way to the store because of the color of their skin.  I don’t know what it’s like to live with that particular fear.”  I added more tears to the water in the MLK memorial fountain in San Francisco, with the prayer that just as my little grief-drops contributed to the mighty streams of water that are symbolically wearing away the stone of injustice, I might find a way to channel my grief and find some way to be a good ally.

The thing is, I worry that it’s too soon for us white folk to start working for justice in Trayvon Martin’s honor.  It’s not about the verdict.  It’s not even about Trayvon, to some extent.  We need to begin by appropriately grieving literally millions of precious lives cut short.  Only it’s such a huge task, I don’t know where to start. 

The truth is that this country is built not only on those beautiful democratic principles, but also on a mass grave filled with slaves and exploited immigrant workers and violently displaced Native Americans.   It’s not just history, either; our society continues to depend on cheap labor, from the latest wave of immigrants and from young men (mostly men of color) who have been absorbed into the ‘prison-industrial complex.’  In response to this deep and horrifying truth, this sickness at the center of who we are, I can…what?  Buy local?  It just doesn’t feel like enough.

So yes, I believe in freedom, and I will keep on working for justice until every child…and I mean EVERY SINGLE CHILD…grows up safe and loved, from the day they are born until the day they die, ideally at a great old age.   And I will make the best choices I can.  But the question that is burning in me is bigger than that:  what do we do with this vast grief?

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?