The brutal attack which killed at least 50 people and wounded at least 50 more at a nightclub in Orlando last weekend has once again shaken this nation. The extended TV and press coverage (which I must confess I am unable to consume) chronicles in excruciating detail the events of that night and lists what we know and are learning about the lives of the killer and the victims. It also raises up social and cultural topics surrounding the slaughter including gun control, Islam and Islamophobia, LGBTQ in America and homophobia.
Confronted not just by the horror of this massacre and the overwhelming sea of media, information, and editorial content, but also by the persistence and even expansion of violent acts of intolerance, how should we respond?
The image of self-immolating Vietnamese monks comes to mind. This extreme version of protest is a model of talking truth and of self-sacrifice and compassion. I will come back to it later in this piece, but want to begin by looking at why some of our more traditional – and easier – responses.
“The Five Stages of Grief” vs “Compassion”
Originally presented in 1969 by Swiss psychiatrist Kubler-Ross out of her work with the terminally ill, the five stages of grief offers us a way of processing loss. The stages are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance, and though they have been challenged by subsequent work and we are often cautioned that they are not to be regarded as a linear process, it offers some guidance on what our society is experiencing.
The initial reaction predicted by this model is one of shock, horror, denial, but quickly on its heels comes anger. Out of anger come cries for punishment and demands for action. Out of anger a response that itself categorizes and generalizes and expresses intolerance can occur. This is a dangerous place; it is one from which we can do lasting damage to ourselves, to others, and to our community. So the first thing I believe we need to do is to try to avoid lingering here and move to an emotional place from which we can heal and help.
But the other elements of the Kubler-Ross model don’t offer us much by way of potential for personal and societal healing in this situation: do we really want to move to acceptance? Is it not acceptance that allows our society to bounce from the trauma of one gun massacre to another?
A frequent response when a loved one suffers a loss or a tragedy is to experience a surge of profound compassion for that person, to want to hug them and hold them and help them. This is a more helpful first response, for it provides a stable base of love. It is a place that is more grounded and from which one can move peacefully into society and act in a manner that might lead to truly healing and repair.
What Would Jesus Do?
“Love the sinner and hate the sin” is a phrase often erroneously attributed to Jesus Christ (it actually comes (rather poorly rendered) from one of St Augustine’s letters), but it surely reflects how Christ would respond to this horror. It also reflects the teachings of our more modern great social reformers: Gandhi wrote “hate the sin and not the sinner” in his 1929 autobiography, “love the sinner but hate the sin”; and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Examples large and small abound of the personal and societal transformation that is possible out of love, but we seem to continue to respond almost with disbelief that anyone could act this way. So perhaps we need to keep coming back to it to remind ourselves: it works!
The movements led by Gandhi and MLK were founded on non-violence and love. These, along with the Government of National Unity established by the new South African leadership (noteably Nelson Mandela) after the end of apartheid are examples of how peace and love can cause change at a national level. At a community level, an oft-used example is that of the 2006 Amish community response to the shooting of ten schoolgirls described in Amish Grace and Forgiveness.
Maybe even more intimate is the story of Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel, which led to the founding of the forgiveness project (they are pictured at the beginning of this section). Mary’s 20-year-old son was murdered at a party by 16-year-old Oshea Israel. Initially Mary rejoiced in the trial and conviction of her son’s son murderer, but once the trial was over she felt empty. After a time she felt called to visit the young man in prison. She had a transformational experience and returned to him again and again. When he was eventually released he moved in next door. I strongly encourage you to take a few minutes to read the story in Mary and Oshea’s words at the Forgiveness Project website out of which the following passages are taken.
First, here’s Mary describing how she felt after the trial:
I was inspired by my faith, and so I ended off by saying I’d forgiven Oshea “because the Bible tells us to forgive”. When Oshea’s mother gave her statement she asked us to forgive him, and I thought I had. But I hadn’t actually forgiven. The root of bitterness ran deep, anger had set in and I hated everyone. I remained like this for years,
Later in her narrative, after visiting Oshea in prison, Mary writes:
“When he left the room I bent over saying – “I’ve just hugged the man who’d murdered my son”. Then, as I got up, I felt something rising from the soles of my feet and leaving me. From that day on I haven’t felt any hatred, animosity or anger. It was over.”
Be Personally Responsible
Love is transformative at both a personal and a societal level. It is from a place of love that we should respond to tragedy and horror. Love gives connection and encourages engagement and transformation.
Unfortunately many of the public responses have been in the shape of demands for action and condemnation of other individuals and groups. These are responses of separation ad I don’t believe they are helpful.
“Demands for action” are often well meant. Who does not want an end to gun violence and random murders and mass murders? Who does not want an end to hate crimes? But simply to “demand action” does nothing but create a noise.
- It is a grand gesture of blaming one group of “others” (e.g. the NRA, homophones and all Muslims) and imposing a responsibility for action on another group of “others” (e.g. politicians and the media).
- In most instances it is also non-specific (in that no particular action is identified, rather a loose and ill-defined requirement – for example to “end gun violence”).
Gandhi said you need to “Be the change you want to see in the world.” This is our country, our society, our democracy. If we want change, then it must come from us. We proudly talk of our US heritage of “government of the people, by the people, for the people”: how is it when push comes to shove we so quickly hide in our living rooms behind words that demand our government does something? And seem unable to see the inherent contradiction of consuming massive amounts of TV coverage, supporting the ad spend that drives it, and at the same time demanding the for-profit media behave differently?
Act for Social Change
The compassionate response is a difficult one. The compassionate response calls us not just to look deeply and with great love, but also to act with great love, and with non-violence.
I chose as the lead picture for this piece an iconic image of monks self-immolating as a protest against the Vietnam War. This shocked the world in the 1960’s, and the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote to Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1965 that “to burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance.” In the same broad timeframe the Civil Rights movement in the USA was gaining national attention and momentum through media coverage of police brutality against Civil Rights demonstrators.
Those of us who are deeply troubled by hatred and intolerance, and especially by its violent expression through murder and terrorism need to stop talking about it and looking to others and, if we really want change, we need to start acting for change. We need to learn from the lessons of the past and establish public, peaceful protests grounded in love and compassion that speak out against violence and hatred.
Inspiration and Hope
One of the most important of our responses is to look for inspiration and hope. We can find it in the past successes of satyagraha (non-violent protest) in achieving Indian Independence and Civil Rights in the USA. We can find it in the transformational stories of Mary Johnson, Oshea Israel and others. And we can find it in the wonderful engagement of organizations like Outcry, which works fearlessly and tierlessly to end gun violence. And we can find it in the acts of those who are willing to stand up and be counted, in which regard I highlight a recent article in Georgia Muslims, “Georgia Muslims Unite to Condemn Orlando Massacre“.
Looking for inspiration and hope to the sources we admire, the sources that have achieved the great things we want to replicate, should lead us to recognize two things:
- Only living our own lives in a manner that expresses unconditional love towards all can offer hope of achieving the world we want of love and peace. We must internalize the mantra to love the sinner;
- It is not enough to think and to talk, to love the sinner. We must also hate the sin and express that in our lives. True compassion calls us to action. True compassion calls us to raise our voices and our bodies, sometimes at the cost of great personal sacrifice and risk, and live into a world without the horrors of prejudice and violence that so scar us today.
Let’s let Dr. K. Khalid Siddiq, a leader of Al-Farooq Masjid in Atlanta, (as quoted in the Georgia Muslims article referred to above) have the last word. In speaking for the Muslim community, he speaks for all of us who would not just see, but work towards a better world:
“The Muslim community of Georgia is stunned by the massacre in Orlando. We condemn this heartless act in the strongest possible terms. It defies the teachings of Islam and violates the principles of respect, tolerance and freedom we as Americans so highly cherish. Our hearts go out to all those affected and their families. May God give us all the courage to bear the loss and the wisdom to strengthen our common bonds of humanity.”