“The 800-pound Gorilla in the Room”: Why addressing gun violence isn’t primarily about gun laws or mental illness

Photo credit: Rod Waddington

Like clockwork, another tragedy. No surprise, just a matter of statistics playing out; the status quo continuing to unfold. Seventeen people losing their lives in a killing spree inside a high school should knock the breath out of me with its brutality, but instead I felt numb, because in a country where 33,000 people lose their lives in shootings each year, and where Columbine was a shock but school shootings are now par for the course, I’ve seen it all before. I could almost have written the news reports myself, even before I was told anything about what happened.

I’ve been hesitant to write or post anything about the school shooting in Florida because I haven’t wanted to add to the noise, and because we’ve all heard each other’s usual talking points so many times that we’ve lost the capacity to really listen to each other, or–perhaps even more crucially–to think creatively outside the either/or dichotomy we inhabit.

But this time, something is different. The teenagers who lived through the hell of the attack are speaking for themselves, repudiating empty words of condolence from the public and our leaders and demanding concrete changes to prevent this familiar cycle from continuing. That gives me hope, and it makes me wonder whether we may be reaching–at last–a tipping point where real change is possible. School children around the country are planning a walk-out on April 20th to demand gun law reform, and that is a powerful demand for action that has not happened before.

Maybe all this anger and wisdom from the children on the front lines of this crisis will be enough to interrupt the scripted narrative of polarized debate that we adults fall into after each new round of bloodshed.

So I’m going to risk saying what’s on my mind. And it’s not all or even primarily about gun control. I offer these thoughts as ideas to consider and to enter into dialogue about. Because although we may have different perspectives on how to solve the problem, I think we can all agree at this point in time that America has a problem with gun violence, and that if there is a solution–or even a way to mitigate the damage–it is worth spending the time needed to figure out what it is.

First of all, there has been a lot of talk about the mental health or illness of the gunmen who mow down people in malls and movie theatres and schools. As a society, we should absolutely make sure that people in psychological distress have access to the help they need, but I agree with clinical psychologist Laura Hayes when she points out in a 2014 article for Slate that mass murder is not a symptom of mental illness, and that to “blame mental illness for violent crimes” only serves to further stigmatize people with mental health issues. A quick comparison of the large number of people living in the United States with mental illness to the relatively small number of perpetrators of violent crime quickly demonstrates that having a mental illness is a very poor predictor of whether a person will become a murderer. “Violent crimes,” Hayes writes, “are committed by people who lack the skills to modulate anger, express it constructively, and move beyond it.” To put it bluntly, “Mentally ill people aren’t killers. Angry people are.”

But let’s take that a step further. It’s important to be specific about whose anger we’re talking about. The perpetrators of mass shootings in America are virtually all men and boys, which points to the fact that we live in a society in which men and boys are not taught (or expected) to control and process their anger. Gun violence in America is inseparable from the wider issue of male violence.

Violence prevention  educator, filmmaker, and author Jackson Katz explains the connection this way:

“The media-driven conversation about the causes of school shootings and mass shootings tends to focus on two main issues: gun availability and mental illness. What this leaves out, of course, is the single most important factor: the gender of the perpetrators. It’s as if no one wants to talk about the 800-pound gorilla in the room—the stunning fact that 99 percent of school shootings, and at least 67 of the last 68 mass shootings overall, have been committed by men and boys. Instead there’s this endlessly de-gendered talk about psychopaths, shooters, killers, suspects, youths, perpetrators, and troubled teens. As a result, we never ask tough, basic questions about why it is that men and boys are far and away the most common perpetrators of this kind of violence… we talk about all of these other important—but in my view secondary—factors. And the result is that we don’t examine the role cultural ideas and narratives about manhood play in rampage killings and other manifestations of violence.”

(You can read the rest of that interview with Katz here.)

Speaking to the “secondary factor” of gun availability, the fact that guns being so widely available is not the root cause of the violence in our society doesn’t mean that current gun laws aren’t contributing to the problem and making it worse. While we’re doing the hard work of transforming “cultural ideas and narratives about manhood” that encourage violence, it also makes sense to legislate intelligently in order to keep deadly weapons out of the hands of men and boys intent on harming others.

In November of last year, following the gun massacre in Sutherland Springs, Texas, the Scientific American ran an articleabout four feasible legal and policy changes that would be most effective” in preventing shootings, according to research. None of these policies involve “confiscating everybody’s guns,” and unless you have DUIs or past instances of violent crime on your record, they wouldn’t restrict your access to guns. The proposed changes were to:

  1. Require gun purchase permits;
  2. Ban individuals convicted of any violent crime from gun purchase;
  3. Make all serious domestic violence offenders surrender firearms; and
  4. Temporarily ban active alcohol abusers from firearms.

These changes are just one well-researched option for making smarter laws to keep guns out of the hands of potential killers. Since a wide range of gun laws have already been implemented in various states and in other countries, we have the luxury of drawing from a lot of research and real-world experience in exploring what changes make sense to implement on a nationwide scale in the U.S. As compassionate human beings and as voters in a democracy where we all bear responsibility for the laws that govern our society, we ought to be taking the time to educate ourselves so that we can contribute to the collective soul-searching and problem-solving that’s needed to make change.

We may not all agree on what an ideal solution looks like, but at this point, passively wringing our hands about the complexity of the issue is no longer an option. If we care about the kids dying on our streets and in our schools every year, then let’s be adults, roll up our sleeves, and take action.


When I think of Muslims, this is who comes to mind.

The most frequent command in Christian scripture is, “Do not be afraid.” The New Testament even presents fear being the opposite of love, stating bluntly that “perfect love casts out fear.” At first glance, this may seem a surprising idea, but on closer inspection it makes perfect sense. Fear propels us to act first and ask questions later; to reason carelessly; to prioritize self-preservation over compassion. Fear can make us irrational, destructive, violent. When we experience terror, we are often willing to scapegoat or accuse or punish anyone if we believe that doing so will bring our unbearable terror to an end. We become obsessed with restoring our sense of safety and comfort as quickly as possible, and all other concerns can easily take a backseat to that one, compelling priority.

Two nights ago, I dreamt that I was back in the slum in India, hanging out with some of the women and girls I know there. Frequently over the past year, I’ve had realistic dreams about visiting my friends’ homes, eating and talking with them, but this time it was different—the next morning, my former teammate (who is still there) emailed to say that he had visited our old neighborhood and that many of the people there had asked about Andy and me and passed along their greetings to us. He had likely been talking with them at the same time that I was dreaming about them.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, my friends in India are on my mind a lot. Every time someone makes an ignorant generalization accusing all Muslims of being terrorists, I think of the generous and hospitable families in the slum who welcomed me into their lives. I think of the children suffering malnutrition and forced into tedious labor instead at a young age instead of being able to attend school. I think of their parents’ struggles with illiteracy, unemployment, and prejudice from the majority of society. I think about how they could do without any more obstacles placed in the way of living dignified, healthy lives, and I worry about the ways that negatives stereotypes and hatred toward Muslims will affect their lives.

I learned so much from my Muslim neighbors about compassion, loyalty, hope—and, yes, faith. They accepted me into their community despite the fact that we came from different races, different cultures, and different religions. When I remember the risk they took in choosing to get to know me as a person instead of allowing stereotypes to keep me at arm’s length, I can’t help but feel anger at the injustice of others in the West allowing stereotypes of Muslims to erase the humanity of my friends and neighbors in India.

But these are not the only people on my mind. I also think of my refugee friends here in Vancouver. One of them is a young woman from Afghanistan who was forced to flee her country with two young children to keep them all alive. Her daughter, little more than a year old, is nearly the same age as two of my beloved nieces/goddaughters in the United States.

If her case were being handled the way that refugee claims are in my home state of Texas, then she and her children would not be accessing counseling, supportive community, and legal aid to help them cope with the crisis they are in—instead, they would have already been sitting in prison for several months without access to a lawyer, and they would now be looking forward to indefinite detention with no one to help them.

If some of my friends on Facebook had their way, then this vulnerable family would not have even been allowed into North America because they are Muslim. Possibly, they would already be dead.

I think about all of these dear friends every time I hear or read about Muslims being cast as a single, monolithic group characterized by violence. I think about the real people that so many of us are eager to condemn, but whose faces we have never seen, whose stories we have never heard, and whose lives we are willing to hastily cast aside in pursuit of the idol of our own “security.”

The young men playing love songs on their cell phones and flying kites on the roof in my neighborhood in India, my friends’ babies learning to walk and talk, giggly teenage girls walking to school, grief-stricken parents who will risk anything–even a dangerous voyage across an ocean in an inflatable raft–to save their children’s lives: these are all Muslims. Perhaps if we could recognize our own hopes and fears in them instead of directing our fear against them, we would be able to see them for who they really are.


photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/37890481@N04/6174828711″>Bangladesh, Ramadan 2011.</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a>

What American Christians Get Wrong About Israel

banksy graffiti on the wall

Graffiti art by Banksy on the dividing wall between Israel and the Palestinian Territories

Over the past month in Israel, violence has been ratcheting up towards the possibility of all-out war. I’ve noticed that Christian friends on social media have begun voicing support for Israel, or commenting on the inherent violence of Muslims. In bewildering circumstances like these, it’s easy to cling to simplistic ideas of good versus evil, typecasting individuals and societies as villains and victims. But until we deal with our unconscious biases and ignorance, we will not be able to see clearly what is happening, and we will not be able to respond effectively. A wise and faithful response to the crisis requires us to educate ourselves about the history and wider context of the conflict. As American Christians, what assumptions or beliefs may be obscuring our view?

We Equate Modern Israel with Biblical Israel

In Genesis chapter 12, God tells Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you,” which many Christians interpret to mean that believers have a responsibility to offer unconditional political support the modern nation-state of Israel. This is an inaccurate assumption because in reality, there are important differences between the twelve tribes mentioned in the Old Testament and the nation-state of Israel. Ancient Israel was a theocracy, governed by priests based on direct revelation from God; modern Israel is a secular democracy, established through the actions of the British colonial government and the United Nations in the 1940s. Furthermore, the nation of Israel is not synonymous with the Jewish people. Not only is there a global community of Jews who have lived outside of Palestine for thousands of years, but within the nation itself, 20% of the Israeli population is Arab, and Arab Christians and Muslims across the Middle East also trace their ancestry back to Abraham.

The belief that Christians are commanded to “bless” modern Israel tends to imply a divine stamp of approval for particular Israeli policies or military actions. But instead of unconditionally supporting Israel or any other nation, we as Christians should be evaluating a government’s laws and actions through the lens of the Kingdom Jesus taught: do they result in freedom for the oppressed, or protection for the vulnerable? Do they result in the naked being clothed, the hungry being fed, and the homeless housed? Or do they result in the opposite?

We Misunderstand the Abrahamic Covenant

The Abrahamic Covenant is God’s promise to guide and protect Abraham and his descendants, and to give them the land of Canaan; they are commanded to be circumcised as a sign of faithfulness to this covenant (Gen. 15, 17). God not only promises Abraham that his descendants will become “a great nation,” but declares that “all peoples on earth will be blessed by you” (Genesis 12:3). So, the Jewish people are chosen not as a special ethnic group who are more important to God than all other people, but as a conduit of blessing for the whole world. In the Old Testament, non-Jews like Ruth and Rahab join the covenant community through faithful action, and Jesus mentions Gentiles who were cared for or healed by God even when Israel was in distress (Luke 4:25-27).

Jesus fulfills this promise by widening the covenant to include not only people of Jewish descent, but anyone and everyone who joins the family of God through faith. As the apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 2, Jesus has made Jews and Gentiles “one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations.” Paul goes on to say in Ephesians 3:6 that “through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” God’s loving plan for the whole world has been revealed in Jesus.

We Ignore the Occupation

Israel invaded Gaza and the West Bank during the Six Day War in 1967, and continues to occupy these territories today. Having their homes demolished, losing their land, facing mass incarceration without trial, and denied equal protection under the law, many Palestinians are losing hope of things ever changing. Gaza’s 1.8 million residents live in poverty, unable to access adequate food or safe drinking water, experiencing 40% unemployment; in the West Bank, Palestinians’ water supply is often cut off or destroyed by Israeli settlers. Crossing into Israel for work, Palestinians spend hours each day waiting at security checkpoints, and in emergencies, this restricted movement sometimes means that people die before they can reach a hospital. Palestinian Christians have voiced their belief that conflict will not end until the occupation ends, and they are calling on the international Christian community to hold the State of Israel accountable for its illegal occupation of Palestinian territory.

The occupation creates an unequal society in which Israelis hold the vast majority of power, wealth, and land, and in which their safety and well-being is maintained at the expense of the safety and well-being of Palestinians. The segregated inequality in which the two groups live generates the fear, resentment, and hatred that breed violence in the first place, and the occupation is a barrier to peace because it depends upon exclusion and violence for its very existence.

We Forget about the Church’s Mission of Reconciliation

Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they are called children of God,” and the apostle Paul makes clear that a large part of the Church’s mission in the world is reconciliation. Forgiveness, enemy love, and creative nonviolence are all things that Jesus modeled and taught, and throughout history there are numerous examples of this kind of “Kingdom living” bringing peace and healing in situations of conflict. God is the source of true peace, but He brings peace into the world by working in and through human beings.

Working for peace does not mean being neutral, but it does mean that we move past tribal alliances with the people who are most like us. Peacemaking means that we stand on the side of compassion, of life, and of justice, no matter whose government or ideology we find ourselves standing against.

The truth is that the only way for either Israelis or Palestinians to achieve the freedom and safety they want is for them to recognize the humanity in each other, to understand that their well-being is tied together, and to work towards a future in which all are respected and included, regardless of their religion or ethnicity.

The New Testament makes clear that our allegiance as Christians is not to any earthly government or ethnic group, but to God and his Kingdom (Matt. 6:24, Acts 5:29). So, I don’t stand with Israel. Neither do I stand with Palestine. I stand with every human being who is angry and afraid, and I stand against the occupation which blocks their shared future.

Like A Mighty Wave: the Power of People United for Justice

There are different kinds of power. Power that liberates, power that oppresses; power hoarded, or power shared. There is the kind of power that comes from external props and circumstances, and then there is power that arises from within.

Today I’m reflecting on power, and remembering the brave women I marched with in India last year. The demonstration was a confrontation between two kinds of power, really–but soldiers and police with their guns and blockades were nothing against the strength of these women with their hearts set on justice. Read the story at SheLoves Magazine.

Encountering the Enemy

encountering the enemy

illustration by Seth T. Hayne for CAPC Magazine

I wrote this piece awhile back, but today my feature article for Christ and Pop Culture Magazine–on nurturing peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through film–has been made available  for free.

At a moment in history where more people around the world have been displaced by violent conflict than ever before, now is the time to ask ourselves hard questions about our role in cultivating conflict or peace. Now is the time to question the narratives we tell ourselves about war, vengeance, “redemptive” violence, and enemies. The same ignorance and fear that generates war in the Middle East and Africa and pushes refugees to the shores of Europe and North America also plays out in our own society as alienation between people of different races or faiths, and as destructive relationships between individual people. Forgiveness of others’ sin, and repentance for our own, are both central to the Christian faith. So for those of us who seek to be shaped by the life of Jesus, enemy love and reconciliation should be central to our understanding of our role in the world.

As a Jew, Reena Lazar has worked towards reconciliation in Israel/Palestine by finding creative ways to bring Israeli and Palestinian youth face-to-face with “the enemy” (each other). Yet the wisdom she has accumulated in the process is applicable far beyond the scope of this particular geopolitical conflict.  Her work has much to teach us about building bridges instead of walls, regardless of the role or the part of the world in which we find ourselves. Head on over to Christ and Pop Culture to read the article.

Things that happened while I was gone


Over the weekend, Andy and I celebrated our five year wedding anniversary. We were out in the woods on a small island off the coast of BC, building small cabins that will serve as “hermitages” for people on silent retreat who need a place for deep solitude and prayer. It felt good to do some manual labor, to see tangible progress as we worked, and to feel good and tired by the end of the day, in a sore-muscle rather than a screenburned-eyes or overwrought-mind sort of way. Our motley construction crew was made up of people from all over the place, some in their teens and some in their fifties, and it was fun hanging out with people of all ages—that doesn’t happen very often outside of family reunions, and intergenerational friendship is one of the things Andy and I had enjoyed so much about living in India. After spending a long Saturday on the work site, we enjoyed a brisk swim at an isolated beach. There were Canadian geese sitting on the water around us, so it definitely stretched my idea of what summer at the beach looks like!

Apparently while we were hammering away in the woods and sleeping in rustic cabins without electricity and running water, a lot was happening back in civilization, and particularly in the country of my birth.

There was the courageous act of protest by a brave woman named Bree Newsome, who scaled the flag pole in front of the state capitol building in South Carolina to take down the symbol of white supremacy and racial violence that had flown over the seat of the state government there for more than a hundred and fifty years. Civil disobedience is intended to show the moral absurdity of laws through breaking them and willingly suffering the consequences of one’s actions. Bree’s action did exactly that: South Carolina police (including a black officer) were forced to arrest a peaceful black woman, who quoted scripture aloud as they handcuffed her, for the “crime” of removing a banner under which black Americans have been enslaved, raped, murdered, beaten, intimidated, and systematically oppressed for over a century. No scene could have more pointedly demonstrated the righteousness of her cause: the law was against her, but justice was certainly on her side. She now faces up to 3 years in prison and a fine of up to $5000 for her heroic act. All of us who follow Jesus can learn from this woman’s sacrificial example.

Also over the weekend, President Obama delivered a eulogy for Clementa Pinkney, a black pastor who was among the slain in Charleston on June 17. I don’t know what opinion you hold of Obama as a person, or a politician—I can’t think of him without remembering the countless drone attacks he has authorized against innocent civilians in the Middle East—but his eulogy for Pinkney is one of the best sermons I have ever heard, and is probably THE most powerful speech I have ever heard from a head of state. Perhaps the fact that, as President, he has made important public decisions with which nearly every one of us has disagreed at some point or another makes him exactly the kind of flawed, imperfect human being who can speak with authority about grace. Seriously, if you haven’t yet listened to the speech, please, please do. It is a heartfelt lament of the ways that we have deeply wounded one another in America, an inspiring reminder of the resilience and love that have continued to grow even in the midst of violence and oppression, and an eloquent call for us to move forward together as a nation towards forgiveness and justice, extending God’s grace to one another in every facet of our lives.

“Justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other,” he remarks at one point. “My liberty depends on you being free, too.” One can hear in these words the echoes of both Jesus’ call to love our enemies, recognizing our neighbor-hood with them, and MLK Jr.’s assertion that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

The other big national news of the weekend was the legalization of same-sex marriage across the United States. The reactions of many American Christians have already become an embarrassing adventure in missing the point, but I still hold out hope that we as a Church will be able to let go of our fearful siege mentality and recognize this opportunity to love and extend grace to people who may not share our sexual orientation or our theology. I’ve always been confused by the political kerfuffle over trying to legislate a Christian lifestyle into the laws of the state, since God has never called the Church to control the government. We have been given the task of modeling the Kingdom in our own lives, creating a community that images God’s hospitality and love, and inviting others into freely-chosen, loving relationship with God.

Using legal means to force non-Christians into choices and behaviors that Christians have specifically chosen as disciples of Christ seems not only pointless, but controlling and counterproductive to our true mission in the world. If we send the message to the people around us that we are more concerned about policing their sex lives than about caring for them as people, then we’ve not just lost the “culture wars”—we’ve lost the respect and trust that would have laid the foundations for any relationship with people outside the church to grow. We’ve lost our credibility as God’s ambassadors of love. We’ve lost our purpose as a community.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be involved in wider culture—we certainly should. But even in the realm of sex and relationships, why not concern ourselves with the destructive forces of pornography, trafficking, sexual abuse, and domestic violence that are destroying vulnerable individuals and families and marriages? Which will give a clearer picture of God: a Christian reacting with fear-mongering and angry statements in protest of same-sex marriage, or that same Christian instead demonstrating a mature ability to be gracious with people who disagree with them, whose lives and choices are different from his own? Some Christians have compared homosexuals with Hitler, referred to them as “Gaystapo,” or likened the court’s ruling to the 9/11 Terrorist attacks. Regardless of what we believe about homosexuality, angry antics like these should offend our consciences as Christians. Would Jesus be stirring up fear and hatred at a time like this? Or would he be inviting a same-sex couple over for dinner to hear their story and get to know them as people, refusing to reduce the complex beauty of their humanity down to a single political issue or life decision? I get the sense that he’s probably prompting us to do that right now.

supreme court ruling on same sex marriage

A refuge in each other

refugees boat people

Last week, I attended a memorial service for a woman I had never met—the mother of a man who was unable to see her before she passed away because he and his family are in the midst of a lengthy refugee claims process. They can’t leave Canada until their case has been decided, but their extended family is spread out across the globe. For more than a decade, their story has been shaped by war in their home country, and separation in other countries as various family members have had to settle wherever they could find asylum and safety. The “service” was an informal gathering of friends and fellow refugee claimants from diverse backgrounds and religious traditions. There were Muslim blessings and Christian prayers, heartfelt stories, tears, hugs, and hot tea. So many in the room could identify with the powerlessness of being halfway around the world, separated from loved ones whom they might never see again, unable to help in their distress or to be involved in their lives. I’m sure that nothing could have dulled the pain this family felt as they grieved the loss of a beloved parent, but perhaps being with others in this way was helpful in opening up a space to grieve well: to name their loss, to mourn deeply, and to begin to heal.

I saw so much of the Kingdom of God in that room: an inclusive and diverse community of people taking care of one another. I saw so much courage and strength in people who find the will every day to continue living in the midst of uncertainty, fear, and sadness; who learn a new language and raise their children and start a new life in a foreign place they never chose in the first place. In the midst of a bewildering situation of suffering that we all struggle to understand, they are asking their questions together, praying together, being together. In their compassion for one another, I sensed hope—despite all the evil and sorrow in the world, the people in that room have not been robbed of their humanity. They still choose to love one another.

It was humbling to be allowed to take part in that community.

My thoughts and prayers are with refugees around the world this week who find themselves waiting, in refugee camps or in boats adrift at sea, for someone to offer them safe harbor. I pray that more of us and our governments would be willing to make room for them in our societies; to open our borders and our hearts to extend the welcome of Christ to our neighbors.

Winning An Earthquake: reflections on Veterans’ Day

“You can no more win a war than win an earthquake.”

Those were the words of Montana Republican Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress, explaining her lone vote against America’s entry into World War II on December 8, 1941. Those are the words that explain my thoughts on this Veteran’s Day/ Canadian Remembrance Day seventy-three years later. Today, I remember the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have lost their lives in the thirty wars in which U.S. soldiers have fought since the birth of our nation; I remember the lives of millions of non-Americans that were lost in those same wars. I think also of the innumerable families and loved ones of soldiers who have suffered as a result of these casualties.

I think of the 24.9 million American military veterans alive today, many of whom have suffered physical and psychological trauma, and many of whom struggle at the margins of our society as a result. According to U.S. government statistics, nearly one in seven homeless adults as of December 2011 were military veterans, and 30.2% of veterans between the ages of 18 and 24 were unemployed. Another 1.4 million are currently at risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing.

I recognize the acts of selflessness and heroism that have been displayed by young men and women in the intensity of battle over the years, and I respect and remember the people I love who have experienced war. I deeply care about everyone whose lives have been shaped by war in some way or another. But it is that same respect and love for human life which prevents me from being able to celebrate the suffering that has resulted from war.

I don’t believe that the no-win situation of kill-or-be-killed is one that women and men should ever be forced into. I am not against the people who have ended up in this situation, but I am against the ideologies and systems of war that have landed them there. I am against the myth of redemptive violence, against governments advancing their economic and political interests with human lives (especially the lives of the poor, who always suffer disproportionately in war), against the idea that killing the families of other people is justified in order to defend the families of people that I know and love. I do not celebrate the tragic loss and destruction of lives that these wars have entailed, and I do not believe that continuing to depend on violence to protect our freedom and security can ever make us truly safe or free.

For me, this is a day of somber remembrance and reflection. For any of us who would profess a higher allegiance to the Prince of Peace than to any nation on earth, this day is a reminder of the flawed logic of counting one nation’s “victories” over another as long as those victories come at the cost of slaughtering our fellow human beings. This day reminds me to pray and hope and live into creative new ways of engaging with conflict which will one day replace the cyclical violence on which we have come to rely as our first line of defense in any threatening situation. This day compels me to grieve for what has been, and to hope for what is yet to be, believing that the difficult and risky path of enemy love that Jesus lays out is no more costly than the bloody path we have walked up until now.

There is a song by Tom Wuest, based on Paul’s conversion in Acts 9, which we often sing in our community as part of  our collective worship and repentance. This is my prayer for all of us today, for our healing and wholeness:

“In our blindness, lead us down that road.

In our ignorance, lead us down that road.

In our violence, hate and indifference,

We pray Lord you give us new sight.

Let something like scales fall from our eyes,

Something like scales fall from our eyes.

Jesus, lead us down that road.

Lead us down that road.”

Forgiveness in the thick of it

          In our house, we host a weekly event after Tuesday night community dinners called Creative World Justice. The purpose is pretty much what it sounds like—to worship, learn, and brainstorm together about the creative steps we can take towards promoting justice in the world, as individuals and as a group. We’ve just begun a series exploring violence and nonviolence, and last night I had the privilege of leading a discussion on nonviolence in the Bible, particularly in the life of Jesus.I’ve read these verses so many times myself over the years, and I’ve often taken part in theological discussions and detached, intellectual conversations in which we have discussed violence on an impersonal, even hypothetical level. We hold the world’s problems at arm’s length, arguing back and forth about historical wars, current large-scale conflicts that are far enough away to exist for us only in newspaper headlines, or potential scenarios of aggression or crime in which self-defense would be necessary.

But last night, Jesus’ words and example of forgiveness and enemy love had never felt more powerful. The room was full of people for whom violence is a personal issue. Many of them grew up in violent homes, were abused as children, belonged to gangs when they were younger, had boyfriends or husbands who beat them up, or perhaps served jail time for beating up someone themselves. One woman came into the discussion reeling from the news that a close friend had been the victim of an extremely savage crime this week—one which may yet take her life; it remains to be seen whether she will make a recovery in the hospital or not. Is it offensive or even ridiculous to talk about forgiveness against the backdrop of such vitriolic hatred and evil?

Jesus’ teachings about forgiveness and nonviolence are difficult for us all, but especially for so many people in that room, whose lives have been shaped in significant ways by violence. I really respected the courage of my new friends to take his words seriously and to grapple with them right in the thick of it all. I admired their humility and honesty in sharing the difficult emotions and the fragile places in their lives that have made it difficult for them to respond to violence in any other way than with retribution. Some of them are also very new on their journey with Jesus, and I was inspired by their passion to soak up this new way of being in the world.

In the face of so much raw honesty and pain, I was humbled myself by the reminder that this nonviolent path is not a solution that I have to hand out to people. It’s not anything I have mastered myself, and it certainly is no short-cut or cure-all for the pain. It’s a difficult and lengthy process of inner transformation, and it is a learning curve that we are all on together, stumbling and backtracking and finding our way forward again. But it is a potent anecdote to the fight-or-flight world and the survival mentality that we’ve all been raised with. In fact, it is exactly in the thrall of horrific violence that forgiveness and creative, compassionate resistance are needed: to overcome evil with good.

For my Muslim sisters and brothers in Gaza,                                                             For my Christian sisters and brothers in Iraq and Syria 

In parts of Syria and Iraq this week, innocent civilians have been raped, murdered, and forced to flee from their homes by a religious fundamentalist group who has issued a chilling ultimatum to this ancient faith community which has resided in the area for centuries: convert, abandon your homes, or die by the sword. Elsewhere in the Middle East, a heavily-armed military continues its merciless bombing of a civilian population, killing hundreds of children in a campaign intended to show that it has no tolerance for agents of “terror” who kill innocent civilians.The first instance of violence has hardly reported in Western media at all, but where the story has gotten out, it has stirred universal condemnation from Americans and especially from Christians. This makes sense, because in the case of Iraq and Syria, the families being murdered in cold blood or fleeing for their lives are Christians, and their attackers are Muslim fundamentalists: a terrorist group known as ISIS. For many American Christians, this seems a clear-cut case of good guys vs. bad guys.In the second instance of families being murdered in cold blood, many Americans and (disturbingly) Christians especially are fully supportive of the state-sponsored violence. This can again be explained in terms of primitive, tribal allegiance: in this case, the civilian casualties are Muslims, and their executioners are members of the Israeli military. Many Christians feel a strong cultural and religious tie to Judaism, and they further extrapolate this kinship with Judaism and Jewish people to extend to the secular political state of Israel. Pretty soon the idea somehow arises that God is on the side of a powerful (although threatened) military state focusing its firepower on what is basically an oversized slum populated with traumatized, displaced people who are being exploited by Hamas. This idea hinges on the implicit assumption that “good guys” and “bad guys” can be separated out along tribal lines: Israelis, good; Palestinians: bad.

God certainly doesn’t take the side of either Israelis or Palestinians, much less Hamas or the Israeli Defense forces!  But God does take sides: He is on the side of the weak against the strong, the oppressed against the oppressor, and grieving, the suffering, and the poor. God takes this side because He cares about the welfare of all people.

It seems to me that most of us have no clarity with which to understand what’s happening in these two arenas of violence or to perceive the connections between them. We lack that clarity because we are still stuck thinking in terms of Muslims vs. Christians or Jews vs. Muslims without noticing that both of these unfolding horror stories are really about human beings using power and violence to control and destroy other human beings. ISIS and Hamas seek to enforce their political agendas through violence and the threat of violence; the Israeli government uses the same strategy (but while claiming the moral high ground): other children must die, for the sake of our children.

The problem here is not Christianity, Judaism, or Islam as religions, but rather fundamentalist justifications of violence within each faith. If we are only willing to recognize the destructive effects of fundamentalism and violence in another religion—say, in Islam— and not in our own, then we merely strengthen our own dark side by ignoring it. We become blind to our own violence and capacity for evil, and that blindness (or state of denial) makes us more dangerous. We have only to take a sidelong glance back into Church history to see the destructive results of such blindness: burning heretics at the stake, conquering and subjugating non-Christian peoples, forcing conversion on threat of death. Sadly, Christians’ unquestioned dependence on violence has led them to act as aggressors and persecutors as often as they have been persecuted victims or peacemakers, all the while presuming to have God’s stamp of approval.

I am not pro-Palestinian. I am not pro-Israel. I don’t believe that the actions of the Israeli government represent all Jewish people any more than I believe that ISIS represents all Muslims, or that Hamas represents all Palestinians. I don’t believe that the dehumanizing, fear-based, reactionary violence of ISIS or Hamas or the Israeli military is worthy of any human being. And I do believe that Jesus is equally represented in the suffering of persecuted Christians, traumatized Palestinians, and kidnapped Israeli teenagers. The labels of race, religion, and nationality are not useful in helping us to see a way forward in these crises, because that is exactly the kind of “us vs. them” thinking that began these messes in the first place.

I am pro-life. And this is my appeal for other Christians to take a pro-life stance in this situation as well, by rejecting the political, religious, and pragmatic justifications for violence that are being made on all sides.

There is much more to talk about concerning the history and specifics of the complex situation in Israel/Palestine, and a detailed examination would only further demonstrate that nobody’s hands are clean; no group can be painted as completely innocent or completely at fault. I haven’t gone into the various documented human rights abuses of either Hamas or the Israeli military here because I believe that the root issue will not be resolved in a meticulous weighing up of one group’s sins against the other, but in a commitment to stop viewing the conflict through a tribal lens that requires taking sides in the first place. Every time that either Israelis or Palestinians have sought to resolve the situation with violence, it has only perpetuated the bloody cycle of killing by creating more fear and hatred. Why go on pursuing this dead-end strategy for “security” or “peace”?