Sunday, January 16, 2011

Strength to Love: A Reflection on Tucson

Like so many Americans, my thoughts and prayers this week have turned to the tragic events in Tucson on January 8.  I’ve followed the news of Congresswoman Gifford’s recovery, and mourned the deaths of our fellow citizens who gathered to meet with her that day.  Our hearts go out to the families and friends who are grieving, and we give thanks for the heroic efforts of all whose courage, wisdom, and skill has been in the service of the healing of the thirteen injured survivors.

All of us have been affected by this act of violence and the contempt for human life that it represents.  As we gather this morning, I think it is appropriate for us as people of faith to bring our collective suffering into the very center of our prayer and worship.  We do so as people called to offer intercession for the needs of the world and to interpret the signs of the times.  What do we see when we look deeply at the reality of violence?  How are we to respond in ways consistent with our baptismal promise to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?  This is the task of discernment to which we are called today.

As our nation prepares to commemorate the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., tomorrow, I cannot help but think about these questions in light of Dr. King’s life and witness.  It would be easy to refuse to look at the events in Tucson as a spiritual and moral matter calling for reflection and action.  “It’s an isolated event.  It is unfortunate, but it is a matter for people in Tucson or Arizona to address.  The Church shouldn’t be involved in politics.”

Writing to religious leaders who expressed similar sentiments about his involvement in the civil rights struggle in Birmingham, Alabama, Dr. King noted in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,”

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.[1]

We ignore at our peril the “inescapable network of mutuality” that binds us together.  Jared Loughner’s violent emergence into our collective consciousness on January 8 did not come from nowhere.  It is but one moment in a complex dynamic of causes and conditions that made his crimes possible, just as the heroism of those who risked – and in some cases, lost – their lives to protect the victims was the fruit of another complex interaction of formative experiences and choices.

In reality, there simply is no such thing as an isolated event.  That doesn’t make Jared Loughner any less responsible for his crime, nor does it make the heroism of Dorwan Stoddard, who died shielding his wife, any less honorable.  What it does mean is that we all have a stake in creating a world in which Jared’s behavior is less likely, so that Dorwan’s sacrifice becomes unnecessary.  Our choices, our actions, matter; and they have consequences long after we have set them in motion.

What is more, and perhaps both more painful and more hopeful than we might anticipate, the events in Tucson offer us a mirror in which we can see ourselves more clearly if we are willing to look.  Here, I am reminded of the words Dr. King spoke at the memorial service for Addie Mae Collins, Carole Denise McNair, and Cynthia Diane Wesley, three of the four young girls killed in the bombing of a black church in Birmingham not long after Dr. King wrote his famous letter.  Dr. King poignantly and powerfully declared that their deaths spoke a word much larger than an isolated event that all needed to hear.

They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism . . .They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.[2]

What word is the death of Christina Taylor Green, Phyllis Schneck, Gabe Zimmerman, Judge John Roll, Dorwan Stoddard, and Dorothy Morris speaking to us?  Might it not be speaking of “the stale bread of hatred” fed to us by politicians and the media that amplifies their rhetoric?  A hatred of those who disagree with us, who look different than us, who speak another language?  A hatred exacerbated by the economic insecurity born of the greatest concentration of wealth and disparity between rich in poor in America since the Gilded Age?  Such insecurity breeds fear, from which hate is easily fomented for purposes that have little to do with the common good.  As Dr. King understood so well,

Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys a man's sense of values
and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false
and the false with the true. (Strength To Love, 1963)

Such hate, when set loose, has predictable consequences.  It undermines our capacity to discern and speak the truth.  It serves to justify what is reprehensible.  It is conducive to the bombing of churches and the murder of innocent people outside supermarkets.  It is a hate that has infected us, and not only the perpetrators of violence.  They are the symptom of a more widespread and profound disease in the body politic.  

In the face of such hatred, ministers of the gospel cannot remain silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows.  As Scripture admonishes us,

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!  And the tongue is a fire . . . With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.  From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.  My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. (James 3:5b-6a, 9-10)

We are in danger of become a culture of cursing, ablaze in the fire of hatred and mutual recrimination.  Who will speak a word of blessing, if not us?

Our responses, individually and collectively, to the events in Tucson are of great importance.  We must not become fixated upon the evil perpetrated there.  Such evil is creative of nothing.  It serves no purpose.  It is meaningless in itself.  It is even, as Hannah Arendt described it, in a certain way, boring.  Hate produces nothing new; just the same old cycle of violence.  We must take care that violence does not become a form of entertainment or fascination, lest we be tempted to internalize and emulate it.

And we must guard against making Jared Loughner an object of hate and vengeance.  He is responsible for his behavior and its consequences.  Yet, he too, is a child of God for whom Christ died.  Let us pray that he experience true repentance and amendment of life.  Here, I am reminded of Dr. King’s witness to the hope that the civil rights struggle would transform the white supremacist as much as it would transform the victims of racism. 

Dr. King believed deeply that

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies
hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction....The chain reaction
of evil--hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars--must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of

(Strength To Love, 1963)

For Dr. King, the Civil Rights movement was a struggle to save the souls of white supremacists like Bull Conner as much as it was to secure the rights of African-Americans.  “Tied in a single garment of destiny,” we are saved together or not at all. 

If the events in Tucson are a mirror in which we see reflected the hatred and violence gnawing at the heart of our national life, it also may hold before us another, and better image.  It is the image of the creative and life-giving response of love in the face of hate; a love that seeks to reunite that which has been torn asunder. 

In 1955, Emmett Till, a 14 year-old African-American boy, was brutally lynched in Mississippi.  Shortly thereafter, Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to move to the back of the bus, giving rise to the boycott that grew into a non-violent civil rights movement led by Dr. King.  Years later, when asked why she refused to move that day, Rosa Parks recalled, “I thought of Emmitt Till and I just couldn’t go back.”[3]

The Civil Rights movement was a faith-based, creative, nonviolent response to hate that sought to unite a divided political culture around our shared commitment to freedom and equality.  Even though he suffered countless death threats, repeated bombing of his home, and a near-fatal knife attack before he was assassinated, Dr. King refused to accept armed body-guards because of his deep commitment to nonviolence.  As he said upon accepting the Nobel Prize for Peace,

Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for [humankind] to overcome oppression and
violence without resorting to oppression and violence. [Humankind] must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge,
aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.[4]

If the recent violence in Tucson is to have any redemptive meaning, it must become for us an image of creative response to hate and violence in the same way that Emmett Till’s death became redemptive.  We desperately need the witness of Rosa Parks, Dr. King, and the saints and martyrs of the Civil Rights movement.  Their legacy of committed political engagement without recourse to demonization of their opponents, their willingness to suffer violence in order to overcome it through love, their devotion to the common good – including the well-being of their enemies – is the light that can drive out the darkness of our day.

In this, of course, they were simply following the example of Jesus, who in his own teaching and practice found creative ways to challenge injustice and bring healing to a broken world, and whose death became for us the ultimate act of redemptive suffering.

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you . . . Your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.  (Luke 6:27-28, 35-36)

This is what it means to follow Jesus – to love as God loves; to bless when others curse; to heal when others wound.  Like Dr. King, may we have “the strength to love,” confident “that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”[5] Amen.

[1] “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963
[2] Eulogy at 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, AL, Sept. 22, 1963
[3] Houck, Davis; Grindy, Matthew (2008). Emmett Till and the Mississippi Press, University Press of Mississippi, p. X.
[4] Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Stockholm, Sweden, Dec. 11, 1964
[5] Ibid.