Tag Archives: violence

My Shiva Is Over

blackYesterday, there was this line in the sermon that I heard: The memory of one shooting isn’t even distant before we hear reports of another.

That’s the thing that has occupied my mind and brought such a heaviness of heart for the past weeks.

Things have been pretty silent on this blog since early June. On June 1, I left for vacation in the Colorado Rockies. I had intended to keep up at least a posting a week.

Then Charleston happened. At first, I experienced simple disbelief, almost like my initial reaction on September 11, 2001.  As more details were reported, the tragedy became more and more shocking and horrifying. It numbed me.

The ink was not even dry on the first reports when the opinions started coming out about what caused it and what we should do about it. How quickly we turned to explanations and solutions. In those days following Charleston, because seemingly everyone was saying something, I felt compelled to say something. But I had nothing to say.

Maybe we say too much too soon, especially when these kinds of deep tragedies happen. In our collective problem-solving mentality, in our 24 hour news cycle that requires many words and images to fill the space, and when everyone is a pundit with an opinion, we seem to think that offering explanations and solutions will make everything come clean in the end. What happens is that nothing comes clean, but we numb ourselves into believing that it won’t happen again and nothing really changes very much.

In the Jewish tradition, when someone dies, there is a ritualized period of mourning. Here’s how it’s been described to me: first, there’s aninut, the death and the burial. It’s an all-consuming few days as the body is prepared for burial, funeral plans are made, and then the funeral and burial happen. Then there’s the shiva, a period of seven days after the burial. The mourners return home and sit on low chairs, taking a cue from Job’s mourning for his family when his friends sat down with him towards the ground for seven days and seven nights and no one spoke a word to him.  During this time, mirrors are draped in black and the mourner lights a memorial candle. The mourner wears no make-up, no perfume, engages in no sexual activity, listens to no music, and wears no shoes. During this time, family and friends call at the house. The mourning becomes a communal mourning with distractions stripped away. For this time, there are no explanations and there is no push to move on. The mourners sit in their lament, surrounded by family and friends. Lauren Winner writes that “what has struck me about a shiva call is the sheer crush of people.” (Mudhouse Sabbath) On the last day of shiva, friends come and take the mourner by hand, lead him out of the house and down the street for a walk around the block. It’s both the literal and figurative reentry into society.

I wish we could have a national shiva when something like Charleston happens. I wish we could shut off our televisions, ban anyone from writing anything about what has happened for a week or so, and just sit in collective lament. At least in the Christian tradition, we don’t do lament very well. We do funerals, but not lament.

It feels like we have a cultural diarrhea of words about why these things happen and what we should do; we get all riled up for a few weeks and then everything goes back to normal. When the Newtown shootings happened over two and a half years ago, we all thought that would be the game-changer in forming a society in which we would make sure that such mass shootings would be a matter of history. When Michael Brown was shot and Ferguson erupted, we pledged that things would change.

As far as I can tell, not much has changed.

I don’t know what to do. Big things like racism and violence in America are complex challenges and solutions are perplexing. My heaviness of heart and mind about both issues are close to despair, feeling in some moments like we will never get past this; this is our destiny; racism and violence are so embedded in our national DNA that the best we can hope for is to keep the beasts at bay.

Yet my faith is based on hope for what is not seen and even for what does not seem possible. My trust in God’s covenantal promises tells me that even in the midst of these societal Gordian knots, God is at work. Somehow I need to be part of that work, even though I haven’t wanted to say anything or do anything.

Last week, I went to our denomination’s national youth gathering — 30,000 high school youth descending on the beleaguered city of Detroit, bring their faith, their witness, their dollars, and their willingness to get into the trenches and work. It was exhilarating. And it was hopeful.

Apparently, that was my walk around the block. It’s time.

It’s All Connected


Last night on the local news, I heard a brief interview with a very articulate woman who works for a domestic abuse shelter. In commenting on the current swirl of media attention and the larger societal conversation about domestic violence brought on by the now infamous elevator video of Ray Rice and his then fiancé, she said she hoped this discussion was not just a moment in time, but that it might be the beginning of a long and focused movement that would reduce the tragic and violent incidence of domestic violence.

I hope she’s right. Really, I do. With her, I hope that domestic violence’s current place at center stage might move us forward not just in conversation, but in a broad change of behavior.

Still, I’m not optimistic that it will happen. We’re still not willing to have the more fundamental conversation about the paradoxical truth that we are a culture that at the same time glorifies violence and decries it. And as long as we want it both ways, we won’t make significant progress in curbing its tragic effects.

The NFL earns billions of dollars putting on a weekly gladiatorial spectacle. Huge, iron-strong men go flying at each other. The more violent the hit, the louder the cheers. Those men train for years to get to that pinnacle of their violent sport where they are paid lots of money to play a very violent game that people love to watch. We knew from experience that the culture within the NFL encourages uber-violence. Remember the scandal of the New Orleans Saints a few years ago, when it became public that bonuses were paid to a player who knocked an opposing player out of the game? And then we’re somehow surprised when some of the players — many of whom grew up surrounded by the very societal violence that we seem powerless to change —  are not able to make a clean separation between the violence on the field and their life off the field. Let me be clear: I’m not defending or excusing their off-the field violence. It’s deplorable. I’m just suggesting that it’s all connected. And we somehow seem to want it both ways.

Similarly, we are justifiably outraged and heartbroken when someone takes a large capacity automatic weapon into a school or a movie theater or a grocery store parking lot and opens fire. We can’t seem to figure out why someone would do that or how it can happen so often. Yet this is the same culture that is hellbent on preserving a dubious constitutional right to own military type guns that are manufactured for no other purpose than to kill people, to kill lots of them quickly and efficiently. And when a very few individuals are overcome with anger at society in general or act out of their own pain or mental illness, we are shocked and outraged. And when certain parts of our cities are war zones with innocents commonly caught in the crossfires, we wonder how this can happen. For a few days, we express our moral outrage.  All I’m suggesting is that it’s all connected. And we somehow seem to want it both ways.

Once again in the Middle East a new threat has risen that wants to impose its will with guns and bombs and tanks. I grant that this new threat is particularly violent and barbaric. Any rules about ethical engagement in war (if there is such a thing) and the protection of the innocent and civilian, seem totally to be ignored. We justifiably deplore their action.

At the same time, for much of my adult life, we have been trying to impose our national will in the Middle East with guns and bombs and tanks and soldiers on the ground. I still remember that summer evening in August 1990 when I was at church with my two young sons and I heard the news that we had begun bombing Iraq. I had just celebrated my 31st birthday. I’m now 54 and last week we began another initiative to drop bombs in the Middle East. We’ve been doing that for most of the intervening years. We are outraged when someone else drops bombs for their cause, when someone else kills innocents; but when we do it, we are able pretty easily able to make a case for why it’s necessary. All I’m suggesting is that it’s all connected and we somehow seem to want it both ways.

So, I’ll join you in outrage at the incidence of domestic violence in the NFL, and I’ll nod my head when you suggest that the league has been slow at best in responding appropriately. I will stand behind you supporting the notion that these players should be held fully accountable for their actions.

But if you want things really to begin to change, then look in the mirror. We’re all complicit. We both glorify violence and decry it. We can’t have it both ways. See, it’s all connected.