It’s always difficult to put into words the transformation that happens within a human heart as it works to grasp the reality of tragic news unfolding. I hopped into my car Friday morning totally ignorant of what happened in Dallas Thursday night. When I switched on NPR like usual, my mind tripped over itself trying to comprehend. It was the wrong newscaster’s voice at the wrong program time, a breaking news hour…the kind, sorrowful, deep voice of pastor was recounting what happened…and I carried the news straight into Adoration and began to pray…
Now, it’s a few days later, and but the world doesn’t seem to have stopped reeling. It had already been such a sorrowful week. Although we began strong celebrating who we are as brothers and sisters in this country, before the week was halfway through, two more lives were lost in this heated confusion and hatred that seems only to be increasing in intensity. I can’t hope to fully grasp or comment upon the grief of those directly impacted in St. Paul, in Baton Rouge, and in Dallas, and so for the purpose of this reflection, I’d like to reverently hold their suffering shrouded in the merciful mantle of Mary – I know that she, the Sorrowful Mother, is standing vigilant over her children right now, ready to receive with open arms any grieving soul.
There is something that struck me about that first broadcast that I think is worth further reflection. I offer it with humble hope towards a way to see through the confusion, and bolster our certainty in where to go from here. Throughout the day I heard people say that the Dallas attack made so little sense, since it was the city where police officers had done more than others to reach out to the black community, and also to work on their own transparency and accountability as a force. And I heard the Dallas rally was an incredibly peaceful Black Lives Matter rally – people commented again and again on the selfies taken with police officers and Black Lives Matter activists – so the violence didn’t make sense. The assumption seemed to be perhaps that a city advancing towards an answer, a community advancing towards peace and a police force leading the way through the confusion and hatred wouldn’t make sense as the cite for that tension to boil over.
Yet when I listened to the following clips, I wondered if perhaps it was the opposite?
Rev. Michael Waters was also at the march, and he, too, emphasized the positive relationship between the crowds and the police before the shooting began. “The police have been a very active and supportive part in supporting activism here in Dallas,” he said. “Any time that I personally have been a part of a rally or march or protest, the Dallas Police Department has been there to protect, to ensure that the march or the rally was orderly and to ensure that everyone made it home safely. (heard on NPR, from WGBH)
Protester Wyatt Rosser, who was close to the front of last night’s march, told member station KERA about his experience:
“The Black Lives Matter rally … started out as what was, to me, the biggest and most inspiring rally I’ve been to in Dallas. The speakers were great and everything was peaceful and beautiful until the end of the march. …
“There were really beautiful speakers, a lot of great things were said, and it felt really unifying and we were all standing in solidarity, and that happened, and everyone just scattered and we broke apart. That was probably the most intense and disheartening thing for me, how symbolic it was being linked in arms, feeling this really strong moment and then hearing gunshots, and then everything just fell apart. (heard on NPR, from WGBH)
Just at that moment of peace as the rally began to close and a symphony of change was swelling from those linked arms – the shots rang out. Perhaps, what senseless violence can’t stand is precisely someone standing up to it. What if hatred acts like a virus? Like an uncontrolled and undisciplined growth force, stopped only when confronted with a robust immune system that lets the hatred know — you are not welcome here. Edwin Friedman, who studied both leadership and the forces that sabotage it in groups at all levels of life, from police forces to churches, from politics to families, says that “what all destructive forces have in common is unregulated invasiveness.”* In the wild, totally out of control actions of the sniper, that destructive force was in full swing. And although I haven’t watched the footage of Alton Sterling or Philando Castile, from what I hear those police offers were totally beyond themselves, given over to reactive, thoughtless force. Perhaps it is in times of such unregulated anxiety, hatred and tension that we most easily become the devil’s play things.
This destructive force seems to be gathering intensity and heat. I’m sure I echo many of y’all in asking – what is happening? In the recent July issue of Time Magazine, David Von Drehle wrote about what he sees as the primary challenges of our times, and the bright side of these gathering dark clouds.
By far the most common question I hear goes something like this: Have Americans become more divided today? […] I think the question reflections a wide-spread worry that America is becoming brittle, that we are hung up on differences when the times demand unity of purpose. […] Whether our divisions are as deep as they have been in the past, it has never been easier to amplify strife. […] We build communities of our choosing no matter were we actually live, and if we wish, these virtual town squares can endlessly reinforce our existing opinions while redoubling our antagonisms. (D. Von Drehle, the Bright Side, italics mine)
Perhaps there is an interplay between how divided and reactionary we are becoming, and how insular and disconnected our communities are becoming. Have you seen a Democrat and Republican having a reasonable and respectful debate recently? And what about Orlando? Or transgender bathrooms? When we refuse the undeniable connection inherit in our common humanity, the tension of that refusal goes unhealed and fosters further intensity. Or to put it another way, when we refuse to regulate our own discomfort with those we perceive as different, we project that discomfort outward, and blame the other for our own failure of maturity. Add to this the jet fuel of instant access to unedited footage of volatile acts of hatred, and constant connection to the reactive opinions through the emotional barometer of social media, and perhaps we’ll start to see a somber pattern take shape.
So where do we turn for a beacon of hope? Dallas, perhaps we look to you. I say this while acknowledging that I don’t know a whole lot about the history of your communities or how these forces have shaped you – so it’s pretty likely that someone out there with a better grasp on that will have a keener vision. What I do see is that on Thursday, you had prepared a peaceful protest. You could have let yourself be sucked into the violence. You could have let yourself be infected with hatred when yet another two more lives were lost senselessly last week. But, you didn’t. By all accounts, you held steady and peaceful and calm in that evening vigil. And you held to your faith.
That Friday morning, I heard on the radio about Rev. Michael Waters, that “When he preaches on Sunday, he says, he will tell his congregation that “we need each other. I’ll preach love, I’ll preach unity and I’ll preach togetherness in our community,” he said. For Dallas and for each of us, may there be a strength in our togetherness that is flexible and yet solid. For true unity does not rely on brittle and anxious homogeneity to bind individuals together, and it does not stink of a cult-like atmosphere or the tyranny of everyone having to think the same thing. And it does not engender invasive hatred and uncontrolled reactive violence. True unity doesn’t have to fake it, it just is. I think perfect togetherness is born of distinct individuals who are secure from within themselves in who they are before their Creator, and who from that certainty obtain both the courage and abandon to reach beyond themselves and give of themselves to one another in love; and the discipline, responsibility and humility to continue forward together as imperfect people — never arriving, always growing, at rest in the Father’s heart.
May we uphold that ultimate value American of individuality that D. Von Drehle identifies as the “bright side” of our times and a “a powerful and hopeful thing,” and at the same time strive for a more authentic, connected and open togetherness where everyone has room to be.
And may we take such a stand before the destructive forces in our times. When faced with the forces of sabotage and violence, let it our prayers ring out only more steady: prayers for God the Father’s abundant mercy, prayers for the grace for our hearts to remain steadfast, prayers for the strength to continue putting one foot in front of the other, one arm linked through another, with our eyes set on what is good and pleasing and perfect. For the forces of God are always stronger, stronger than hate, stronger than anxiety, stronger than fear. For “there is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).
Let our voices be united in prayer for all those most effected, that the perfect love of God may be with them in their hour of need. Amen.