Lamenting Violent Tragedy
November 15, 2016
I had hoped to say something about our responding to violence and terror when we weren’t actually going through it. But we can’t seem to go two months without a major event happening. You know we are over-exposed when you can’t actually remember the names of all the places that have been subjected to violent terror (Sharm El Sherk Airliner 243; Beruit 43; also Baghdad 21- just in the past few days). You know you are overexposed when you can predict what people’s responses will be, when you find yourself thinking that you’ve heard this all before, even as you are hearing an interview with a family member whose life has been torn apart because their loved one was arbitrarily killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I think it was Hermann Goering who cynically observed that ‘the death of one person is a tragedy, the death of a million people is merely a statistic.’ You want to attend to each and every person that suffered but I remember thinking after September 11th, after I don’t know how many funerals, that I heard enough bag pipes for a while… And it keeps on happening.
I wanted to do something in church because our media pundits always jump too quickly to figuring out why this happened and what we can do to prevent it in the future. They pull the same team of ‘experts’ that debate solutions back and forth, never with any satisfactory solution, but that is not really what we need in these moments.
It occurred to me that what we need is to recover something very ancient, the language of lament. There is a whole book in the Bible devoted to but no one reads it anymore. It is called “Lamentations”. It is a collection of the woes of the people of Israel to God over all of the bad things that have happened to them. Pillage, war, being a refugee, losing your family at mid-life, disease that brings death, famine that brings death, slavery. And those were just the ones written by men. Women would have their own list if we had let them write.
A lament is not a solution. You don’t debate lament. Lament just names where we hurt. And in prayer, you utter your lament, as you frame your hope. And out of those hopes, eventually we might move towards the practical issues that deal with all of the knotty problems that practical solutions have to resolve.
Today, I simply invite you to share your laments in the aftermath of this latest tragedy, still just a month from the shooting in Oregon. Sometimes I think it is important that we don’t so much have solutions as we just let the community speak and out of that collective voice, we can have a richer communal sense.
I’m going to start us off with two laments. Yours can be brief, perhaps just a sentence. I’ve thought about mine for a long time and I bet you have too.
My first one is more American and more about the school shootings that are a homegrown phenomenon but we set the tone for the media around the world.
I lament the fact that through our media, we have developed a culture of celebrity without moral shape. People who are famous for simply being famous. Snooki, Kim Kardashian, the host of celebrities on gossip magazines that you have never heard of and have no idea what they have done. I lament that we have developed this platform, that it has become appealing enough that alienated, estranged young men would choose death and a moment of celebrity over life and the fulfillment of family, friends and genuine community.
And I suppose I hope, despite how impossible it seems from here, that we will actually start to cover people that are media inspiring, so that we’ll broaden who becomes a celebrity and some of them will be people of moral substance. That somehow the media will move beyond simply ‘shocking us’ to get our attention, move beyond ‘over stimulating us with drama. That is my hope.
Secondly, I lament the rise of “terror chic”. I lament that we romanticized the self-styled revolutionaries, that we gave an audience for the videos of the many “Jihadi John’s” who behead innocent people for being Western, that we publish their manifesto’s and the lunatic ravings of their movement. I lament that we keep hoping to uncover the underlying root causes that they stand for only to discover the banality of nihilism again and again.
And I hope, that our ‘would be terrorists’ will recover life affirming meaning and purpose. I hope that they will finally realize the futility of their method of protest and devote their energies to building something constructive. As fantastic as that sounds, that is what I hope.
And the last one, I can only say in sadness that has a rising anger to it as well. I lament that our attention has been hijacked by their protests. The world is actually a wonderful place and it is getting more wonderful all of the time. But fear changes all of us in an instant. It dulls creativity and stifles imagination. It mitigates compassion and mutes empathy. I resent having to stop and deal with a violent tantrum thrower just because they are wanton.
And my hope is that we can figure out a way in the media to cover the tragedy of these events, understand and empathize with the victims and their loss, without inadvertently letting the terrorists of the world set the agenda and dictate the dialogue. You have to earn that privilege and I hope we will develop the wisdom to keep the sober voices on camera, leading through times of crisis.
What do you lament? And more than just naming what is wrong, what hurts? What do you hope for? What would you like our world to look like? Ask God to change us?