- Outside the Desert Retreat House -
As I was getting ready to start my day this morning I noticed that the radio was on, tuned to a story on our local NPR station reporting yesterday’s horrific massacre at a community college campus in rural southern Oregon.
What struck me most about that story was that it only occupied the background of my attention. It was a report about 17 young, vibrant college students who were shot by a demented gunman - 10 were brutally murdered, 7 others were wounded, and I was barely paying attention to it.
My relative indifference to that story this morning was such a perfect icon to me of how “routine” events like this have become in the American psyche.
I remember several years ago when High School students “fell victim” to a shooting rampage in Columbine, Colorado - that incident garnered the undivided attention of the world-wide media, it occupied center stage for days on end; but yesterday’s incident, just as horrible, was barely noticed by lots of people.
The fact is that stories like the one that happened yesterday in Roseburg occur so frequently and have become so routine that we can almost write the script for them - tearful school officials tell the families of victims, “Our hearts go out to you,” a chorus of “amazing grace” is sung by townspeople gathered for a candlelight vigil, the murderer is usually a young man with mental issues, and of course there is the requisite debate about gun control in this nation - then the story is over, and we wait until it happens again.
Yesterday a visibly-shaken President Obama talked about his frustration and anger at having to stand before the American public time after time to comment on what has become routine massacres in our schools and even in our churches. He said something that really struck a chord with me:
Given the frequency of mass shootings in this country
people have become numb to them.
While I agree that these shootings can be attributed to inadequate gun legislation or perhaps a failed system of mental health care, I actually think these public massacres belie a far deeper and much more serious spiritual problem. As I see it we have become a nation whose hearts have become numb, indifferent to the plight of others, our hearts have turned to stone.
There is a story in the Hebrew scriptures about the ancient people of Israel who had been exiled from their native land. They were once a nation that was founded on the core guiding principles of love and compassion, dedicated to the proposition that everyone was worthy of respect and committed to caring for the needs of others especially the poor and disadvantaged; but over time they had lost sight of their core identity. They had become indifferent to one another’s needs, their hearts had tuned to stone, so they lost all they had and found themselves in a place of exile.
I think this is a powerful story that goes beyond religion - it is an important icon for those of us who live in these United States of America.
At our core we are also a people who have been founded on the core principles of care and compassion - liberty and justice for all; but over the years we have become more and more rugged in our individualism and infected by a rampant consumerism. People cheer at the outlandish and maniacal propositions of narcissists like Donald Trump who wants to pack up and ship out immigrants and foreigners and build walls along our borders. Our hearts have become hardened, our hearts have turned to stone, so focused on “self” that they are unable to pay attention to “other.”
I am reminded of something the psychologist, Rollo May, once said:
Hate is not the opposite of love,
When it comes down to it, I fear the apathy in this country far more than I do the hatred.
While I totally support gun control laws and mental health initiatives, I am convinced that shootings like the one that happened yesterday will be repeated over and over unless we revive our stony hearts and understand that there are no “different others.” Those kids killed yesterday were my kids and they were your kids - the story yesterday wasn’t a background story, it is the story of our lives.
When we lay down our lives, care about one another’s misfortune and are deeply sensitive to one another’s needs we may be doing more to prevent the next shooting than all the gun legislation in the world
The Hebrew scripture story about the ancient Jews in exile had a happy ending. “God” spoke to the people in exile and made them a promise:
I will remove your hearts of stone and give you hearts of flesh again.
I hope our own American story has an equally happy outcome.