Responding to Mass Violence: How We Can Turn Grief Into Action
I’ve been an educator for ten years, and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to prepare myself to answer students’ questions about local, national, and international incidents of mass violence. Each time there’s a horrific bombing or shooting, our Head of School sends out an email to faculty and parents. The awfulness of the tragedy is acknowledged, and there are links to resources on how to discuss tragedies with kids.
It’s an awful pattern.
There’s also this creeping suspicion I’ve had in recent years—the feeling that I’m powerless, here in my little corner of the world, to stop mass violence. The NRA seems as strong as ever. The rhetoric coming out of the White House is consistently racist and violent. Meanwhile, plenty of other people—neighbors, strangers on the internet, family, friends—echo that same dangerous rhetoric. And to my disgust, many of them are self-proclaimed Christians.
Since becoming a parent, my spirituality has deepened—both intentionally (by reconstructing the way I think about my faith tradition) and through the extraordinary experience of having my heart broken open by the beautiful little boy that is now a central part of my life. These days, I experience the people and events in my life with more clarity, color, and feeling.
Because of this, I’ve become more sensitive to violence—however and wherever I see it or hear about it. I have a visceral reaction to news of violence of any kind. I don’t even like watching violent TV shows anymore.
Even though I feel things more acutely than I used to, when it comes to mass violence, I find myself wanting to express my anger, sadness, and feeling of helplessness, but not knowing what to say or what action to take. In short, I often don’t know what to do with my grief.
I know this is a dangerous way to move forward.
I’m learning—slowly—that I need to give myself time to grieve the brutal murder of people I never knew but nevertheless feel connected to because of our shared humanity. Because when I see on the news the faces of people who have died because some angry, hopeless person has killed them, I think about my son and what it would mean to lose him.
I think of the parents of those who have died, and the empty bedrooms, the empty cribs, the empty seats at the table. I think about how I care so much about spirituality and my evolving faith, yet, if I lost anyone I love, how I might lose trust in just about everything.
The thing is, I know I’m not alone in feeling this kind of helplessness. I’ve talked to plenty of other folks who are totally overwhelmed by the large-scale violence we’ve seen repeatedly for so many years now, particularly the out-of-control mass shootings that just won’t stop. No one wants to become desensitized to it, even though, for some of us, it feels like that’s exactly what’s happening.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
If we care enough about our spiritual health to allow ourselves time and space to process and articulate our feelings with others, then we create internal conditions in which we can actually begin to address the problem—in this case, mass violence. But again, first we need to allow ourselves to grieve.
Take, for example, the Book of Lamentations in the Bible. In this book, there are five poems that not only mourn the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, but also attempt to put words to the unspeakable grief we all experience from time to time.
These poems, and their very presence in the Holy Book, suggest that God understands our grief and encourages us to express it—even if it means raging against Him/Her.
Notice this strong, hostile language:
The energy it takes to suppress feelings will be drained eventually, and then the negativity erupts in sudden, unexpected, and ugly ways. Feelings, especially grief, need to be expressed. When we allow ourselves to feel our feelings, like the poet does in the passage above, we’re in touch with ourselves and God in a profound way. Lamenting is a deeply spiritual act. By releasing these feelings, we openly acknowledge that there’s been a loss—that something good has gone away.
In the case of mass violence, we recognize that part of the Body of Christ (another way of saying “humanity”) has been destroyed. This is where the concept of resurrection comes into play. It’s a hopeful notion: When something is lost, new life can appear in its place. By allowing ourselves to feel and articulate the grief we experience in response to mass violence, we create new space within ourselves. And in that space is birthed an energy we can use to press on. There’s the strength and determination that comes along with new life.
This way, we can be strong enough to make sure our voices are heard when it comes to ending mass violence, and we can be determined enough to keep asking ourselves these questions:
How can I create peace in my home?
How can I create peace outside my home?
Am I doing enough?
Our lives depend on our answers.