Weeping over violence

The threat of violence is always at hand in a fallen world.

By Molly T. Marshall

The most recent shooting in Washington, D.C., reached in to our seminary community.

Early Monday morning I received a phone call from a treasured board member whose son was in the building adjacent to where the shootings were occurring at the Navy Yard. Imagine her anguish as she endured hours of waiting for definitive word as he was in a lockdown situation.

Would I have been as prayerfully and pastorally engaged if I had no personal connection to yet another demonstration of the violent, wounding culture that we inhabit? I might have simply sighed, clicked on a newsfeed occasionally, and basically gone about the day as if this anguishing event was not transpiring. I am soul-weary as I try to process the weight of the tragic that bombards us.

Some researchers speak of “psychic numbing,” the reality that humans can become so overexposed to the suffering caused by carnage that we simply shut down our empathy, our capacity for care and action. Robert J. Lifton, pioneering scholar in this field, has summoned neuroscience to illumine how an individual or society “withdraws from issues that would otherwise be too overwhelming for the human mind to comprehend.”

Interestingly, research on psychic numbing points to religion as a very important resource when things are out of one’s control — actually, this is most of the time. Whether illness or national disaster or mass atrocity, the interpretive framework provided by one’s faith can foster greater psychological health.

It can also nurture spiritual sensitivity. Christian teaching enjoins us to “weep with those who are weeping,” and the work of grace in our lives makes this possible.

Our faith fosters “religious affections,” as Jonathan Edwards calls the feelings that transcend simply visceral responses. Religious affections arise out of stark recognition of the human plight and God's mysterious ways.

Last Sunday’s lectionary reading from the Hebrew Bible contains Jeremiah’s lament: “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people” (9:1). It is not surprising that visual representations of this prophet often have him holding his head in his hands, weeping for his people.

A theologically perceptive worldview can help, as well. Broken, yet blessed, God’s creation — our home — alongside the children of God, all seemingly subjected to futility (Romans 8:20).

The unfinished creation is defectible, and much can go wrong in the inexorable processes of life. Its perfection lies in the future when God will fill all things with the fullness of God.

Perfection lies not in some unspoiled Edenic past, but in God’s eschatological consummation. Yet the story of the Garden of Eden does distinguish between created humanity and sinful humanity.

Add to this view of the dynamism of creation the inescapable starkness of human sinning. The groaning of creaturely life is exacerbated by the propensity for evil that theologians describe as “original sin.”

While many contemporary theologians will struggle with St. Augustine’s proposal for how sin became endemic in the human race, few can gainsay that something has gone terribly wrong in a world God called “good,” even “very good.” We remain frail children of dust.

The threat of violence is always at hand in a fallen world. A “balance of terror” is deployed to keep peace between nations. People stockpile guns for self-protection. Others simply use fierce outbreaks of rage to keep family members in line.

A despairing young man guns down 12 people because he is mentally ill and knows only this pathway to resolve his chaos. The fall to violence may be the defining marker of human sinfulness.

As Christians we follow the One who would rather suffer than inflict suffering. We find in the Gospels Jesus’ frequent challenge to violent or exploitative conditions, and his warning that violence will spawn violence. Approaching Jerusalem, he wept over it, saying:

If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes ... because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God (Luke 19:41-44).

Ultimately, Jesus’ response to violence was to absorb it as a scapegoat, as René Girard has argued, thereby seeking to quell the “spiral of violence.” Violence persists, however, yet to be fully redeemed.

What must we do? Warn of the violence that seeks to devour us; badger our legislators until there is sane gun policy in place; enact safety nets for mentally ill persons; be vigilant in prayer, recognizing the visitation from God that calls us to peace.

My friend called at the end of the day to say her son had been able to leave the Navy Yard complex and make the last train home. While she gave thanks for his safety, she wept for other families whose loved ones were killed.


OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.