Spirit Alive: Are You Experiencing Violence Fatigue?

Spirit Alive is a twice a month blog that looks at different aspects of mission and ministry throughout the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference and beyond.

July 12, 2016

With Heart, Soul, and Mind:

Are You Experiencing Violence Fatigue?

I have to admit that I feel a bit numb and disoriented from the most recent series of violent tragedies in our country. It all started June 12th, when our collective hearts were broken to hear the news that 49 people had been killed and 53 more were wounded at The Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. My sense of numbness continued to grow this past week as we all learned about the killings in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Falcon Heights, Minnesota; and Dallas, Texas. And if that weren't enough, there was also the recent violence and death that occurred in Istanbul, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. It is all pretty overwhelming stuff to live with.
During this time, we hardly had the chance to pause and appropriately remember the tragedy that took place June 17th of last year, when 9 people were killed during a Bible Study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. And soon our attention will turn once again to remembering the 9 people who were killed at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon on October 1, 2015. Quite frankly, I think we've all been left exhausted by so much daunting, troubling news.
Like many, including national columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr., I immediately traveled back in time to April 4th, 1968 and a speech that Robert Kennedy gave in Indianapolis, Indiana on the night that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. I was 14 years old at the time, trying to make sense of all the violence and loss of life from that era.
In his impromptu speech to a crowd on that tragic day, Kennedy quoted the Greek poet Aeschylus:
     Even in our sleep,
     pain which cannot forget
     falls drop by drop upon the heart,
     until, in our own despair,
     against our will,
     comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.
Hearing these words again, I pray for wisdom....and I pray for God's grace to be upon us.
        Yet another day begins...
        And my spirit takes flight,
        Searching for a place to rest.
Perhaps you have heard of "compassion fatigue" before. It is defined as being the "emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering the consequences of traumatic events." It is a kind of "vicarious or secondary traumatization" that comes about most often due to the cumulative effect of witnessing trauma over time. It is most common among individuals who work directly with trauma victims. People like you and me, who are engaged in ministry with others.
It can often result in a sense of hopelessness and the development of a negative attitude toward life's possibilities.
I don't feel a sense of "compassion fatigue" from all this tragedy, but I am certainly feeling a sense of "violence fatigue." Quite frankly, I'm simply tired of all the violence and want to do my part, in my small way, to make a difference.
Here are some things that immediately come to mind:
1. Stop transmitting pain and start transforming it
Some time ago, I heard Richard Rohr say in a presentation, "If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it." This is true of most things. If we don't transform our anger, we will transmit it. If we don't transform our prejudice, we will transmit. If we don't transform....Well, you get the idea. We pass on to others those things that we have not successfully come to terms with and transformed within ourselves.
Now is a good time to reflect on what we transmit in the way of negative energy toward others, when it is transformation that is really needed. Perhaps Mohandas Gandhi said it best: "Be the change you wish to see in the world."
2. Being me without making it difficult for you to be you
In the midst of the Civil Rights Era, Howard Thurman, the great African-American preacher and spiritual guide wrote a book entitled, The Search for Common Ground. In it he said: "I have always wanted to be me without making it difficult for you to be you." It seems simple enough, but this is not an easy thing to do.
Thurman concludes his book by saying, "Then the wisest among them will say: What we have sought we have found, our own sense of identity. We have an established center out of which at last we can function and relate to (others.) We have committed to heart and to nervous system a feeling of belonging and our spirits are no longer isolated and afraid. We have lost our fear of (others) and are no longer ashamed of ourselves, of who and what we are-- Let us now go forth to save the land of our birth from the plague that first drove us into the 'will to quarantine' and to separate ourselves behind self-imposed walls. For this is why we were born: (We) belong to each other, and he who shuts himself away diminishes himself, and he who shuts another away from him destroys himself."
3. What's wrong with being a beagle?   
Susan and I have a wonderful dog named Trinity. She is a small labradoodle and she loves people and most other dogs. But she has this thing for a beagle in our neighborhood. Whenever she sees that dog, she goes ballistic. I don’t know what it is, and it doesn’t make much sense to me. In fact, Trinity hasn’t ever really met the beagle- they haven’t even really walked on the same sidewalk at the same time. But something about that dog just doesn’t sit well with her. I don’t know if it has to do with how the dog looks…or if it has to do with its scent…or some other factor. But she has a clear prejudice toward this beagle.
It makes me think about the beagles in our own lives. Is your difficulty with people of color…White people…LGBTQ folks…the police…Muslims…other Christians? Who makes you go ballistic for no clear reason…even before you know who they are? If we are to find our way forward, we are going to have to figure this out…or we’re just going to keep barking at…and killing each other. Who are the beagles in your life…and how are you going to come to terms with them?
4. There is no magic wand, only real life connections    
I wish this situation were easier to resolve, but it is clear that we cannot simply wave a magic wand over our country…let alone the world…and have peace break out and justice suddenly reign. It hasn’t happened yet, and we’ve been working at this for a very long time.
But ultimately it is about our ministry and how we approach it. It is about handshakes and hard work…encounters and exploration…and how we decide to handle conflict and communication with those around us. It is about real, everyday life.
Perhaps Kennedy said it best on that April night in 1968: “What we need in the United States is not division. What we need in the United States is not hatred. What we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black…And let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: ‘to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.’ Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”
5. Find your public voice and use it
If it has been said that “the pen is mightier than the sword,” then perhaps our words are mightier than our guns. Clearly, words can be used as weapons, but they are also our tools. What is involved in your public voice…and how will you use it?
On Sunday night, I participated in an Interfaith Service for Peace that involved dozens of faith, political, and community leaders from the Portland area. It was our way of saying publicly that we are not willing to accept our current violence as being the new norm…and that we are going to do what we can to change this situation. How will you find and use your public voice?
The time is now…and all of us have a part to play.
Blessings on your journey,
Spirit Alive is a twice a month blog and email by Rev. Lowell Greathouse, Mission and Ministry Coordinator for the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference. It seeks out where the spirit is alive in our congregations and communities.