Here's tomorrow's homily. Longtime friends and blog readers have already heard the personal story I tell here, but it's worth repeating anyway. My church is in Sparks, not far from the school where the shooting took place -- although no kids from the parish are currently students there -- so this was an especially tough pastoral challenge. As a licensed lay preacher, I'm no longer required to run my homilies past ordained folks for approval, but I showed this to our rector ahead of time anyway. I'm grateful that he gave me the go-ahead.
The picture above is an AP photo taken at a candlelight vigil for the victims this past Wednesday.
The Gospel is Luke 18:9-14.
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We are all too familiar with horror in the news. Last week, it came home. A twelve-year-old shooter at Sparks Middle School killed a beloved teacher, wounded two classmates, and killed himself. In the next few days, another beloved teacher was murdered by a fourteen-year-old student in Massachusetts, and a thirteen-year-old boy carrying a toy gun was shot dead by police in California. As numb as we’ve grown to horror, stories like this would break our hearts even on a week when our own community wasn’t traumatized and grieving.
Make it stop, we plead. This is all too much. How can we make the horror stop?
When horror happens, there’s a natural tendency to seek causes, to lay blame. According to some accounts, the Sparks shooter was bullied, so we blame the bullies for driving the youngster to violence. We blame his parents for leaving the gun where he could get it. We blame him for pulling the trigger. Or, wary of blaming individuals for something we rightly recognize as a social epidemic, we blame large groups of faceless people. It’s the fault of the liberals, the conservatives, the NRA, oppressive gun laws, lenient gun laws, careless parents, kids these days, declining morals, junk food manufacturers, designers of violent video games.
“God, I thank you that I am not like other people.” Our natural tendency is to try to distance ourselves from whomever we blame. We would never bully a child; we would never leave a gun where a child could find it; we would never express our rage and despair in violence. As natural as this response may be, today’s Gospel tells us that it’s wrong. The Pharisee listing his virtues is not the good guy in this story. Our model is the despised tax collector who acknowledges his wrongdoings and prays for mercy.
Many years ago, I took a course on the Gospels at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. Talking about how one Gospel story can produce many different interpretations, our teacher said, “Which character are you in this story? In whom do you see yourself?”
I want to see myself in the tax collector, who’s clearly on Jesus’ good side. If I’m honest, I have to admit that I often act more like the Pharisee instead. But let’s look at another story, the one that’s been haunting us all week. Some children bully another child, whose parents have left a gun where he can get it. He takes the gun to school. He uses it. People die.
Can you see yourself in the parents who take imperfect safety precautions? Can you see yourself in the bullies who use cruelty as power? We all want to identify with Michael Landsberry, the heroic teacher who sacrificed himself to protect students. We want to believe that we’d be as brave as he was, and maybe we would. But by the time he showed up, the gun was already in the child’s hand. How do we keep the gun out of the child’s hand?
If we want to make the horror stop, we have to begin where it begins. We have to seek ourselves, not in the innocent, but in the guilty.
The cruel bullies. The careless parents. The violent victim. Who am I in this story?
When I was twelve years old, I got beaten up or teased or mocked almost every day. I was a skinny, homely kid with ill-fitting clothing, spotty social skills, a tendency to cry far too easily, and very visible facial hair. This last earned me special torment, both verbal and physical, from other kids. Most of the adults who witnessed the abuse did nothing, except sometimes to tell me that I just had to learn to defend myself.
The kid I feared the most was a girl named Tasha. We had French class together. She was as skinny as I was, but as bold as I was awkward. She was sly, fast, scornful. Every day she came up to me, grabbed my upper lip, pulled it – hard – and delivered a jeering commentary on my mustache. The French teacher comforted me and tried to make Tasha stop. It never worked.
I hated Tasha more than I have ever hated anyone. I prayed for her to die, terribly and in pain. I fell asleep every night, and woke up every morning, nursing furious fantasies about how I'd get back at her if ... if what? I didn't have the physical skills or strength to fight, and I couldn't think of any way to make fun of her that would hurt her the way she kept hurting me. My powerlessness filled me with rage and self-loathing.
Now, as an adult, I shudder at what must have happened to Tasha to make her so mean. But even now, it's difficult for me to see her as a child, as a little girl, and not as the mocking personification of any bit of contempt anyone had ever felt for me, or that I'd ever felt for myself.
Do I need to tell you that if I'd had access to a gun, someone might be dead now?
I didn’t have access to a gun. I still had violent thoughts. What kept me from acting on them? A few adults, notably my French teacher, showed me that they saw what was going on and knew it wasn’t right. A few kids stuck up for me against bullies other than Tasha. These bystanders gave me hope that if I could just survive middle school, I might find a kinder world. They told me I had allies. They walked in compassion and acted in love.
And so, on a handful of occasions when I’ve seen a child being bullied in public, I’ve said something. Once, on a bus in New York City, I witnessed a tall, quiet young woman being harangued by her parents, who told her loudly – who told everyone on that bus – how stupid and ugly and boring she was, how being accepted to the American Ballet Theater at the age of sixteen was no big deal and she needed to get over herself. I sat down next to her and said, “I think it’s wonderful that you’re a ballet dancer, and no one has the right to talk to you that way.” She and her parents both looked embarrassed, but the adults stopped insulting her, at least on that bus ride.
I now know that this is called bystander intervention, an approach based on the fact that people make decisions, and continue behaviors, based on the reactions they get from others. Ignoring bullying won’t make it go away. Confronting it may not, either, but at least that young woman knew that someone else saw what was happening to her and thought it was wrong. She wasn’t invisible. Other kinds of behavior were possible. The world contained allies.
I have performed several of these small, simple bystander interventions over the years: not because I’m good, but because I too have felt ashamed and powerless and full of violent rage. I do what I wish more people had done for me. I do this not because I believe bullied children are innocent, but because I know they aren’t. I know their hunger to hurt others as they have been hurt. I know how easily they can lash out at their tormenters, or at themselves.
I have never systematically bullied anyone, but I’ve certainly committed my share of unkindnesses. I don’t own a gun, but I’ve certainly had my share of thoughtless or careless moments, including some that could have resulted in real harm. God, be merciful to me, a sinner. Or, as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, “Identify, don’t compare.”
How do we make the horror stop? I don’t have any easy answers. Any approaches I’ve suggested here are tentative and partial; all approaches rely on God’s mercy and grace. But I do have Jesus’ assurance that the way out of sin and pain isn’t to assign blame while holding ourselves blameless. It’s to take responsibility. It’s to love our neighbors as ourselves. It’s to love our enemies, that seemingly impossible task, by recognizing ourselves in them.
The bullies. The parents. The shooter. In whom do you see yourself, and what can you do to love that person?