By Bishop Gerald Barnes
Eight months ago our Diocese was traumatized by the mass shooting that took place at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, claiming 14 lives and forever altering the course of so many others left behind.
At the time, it was called the deadliest act of terror on U.S. soil since 9/11. Sadly, that distinction did not last long. On June 12, a lone gunman killed 49 people at a night club in Orlando, Florida and we were plunged once again into the despair, fear and anger that follow an act of public violence. Then just 16 days later 42 more people were killed in terrorist attack at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, Turkey. A little more than a week after that, five Dallas police officers securing a peaceful protest march were slain by a sniper’s gunfire.
These horrifying acts of violence are happening with alarming frequency and we are left with questions: How can we stop these attacks? Am I safe? Are there people in my own community who mean to do me harm? How can the loving God that I believe in allow these things to happen?
In dealing with our fear, we may be tempted to adopt a mentality of retaliation, of matching the aggression and violence of the attacker. It cannot be denied that human beings have a propensity to harm each other. The scriptures are ripe with examples of this. Surely, God weeps when one of his children takes the life of another one.
It is in these moments, when we are gripped with fear and anger, that we look to the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. What do his words and actions say about how we should respond to violence? It was no coincidence that the Gospel readings in the days after the Orlando attack contained two of the Lord’s most ardent (and difficult for many to practice) messages of non-violence.
“When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well.” (Mt. 5:39)
“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Mt. 5:44)
These statements may not sound to some like prescriptions for the mounting episodes of violence in our country and in our world. At the same time, if we want to see the values of our faith turn the tide of hatred, then we must begin to very publicly witness those values—love, mercy, self-sacrifice. The Lord showed us this in every step of his ministry, especially when He allowed violence at the hands of men to end His earthly life.
If we are truly committed to imitating Christ, we must follow his example and oppose violence in all its guises — terrorism, murder, assault, rape, domestic abuse, bullying, discrimination, racism and all others. Does this guarantee that we, ourselves, will never be victimized by violence? Of course it does not. But as Jesus showed us, we stand for something that transcends our individual well-being and sense of security. It is the promise of salvation if we keep his commandment to love one another as He has loved us.
It brings to mind a line from an old hymn.
“And they will know we are Christians by our love…”
I invite you to consider these questions as you continue to pray over and reflect on the events of the day:
Where or how do I struggle to live the Gospel messages of non-violence cited above?
What is my response when I feel fearful about the amount of public violence that is occurring? What role does my faith play in my response?