In January, I wrote about the uniqueness of Ash Wednesday coinciding with Valentine’s Day and suggested both crosses and hearts are appropriate shapes for ashes on foreheads because:
“at the center of the cross beats the very heart of God, entering into our suffering and shame and proving that Love is stronger than anything. Not even death can put an end to the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
I never imagined that claim would be tested with such heart-wrenching agony as 17 students and teachers where shot and killed at a Florida high school on the afternoon of February 14th. A photographer captured the anguished embrace of two women after the tragedy, one with a clearly visible ashen cross on her forehead and wearing a large silver heart around her neck. The collision of symbol and reality could not have been more profound.
In the aftermath, our collective conscience was rightly angered and aroused to do or say something. Many, including myself, took to social media to share perspectives or opinions. Our daughter Kayleigh posted her own powerful reflection on being a teacher in the post-Columbine era where she finds it necessary to prepare words she would say “if I thought my kids and I were going to die”.
But as much as social media can be a positive outlet for expression, it often prevents us from having authentic conversation. The internet’s carefully crafted algorithms feed us a steady stream of “recommended” content to affirm our own preconceived notions while an army of social media bots was deployed in the aftermath of this tragedy to intentionally widen the divisions in society with inflammatory, and completely false, information. Pilate’s question to Jesus, “What is truth?” seems as unanswerable as ever.
Yet I’m going to put on my theological hat and assert that there are indeed fundamental tenets (things that ‘hold’) which can help us avoid getting caught in misdirection and instead start TRUSTING one another to address the violence all of us want to see reduced in society.
The first truth is this: 1) God has not been expelled from school or any other place. One of the well-intentioned responses to violence and tragedy is to say it could have been avoided if only we had more faith, more prayer, more “God” in our society. A widely shared Facebook meme showed a t-shirt with the words “Dear God, why is there so much violence in schools?” The answer from God, according to t-shirt theology is, “Because I’m not allowed in schools”. I want to believe this expresses a longing for God’s loving presence in all facets of life, including at school, but the words themselves say far more than that. “God is not allowed in school” is the equivalent of saying schools (particularly public schools) are somehow God-forsaken and that is a claim we have no power to make.
As Christians in the season of Lent, we look to the most God-forsaken place imaginable, the executioner’s cross in a pagan society of Emperor worship, and there we confess God is truly present. Jesus suffers and dies as an innocent victim of humanity’s violence, descends into the depths of hell itself, and redeems every God-forsaken place. So contrary to t-shirt theologians, God is still in school. God is also present in churches and refugee camps, airplanes, shopping malls, movie theaters, outdoor concerts and other places where violence has claimed lives. We cannot prohibit God, but we can fail to see the sinfulness present in all of us.
Which brings us to the second truth: 2) People are broken. ALL of us, not just some, are broken. Lutherans, in particular, are adamant about confessing that we are in bondage to sin, never capable of escaping its effects, always lapsing in both known and unknown ways into attitudes and behaviors that take life instead of give it. We so easily forget this truth when horrific events occur because we instinctually look to place blame that doesn’t involve us. The right blames the left; the left blames the right. Those without guns blame the guns. Those with guns blame disturbed individuals. The suburbs blame the inner city. The city blames the system and everyone blames Hollywood while we all line up for tickets to the latest violence-filled action flick. One tribe blames another and no one gives an inch because the other side will take a mile. Fear, conspiracy, arrogance, and apathy all perpetuate the violence everyone says they want to reduce and the line between “good guy” and “bad guy” gets blurry in a hurry.
So where is our hope? In this final truth: God raises life out of the ashes and heals broken people. Just as Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine’s Day, so Easter falls on April Fool’s day this year. Easter shows just how foolish violence is as a solution. The mightiest empire of the ancient world, the one with every earthly weapon at its disposal, found out that the power to take life is nothing next to the power to give life. In today’s world, still filled with broken people, sometimes limited violence, in the hands of designated, trained, and accountable people, is necessary. Yet even law enforcement institutions are not immune to misusing the power entrusted to them. In the long run, “those who live by the sword die by the sword”. Violence is not the answer to violence. Love is.
Love gives life instead of taking it. Love puts the needs of others ahead of our own. Love allows us to set aside preconceptions and start listening to the experience and ideas of others. Love empowers us to sacrifice something that is important to us for the sake of someone else’s well being. Love helps broken people to forgive both others and ourselves, because many times “we know not what we do”. Love can heal wounded souls and counteract the urge to shed blood in the first place. Love is a power no other weapon has yet to match.
There is no one solution to preventing the senseless violence that so many communities have now had to endure. Yet even in a world full of broken people, there are a variety of solutions that working together, can have an impact. Let us have the courage to follow in the way of Jesus; the way of peacemaking, of restoration and reconciliation, of letting go of privilege, power, and even ‘rights’ for the sake of the common good. Let us walk the way that says, “not my will but your will be done O Lord”. Because when we do, not only will we discover a way through the darkness but we will see that God has been with us the whole time, even on an ashy Valentine’s Day, giving victims the courage to go on…and all of us the audacity to believe nothing is more powerful than love.