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Responding to the World’s Pain

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In the past days we have heard of trauma in several corners of the world.  Two of these situations you have surely heard about:  A man stormed a café in Australia, holding 17 people hostage.  In the end, he and two hostages are dead.  In Pakistan at least 141 people are dead following an attack on a school by Taliban fighters.  Most of the dead were children.  In both cases, our collective response is one of shock and horror.  How could it be any different?  The pain and fear the victims of these assaults suffered defies words.  Someone asked me recently how one should respond to such acts of terror after our shock has turned to…  what?
Does our shock become anger?  Hatred?  Grief?

As I confront in my heart and mind the reality of what has occurred, I find myself compelled by the need to grieve.  To grieve with the families of the dead, to grieve with the wounded, to grieve the broken state of the world and yes, to grieve for the brokenness that must lie buried in the lives of the killers.

There are of course other questions:  How did our world come to this?  What can we do?  As I have tried to respond to these latter questions, my thoughts keep reaching dead ends.  One could argue that there are many reasons why these things occurred.  We know, for example, that the gunman in Australia was a mentally broken man.  We know that many who take part in Taliban raids are themselves broken.  We know also that the Taliban itself is an expression of years of social imbalance created by both local and global dynamics.  And on some level, as global citizens we are implicated in these dynamics as well.  But… We also know that each of these answers and the many others that might be offered is never enough.  Each answer is still too weak in the face of the great pain suffered by the victims and their families.  In fact, in my experience there are never adequate answers to questions posed by the real human face of pain.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we don’t try, that we don’t seek to understand how and why these things have come about.  But for me and at this time, the more compelling question is this:  What shall we not do?  My response is this question is as follows:  We shall not hate.  Our great temptation in times such as these is to hate those who have caused harm, to focus on the killers as “cowards” or “evil” (words we hear repeatedly from our elected leaders).  While it is fair to express our outrage at what has occurred, I am not convinced that it is helpful to meet hatred with hatred, even if the act of name-calling is a rather tepid response when compared to the actions of the gunman.

Why not hatred?  In the end, the spirit of hatred kills the person who hates.  The old saying regarding drinking poison is instructive here:  Hanging onto resentment (or hatred) is like drinking poison but expecting the other person to die.  Hatred destroys the beauty of our souls.  But there is more too.  Hatred destroys hope.  To hate the other, to call the other unequivocally evil, is to remove from our imagination the possibility for a transformed outcome.  It also places us at risk of doing to the other as the other has done to us – or worse.  When we hate, we dehumanize the other.  In the end, a dehumanized other always also involves a dehumanized self:  If the other is evil and I am not, then I must be good (which objectively cannot be true).  From this lens, if I am good and the other is evil, then I can do no wrong and the other can do no right.  This has real consequences:  When we dehumanize ourselves and the other in this way we give ourselves permission to do all manner of harm to the other.  The hard, hard journey after events such as the ones we have seen this week is to find in our hearts compassion not only for the victims of these acts of terror but for the offenders as well.  And, perhaps hardest of all, even for ourselves as we struggle to understand and come to terms with the brokenness that exists not only in this world but also within the beauty of our own souls.

“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” 

Matthew 5:44, NRSV

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Betty Pries has more than 20 years of experience coaching, mediating, training and consulting in the areas of conflict resolution and change.   Betty's work with churches and church organizations is guided by her desire to enhance their spiritual and organizational health, and strengthen the capacities of leadership to discern a way forward.

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