“Finding Peace Both Near and Far” by Mark W. Harris
May 12, 2013 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship from Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker
What words tell the truth? What balms heal? What proverbs kindle the fires and passion of joy? What spirituality stirs the hunger for justice? . . .What are the ways of being with one another that enable life to flourish, rich with meaning? When violence has fractured communities, isolated people, and broken hearts, how can life be repaired? We ask these questions not to arrive at final answers, but because asking them is fundamental to living.
Reading – Mother’s Day Proclamation by Julia Ward Howe, 1870
(The First Mother’s Day proclaimed in 1870 by Julia Ward Howe was a passionate demand for disarmament and peace).
Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or tears!
Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies.
Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have taught them of charity, mercy and patience.
We women of one country will be too tender of those of another to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”
From the bosom of the devastated earth, a voice goes up with our own. It says, “Disarm, Disarm!”
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice. Blood not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail & commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace,
And each bearing after her own time the sacred impress, not of Caesars but of God.
This week an article in the Boston Globe introduced us to people who felt guilt about what they did not do in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. People who were at the site, but left to either reach family members or in panic and fear felt they should have done more. Could I have helped that person save a limb? They feel guilt and shame. I felt immense guilt that I was not here during the “shelter in place” order as law enforcement officials searched for the second suspect. As my family came home, and there was discussion of church services, I kept saying to myself I should be there with my community, BUT I have this other obligation. This week at a Watertown religious leaders meeting with the Israeli Trauma Coalition I learned people who survive trauma, like what happened here, often feel guilt or shame for what they did or didn’t do. They find some way to blame themselves for the attack. It can lead to action, like organizing a meeting or a fund-raiser but guilt may also make us feel helpless or depressed.
The violence of the Boston Marathon bombings, the subsequent shoot out here in Watertown, and the response to those events, including the guilt we may feel for what we did or did not do are useful signposts for gauging our response to violence in our culture and in our lives. The touchstone for that discussion is Julia Ward Howe, probably known to most Americans as the author of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” that rousing Civil War anthem that helped give the Union troops a religious grounding for using the violence of war to bring about peace, invoking Christ like martyrdom: “As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” The irony of her association with war anthems is that in the wake of the Civil War, she began a worldwide peace movement. The carnage of war, which brought about primarily the death of young men, led her to see a direct correlation between motherhood and campaigns for peace. Disappointed when a World Congress for Peace did not occur, in 1870 she called for a new annual festival called Mother’s Day, devoted to advocating for peace. Her movement never really caught on. Our modern celebration dates to the early twentieth century.
The violence Howe saw in the culture also resided in her home. Julia’s husband Samuel Gridley Howe, was known for his worked in educating the blind and his abolitionism. Julia was a writer and advocate for women’s suffrage. Samuel objected to any role outside of domesticity for his wife. When she anonymously and secretly published a volume or poetry that included poems that suggested she was struggling with marital discord, Samuel was not happy. Julia told her sister that Samuel was near insanity, and was cold and indifferent to her. He asked her to stop making public appearances, believing that that shamed the family and spread rumors about the paternity of the children. He tried to use guilt to induce her to stay home, and may have beaten her as well. He characterized himself as an unfortunate husband whose misery was brought on by her private indulgences. She felt ashamed and guilty, and worried that no matter what she did, she would ruin the family. In a poem called “An Apology,” she writes, “I must argue from the faith, which gave the fervor of my youth, or keep such silence as yon stars.” It is inspiring to know that Unitarianism led her to continue to speak the truth about equality and inclusiveness. Would that her husband had truly listened.
While her husband tried to use wifely and motherly guilt to rein Julia in, and control her, one can also see Samuel used his own sense of shame to act out in violent ways. It was Julia’s original plan to celebrate Mother’s Day for Peace on July 4, the day that we are told that the Marathon Bombers were originally planning to attack Boston. They finished building their bombs early, and our local terror unfolded. One thing that characterized our responses to both the terrible murders of 27 people in Newtown, CT, including 20 children, and the recent marathon bombings is our desire to know the reason. Why did they do this? In both cases, we have looked to environment, placing blame on the mother, either through neglect or over-protectiveness. We often want to find a mother to blame. Or was it the environment? We may see the two bombers as growing up in a wildly violent Chechnya, where Russian armies have for decades viciously suppressed rebels resulting in a terrible loss of life. They came as immigrants to be protected, but what scars were imprinted upon their psyches? Did they lose their way in a new world, or fall under the influence of extremism? Perhaps we think of a brother turned violent in the Biblical myth of Cain and Abel. Is Cain every young man who is frustrated by rejection of some kind, and turns to violence to act out his anger? Yet he is made to feel rejected as a result of guilt and sin. Perhaps it is difficult for us to understand this kind of violence because there is no rhyme or reason to it. It is young men acting out, not thinking of why or where.
How does a rational faith like ours understand that kind of emotionalism, that that kind of anger and frustration can result in violence, from which we are usually well guarded? We see that violence and terrorist acts are possible among us. It is difficult to live with this kind of fear, because most of us live with the expectation that we are always safe. We know with the younger suspect that this act has been seen as out of character. We have heard his friends say, “He wouldn’t do that.” Such irrational violence is disorienting and affects our understanding of the world. We read about one act of violence after another – from Newtown to our own Watertown, and we think the world is out of control. There are bad people, or we live in a bad world, and we ask how can I bring a child into this kind of violent place, where they are not safe? If the world suddenly becomes a more dangerous place for us, then it becomes more difficult to trust others.
Despite feelings of guilt in response to the bombing, most people did help, even if they did not see it that way. They helped their own families and friends; they stayed out of the way; they followed orders. This week I had the wonderful experience of witnessing a naturalization ceremony for nearly 200 new citizens at the Hellenic Cultural Center, cosponsored by the World in Watertown. During the ceremony a judge spoke of how proud he was that another judge had read the Miranda rights to the suspected terrorist. In trying to build the city of peace, we must invoke the rule of law not the rule of vengeance. Protesting at funeral homes only exacerbates the hatred. We internalize it, and become like the ones who hate, recalling what Martin Luther King once said, “Hate is too great a burden to bear.” Real peace in our hearts and lives will never come from such petty rage. We must disarm our hearts, too As Gil Baillie once said, “The people who burned witches at the stake never for one moment thought of their act as violence; rather they thought of it as an act of divinely mandated righteousness. The same can be said of most of the violence humans have ever committed.”
This environment of violence has led to a call for new measures of gun control. Each time a terrible shooting occurs, we see some politicians and segments of the public respond by calling for new laws. Many of us were disappointed when the Senate refused to consider new legislation even as grieving parents from Newtown were present, having testified to their anguish and pain. Today, thanks to Charmian you have a chance to support legislation, and we will keep you informed of other chances to work against gun violence. We spoke earlier of how rationalism sometimes falls short by looking for specific reasons why a certain person committed an act of violence. I think this has also been true sometimes for liberals when they consider gun ownership. I grew up in a family that owned guns. I learned to shoot, and lived in a culture where most of my friends went hunting. I liked neither the kick back from the weapon against my shoulder or the idea of killing things. Yet rationalism was never a successful weapon (no pun intended) in trying to convince my father that he didn’t need guns. I could have quoted him all the statistics in the world about how those who use guns to defend themselves are more likely to end up being shot. I could give him figures on crime, guns and percentages until the cows came home. He knew in his heart that he wanted a gun in his bedroom to protect his family, and that was that. Sometimes we liberals need to start in a different place than rational figures on crime statistics, and think of human emotions – fear, and the need to protect what we call our own.
In my own rationalism I have often thought I should argue that the second amendment is not about the right to own guns, but rather the right for a state to have a militia. In other words, I have presumed that individuals should not own guns. Whether I am right or wrong is a moot point, as it is taken for granted that the right to own a weapon exists. While I think it is irrational for some gun owning hunter to think he needs an assault weapon or a large clip or its infringing his liberty to have a background check, I need to realize that yes, it is irrational, and I need to understand that. For gun owners passing one gun law may be a slippery slope to passing a sweeping gun law, but moreover the real fear is a police state that robs these gun owners of what they perceive as their liberty. We can never win an argument about how much crime is deterred by gun ownership, or if my father’s gun ownership kept some criminal from breaking into our house. Yet, as they successfully argued in Colorado in passing new gun legislation limiting magazine size, “Who needs more than fifteen rounds to defend his house?” One problem that liberals have had historically is that we have seen gun owners as red neck pick up truck drivers with a right wing ideology. We have sometimes stigmatized them and stereotyped their ideology as bigots who call all Muslims, towel heads. Several years ago, Wendy Kaminer argued that we should begin by acknowledging that owning a gun is a right, and that once we have accepted that, then we might have better luck regulating background checks and magazine size. We know most people are in favor of background checks, so that may be where to start. Sometimes we need to place our values in proper perspective. We have children who bring toys guns to school who get suspended, and yet I may buy or carry a real gun with no infringement on my rights to do so. Wouldn’t it make sense to identify those among us who have been convicted of certain crimes, such as domestic abuse, from owning a gun?
I think we all feel the pain of these violent attacks more when there are children who are the victims. The sheer number of children in Newtown, and more recently the death of Martin Richard from Dorchester, makes us believe we must change something. Martin, who was only eight, became a kind of symbol for the tragedy when his picture was posted showing him holding a little poster he had made with the words: “No more hurting people. Peace.” One girl saw news of his death and stated she was, “Scared.” “I never know where they are, the bad people.” No one should have to be scared all the time, least of all children. Yet we know people in some neighborhoods who have to live this way all the time. There is a pervasive nature of gun violence and the enemy is not Muslim fanatics, or immigrants. There is violence in our own backyards that can come to traumatize us. And that violence can come from those we know and even love. This week I saw 200 immigrants who desperately want to live in peace, and harmony with others. Many of them were Muslims from Bangladesh to Turkey to Russia. They want to live with less fear. They do not want any more tragedy to live with.
A little more than fourteen years ago two teenagers placed bombs in a high school cafeteria and shot everyone who left the school in Littleton, Colorado. Liberals said we should tighten gun control laws, and conservatives said family values had collapsed. The number who died that day is often listed as thirteen. This neglects to include Harris and Klebold the two teenagers who shot up the school and died there. The same thing happened in Newtown. Usually Adam Lanza was not listed among the dead, and even his mother was excluded, too. She got blamed. Even in our recent bombing, the older brother was not included among the dead. In the case of Klebold and Harris, they did not come from broken homes, and had no records. There was no rational reason. At one point someone put up fifteen crosses near the school, and Klebold’s parents hoped everyone could perhaps grieve together. But some other parents destroyed two of the crosses. Klebold’s mother said, “I think the other parents believed they experienced loss, and I had not, because their children were of value, and mine was not, My child died, too. He made a terrible decision and did a terrible thing, but he was still my child.” Mrs. Klebold faced a great deal of hostility, but she stayed in the community, and she reached out to the parents of each dead child even though many blamed her, the mother, as the responsible one. She suffered a great deal from the trauma of this event. In the end she said, “it might have been better for the world if my son Dylan had never been born, but it would not have been better for me. I am glad I had kids and glad I had the kids I did, because the love for them – even at the price of this pain – has been the single greatest joy of my life. Life is full of suffering,” she says, and “I accept my own pain.” She had thousands of dreams in which she says her son was covered with cuts, all the pain she didn’t see that was hidden. She suffered much guilt from not knowing what was in his head. On Mother’s Day may we remember that all parents feel guilty for what they cannot know, and all parents feel enduring love for the child who came into their lives, who they parented as best as they could. All people, no matter what decisions they made or make, have value. All people change us, and we hope to grow and move forward from those changes. May Mother’s Day be a day of forgiveness and acceptance, and the beginning of the end for violence and trauma.
Closing Words – The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.