Eastern Montana was rocked by the news this week of a man from Sidney who was killed in a random shooting in Las Vegas. Violence is a terrible thing, but when it hits this close to home, life suddenly tilts sidewise. Everything becomes askew as we are forced to look again at our own mortality and the suddenness of the end of all things.
Violent death is nothing new. It stalks our land, the world and takes away the secure cocoon we attempt to build around ourselves. The Bakken brought new people and new problems into our sphere of reference and I don’t think we have sifted through what all that means for us yet. Someone has said the only constant in life is change and the older we get the more that is so.
After hearing of the shooting our anxiety levels rise and we have a tendency to say things like, “Well, I guess I won’t go there any more” or “it’s best just to stay home.” But violence happens next door as well. We can never escape from that sense that nothing is safe even when we install security systems and pass laws for carrying concealed weapons to protect ourselves.
The instant nature of news reporting also heightens our concerns. I once read it took six weeks for the news of President Lincoln’s assassination to reach places on the west coast. Immigrants who came to this country did not learn of deaths at home until months after it happened. Today, we are a news flash away. Everyone knows and everyone knows now. The recent local paper noted a father and son from Glendive traveling in London saw the terrorist attack on Westminster Bridge, only moments after it happened. The people who were killed were just walking across the bridge on a Spring day when death came.
No one wants to spend time thinking about tragedy and mayhem, but these reminders make it real and whether we are hearing about 200 people killed in a bombing in the Middle East or several hundred refugees drowning in the Mediterranean as they attempt to find new life makes our security all the more precious.
The United States for generations was an isolationist nation. There has always been that strain of isolation running through our history. The two oceans were to protect us from the foreign entanglements of European monarchies except they haven’t. The Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans have shrunk to puddles in the face of technology — new communications techniques as well as more sophisticated military weapons. When North Korea is practicing its missile capabilities to reach our western shores, there is a collective shudder that runs through us all.
It is interesting to note that our enemy these days is hard to pin down as a living, breathing entity. Rather we identify our enemy as “terrorism”, that is anyone who wishes to disrupt the status quo. It can be a home grown terrorist as well as someone from outside our culture. Fear is a powerful way to conquer people. A dictator rules by fear. Fear is giving up our freedoms for that sense of security for which we all yearn. Terrorism equals disruption equals fear equals a surrendering of our liberties for security. No people are safe from that.
I was recently listening to an Old Testament Bible scholar talk about the children of Israel at a time when their world had fallen apart. Their leaders both religious and political had failed them and they were angry, condemning and afraid. Everything was gone and there was nowhere to turn. The scholar noted that was when God said, “I will make a new promise with you. It will not be something you can quantify, something you can measure, but rather it will be written on your hearts.” God always keeps God’s promises. In fear we come. Once we are willing to accept God’s promise and live as people with a new destiny — caring for the poor, lifting up the defenseless, speaking for the voiceless, putting our money into programs that bring life rather than military weapons, not using our money to defend the rich but rather the powerless then, with our perspectives going in the right direction, our fear is replaced by hope and new life.
Ingrid Christensen, one time Director of the board for the Division for Church in Society of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said that when the church has done its best work it has done three things: had courage, listened to the people’s stories and kept God’s story of grace and mercy at the center of our work. Listening to the stories people tell is a way of giving validity to the lives we have lived. To listen is to tell people they matter. To listen to the words is to create a living monument to humanity. Our stories, our words matter. In this election year I am reminded of the power of words to sway our emotions, touching our deepest fears and attempting to give us easy answers for our greatest yearnings. The mis-use of words when they are used to manipulate and control is something about which we must always be aware. I recently listened to two professors discuss language and how it is being used to bring about decisions that influence not only our lives in this country, but also the world.
The language of fear is one that our enemies use with deliberation. Ask a child who is the victim of bullying what fear means -- non-acceptance, not being a part of a greater group, isolationism. Unfulfilled yearnings, desperation, lack of hope spill out by way of the power of words. It is the power of a language of fear that can cause us to give up our liberties into the hands of people who clasp the power for their own.
The language of isolationism is the idea that by staying out of the affairs of others we can protect ourselves. In this day and age that is not possible. But it is also a powerful language when dealing with religious and racial unrest, when we are talking about creating a kind of racial purity. When those of like mind isolate themselves from the “marketplace of ideas” their tenets harden and there is no room to breathe.
Appeasement had a meaning all its own when Hitler was seizing parts of Europe and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain came home to England with the words, “We have peace in our time.” Today appeasement is directed at affairs in which we are not directly involved whether in this country or another part of the world. “It is not our problem.” As if saying the words will make everything with which we are uncomfortable go away.
The world needs to listen to the language of the poor and downtrodden which is often a voiceless language. We need to combat words of racial and religious intolerance. It took lawmakers and this country over one hundred years before we finally heard the words of our fellow Americans and understood their words, “I have a dream.” When that dream was claimed by all it meant equal rights for all people regardless of race or gender. For a refugee the only words may be the quiet sobbing of a frightened child in a language we don’t understand or the huddled body of someone who has lost hope.
We need to fear when there are no words at all. The shallow tumble of words we text, Twitter and Tweet makes us numb to the deeper words we need to listen to and act upon. We can shut our ears and turn our backs, but the murmur of voices and the power of words are never silent.