Peace, Be Still by Venessa Bowers


I am no religious scholar. In fact, there are many times when I question the existence of a higher power at all. This is one of those times. As I stood in my kitchen on Sunday, June 12, 2016, and watched the breaking news of the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, I thought to myself, “where is God in all of this?” I did not then, and still do not now, have an answer to that question.

What I watched unfold in the next several hours in the mainstream media, as well as its social cousin, was the vitriolic rhetoric of fear. What was at one point, murder became in the next, a call to arms against “Islamic radicalism.” While a community mourned the senselessness of this crime, another community screamed for retribution against members of the shooter’s religion. While one community struggled to embrace and comfort each other, another incited fear of the “other.”

I listened to Christians, and some of those folks who claim Christianity but do not demonstrate, by their behavior or words, that they have lifted the sacred text much less learned its teaching; proclaim that the president of our nation is complicit in this murder. Some so-called Christians bragged about the political position of intolerance which they believe is justified by the actions of a murder. Some, as expected, offered prayer and condolences for the fallen. They did not, however, offer comfort, empathy or compassion. But their silence was deafening.

I listened deeply to members of the Muslim community beg for people to understand the truth about their faith. They went unheard.

I read the words of Jews who all too easily identified with the fallen based on the historical events that have targeted them for centuries. They were ignored.

I listened to the cries of my LGBT brothers and sisters as they came to understand that this horrific event could have happened to any of them. I thought of the people who have loved me best, those same brothers and sisters, and my heart bled even while my mind rejoiced that I would not have to bury someone I love because someone else turned hatred into death. At least this time.

In our recent, collective past, we have seen several mass shootings: in communities, in churches, in schools, at colleges and universities. And we think, “well maybe we should do something about guns…” and then we hear all about the Second Amendment granting us the right to bear arms and are chastised because any talk about gun ownership is the talk of the unpatriotic and amounts to the tacit approval of the government’s fictions attempt to confiscate people’s guns and leave them vulnerable. Critical thinking and questioning is positioned as weakness.

We’ve seen an uptick in hate-filled, fear-based rhetoric in the public sphere. And each day, we become more divided, more afraid, more intolerant, more alone. Until we take to the social media feeds and propagate more of the same divisiveness, fear, intolerance, and loneliness. And as I reflect on this, I admit, I still don’t see where God is in all of this noise.

So, I went looking for God and I found that in all of the religions of the world, somewhere in their teaching, is the notion of peace and tolerance. It’s written down. It’s pretty clear even to someone like me who is not a religious scholar and claims no allegiance to any one spiritual teaching. They all say to love one another. They all say to court peace. They all say to forgive. So why do the faithful refuse this teaching?

Why are the loudest people using fear rhetoric in this country supposedly Christian? Let’s be honest – the struggle for LBGT rights is long and devastating. It has been bloody and most often, just plain unfair. There have always been people who want to punish this group for their “sin” and because of this desire to exact “penance” from this community, we see the rage and hatred directed toward the LGBT community and we actively ignore the implicit consequences of that intolerance.

We hear religious leaders telling people to shoot transgender women in the ladies room. We watch people deny this group their basic human rights, AND the rights guaranteed to them under the same constitution they claim to love. We watch as leaders remove the LGBT community from a massacre that was directed AT them, to make this about radical theology. It is not about that. It is about fear and believing one has the right to judge and punish another for simply living differently. This is not really homophobia because, in my opinion, folks aren’t really afraid of people in the LGBT community. This is shaming hatred that is propagated in our political rhetoric, in our communities, in our churches, in our laws, in our justice system. We hate and shame what we choose not to understand. And we feel righteous in this behavior.

In many ways, this has been more about the shooter and not at all about the victims. We focus on the shooter because, “he must be mentally ill,” after all. Even that statement marginalizes another vulnerable group of people.

Why can’t we see how much our fear divides us from each other? Why do we focus on the shooter? Didn’t those people who died have families, friends, goals, aspirations, and dreams that were silenced in terror because of another’s intolerance? Why isn’t that the important thing to talk about? The victims were people, just like you and me who wanted the very same things you and I want: love, acceptance, compassion, freedom, safety, and support. That’s really not so much to ask for, in my opinion. Why is that lost in the rhetoric?

Well, because for the most part, in politics especially, events like this provide platforms for fear rhetoric. Fear rhetoric is used as a method to control people and to encourage them to act in fear-based ways. Historically speaking, we know what Hermann Goering said at the Nierenberg Trials, and I think, just to draw this more clearly, it is necessary to state it again here:

Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger.

Is it just me, or is this happening again?

It is not only about fear, it is also about power and the power to use fear to drive behaviors. If we follow the money, which is a major form of power in our society, we see that the people we elected to lead us as a nation have been bought off by the gun lobby and support the right for anyone to buy an assault weapon because of our “second amendment rights.” Politicians have the power to change this rhetoric and legislation however, they do nothing because it is not in their best political interests (read money and power) to stand up to a lobby that finances their positions. They have control of the airwaves and use it to incite fear and hatred. But make no mistake, they are guided by self-interest NOT their moral obligation to protect the citizenry and instead, they’ve sold their soul by contributing to the pyre of the increasing number of gun-related deaths occurring every day. That is not innuendo or hyperbole. That’s fact. And it certainly has nothing  to do with the Second Amendment. It is about profiting from people living in fear and attempting to normalize it to hide that profit. Take a look at the numbers: https://everytownresearch.org/gun-violence-by-the-numbers/. Statistics don’t lie. These aren’t ‘juked’ numbers.

So…ok. Fear and power; power and fear wrapped in intolerance based on religion. Where does that leave us? I felt lost so I continued my search for God.

If we go back to the notion of the faith-community’s basic understanding of society, we see that Jesus asked a very important question: “For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?” And I wonder. I wonder what these people will say to their Almighty. How will they answer? How can they answer?

On my search for God, I looked to the religious teachings from around the world and time and again, we are instructed to work for peace. The Dalai Lama said “World peace must develop from inner peace. Peace is not the absence of violence; it is the manifestation of human compassion.” The Qur’an tells us “…whosoever kills an innocent human being, it shall be as if he has killed all mankind, and whosever saves the life of one, it shall be as if had saved the life of all mankind” (Qur’an 5:32). The Buddha tells us “Better than a thousand hollow words, is one word that brings peace.” Can you hear that? Stop a minute and think about those directives.

The Muslim scholar, Rumi taught that “Your task is not to seek for love, but to merely seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” Jesus commanded us to “Love one another,” The Old Testament or The Torah tells us to “turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it, (Psalms 34.14), and The Shenandoah Native American tribal teaching instructs us that “It is no longer good enough to cry peace, we must act peace, live peace and live in peace.” Can we do that? Can we step aside from our desire to be “right” at any cost? Can we put fear to rest?

Because, here’s the thing: all of these religions (there are far too many for me to provide to the reader here) speak about the benefit of seeking and pursing peace. However, we are human and we tend to bow to our more base needs. For example, Maslow studied the motivations of people and provides us a Hierarchy of Needs. In it, he says that needs fall into five categories:

  1. Biological and Physiological needs: air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, and sleep.
  2. Safety needs: protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, and freedom from fear.
  3. Love and belongingness needs: friendship, intimacy, affection and love.
  4. Esteem needs: achievement, independence, self-respect, and respect from others.
  5. Self-Actualization needs: realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, and seeking personal growth and peak experiences.

If, for example, we are stuck at category one or two, and I believe that we are, we cannot seek peace, pursue love, show compassion and empathy, or live humanely because we think we do not have what we need to be secure in mind and body. Please do not misunderstand me, many people in our country legitimately do not have their basic needs met; but these are not the people of whom I am speaking. I’m speaking about the people with power who propagate a sense of lost safety in their words and deeds, every hour of every day. Week after week; month after month; year after year. “BE AFRAID” our headlines shout. And the shouting shuts off our rational brain.

Consider this: in the richest country in the world, the one that touts its progressiveness in freedom, rights, and dignity, as a society, we are still stuck on safety needs. I mean, seriously think about this. Why would anyone need an assault weapon to protect him/herself? They don’t. That’s fear talking. Why would anyone feel threatened by someone else’s expression of love for another human being? They don’t have to. That’s fear yelling. Why would anyone believe that another’s religion is the root cause of all negative behavior of a few people? That it is the very nature of their “faith” to be destructive? They don’t really believe that but the fear is screaming louder than reason. Why are we so divided and angry all the time? Because the fear we hear, the fear we see, the fear we feel, rightly or wrongly, directly affects the way in which we see and act in the world. If I know nothing about you, your faith, your values, your morals, your hopes and dreams, how can I not fear you? You are different than me. And that scares me. Because fear drives us.

So, after my search for God in the religions, for truth and fairness in the rhetoric, for understanding of the multitude of fear-based murders from psychological perspectives, and just to find plain human kindness, I am left exhausted. I do not choose to live in fear. I choose to love. To seek peace. To offer peace. To lead with empathy and compassion. I do this because as the Talmud tells us, “Who can protest and does not, is an accomplice in the act.” I will not be an accomplice in this murder of innocents. I will not sit in my living room and allow fear to consume me. I will not let political spin cloud my judgment. I will not let bigotry and hatred stand. And I will protest in love. I will protest in peace. Because maybe? Just maybe if we all did a little of this, things would change for everyone. We all want the same things. Love, safety, security, peace. We get it for ourselves by providing those things to each other. This is not naiveté; it is hope. Hope in a world that is so violent, strange, unforgiving, and brutal. I choose hope.

Peacefully and lovingly, I hope you join me in mourning for all the victims of gun violence, intolerance, and hatred in our society. Peacefully and lovingly, I hope you join me in a protest of compassion and empathy to take a positive stand against fear. It starts, and it ends, with each of us. And this? This is on all of us.

 

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