I usually have all kinds of words. That’s my thing. I don’t fix stuff with my hands. My ankles are too brittle for sports. And I was just an average math student. But words, I can do.
Except for this week.
For three days I’ve tried to come up with something to say about Orlando, this city beautiful that I’ve come to call my home—this unlikely little melting pot of misfits, who insist on forging together an authentic and one-of-a-kind culture just down the road from the heart of Americana. Nothing.
But maybe silence is the only thing fitting for the moment. Maybe it’s right that we sit and stew in this for a bit before we speak, before we offer up one more prayer, one more "our hearts go out to..."
If we, as a society, could honestly look in the mirror and say that we've tried everything we can to prevent these things from happening, then “praying for the families and friends” might be a very moving act of concern in the midst of helplessness. Things being as they are, though, words without actions have long started to feel like an insult to the value of human life, a feeling that was echoed repeatedly by biblical prophets like Isaiah, Amos, James, and of course, Jesus. We cannot allow this to be normal.
I’ve watched this trajectory closely ever since my family was close to a very infamous mass shooting over 17 years ago. I remember vividly how the memorials and the media circus went on for the better part of a year. We all wore T-shirts that said we would “never forget.” All the way through college, I remember lying about the town I was from, because there was so much stigma attached to the name. I didn’t want to be known as the “guy from the mass shooting town.” TV shows like “20/20” and “60 minutes” even had specials on the five year anniversary.
Now, when something like this happens, I wonder if the national spotlight will hold out for even five days. Will the attention slowly be eaten away by compassion fatigue? Or even worse, will something of equal scale happen somewhere else and draw it all away in a heartbeat?
I no longer lie about where I’m from, because there’s hardly any stigma to it anymore. It's not that unusual. Will it soon become a statistical anomaly if you haven't been close to one? Is that where we’re heading? Is losing your childhood innocence in proximity to a massacre going to be normalized like a sort of coming of age event in America?
God of mercy, I hope not. I can’t help but wonder, though, what will I tell my niece and my Godson who both just turned one last month? Will they grow up thinking it has to be this way? Or will “Turn of the Century – Rampant Gun Violence” just be one very ugly heading in their history books?
The good news is that there is still time. The vigils, the songs, the candles: they are all good indicators. They show that we still feel feelings. There is still a Pulse of compassion pumping robustly through the heart of humanity. The displays of solidarity that we’ve seen across the world from the LGBTQ community, from straight allies, from the Islamic community are all vital signs showing that we have not gone gently into that good night of numbness. Total desensitization has not run its course. We have not fully routinized the cycle. We have not accepted the nervous fatalism, wondering which community is going to be in the news this month? And which 90 or so mothers will never again hold their children after tonight? Humanity is yearning for something better.
I’ve seen enough beauty around Orlando, the last three days, to know that we are not too far gone. That feeling of holy pain is the fuel of change. If we can still cry before we pray, then we can still take action afterward.
But we do need to act. The pot is heating up and our empathy is the frog.
I no longer insult anyone's intelligence nor do I humor the predictable retorts by stating specifically what needs to change. You already know what needs to change. We all do. If you don't agree with me, then ask yourself, "How did I know what I was disagreeing with just then?"
See? We all know. We don’t deny the obvious for lack of knowledge but for self-justification. And arguments don’t break through self-justification. Pain does. And frankly, I’ve shouted those arguments into the void so many times in the last 17 years, since I first “came of age,” I’m not feeling up for that just now. If we don’t allow ourselves to feel the sadness, the senselessness of this moment, my fear is that we’ll dry up the very tears that will be our most precious resource going forward.
So let’s just cry for a bit. If you’re like me and you sometimes have trouble drowning out all the words, here is a beautiful song by Matisyahu that sometimes helps. Take some time to go through the names, pictures, and stories of those who died.
Words are nothing right now without the authority of tears behind them and the power of action in front of them. So before filling the space with words and prayers, make sure you’ve put in the time to cry. Make an effort to feel the full weight of loss of these children of God—children who (though its silly that this still needs to be said, it does) were made perfect in God’s sight.
Grace and Peace,
Jared Witt is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community.
On how Castle Church is stirring up a movement from a brewery in Florida.