Marty Kuchma, Senior Pastor
So I sit down at my keyboard still struggling to find words that speak to the violence in the world, especially of late. And I realize that the best I can do is put words on the page, seeking to be inspired in some meaningful way as I write. This writing process, then, is an act of faith… and of hope.
As I mentioned on Sunday, the Squirrel Hill community, where the recent synagogue murders happened, was my home at one point in my life. Squirrel Hill is the most diverse neighborhood in all of Western Pennsylvania, sitting just outside of downtown Pittsburgh, adjacent to Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh. It is home to thriving congregations of all stripes, even as it is anchored by the rich and varied Jewish community. There is a bustling mix of old and new business that is rather seamlessly integrated with residences ranging from stately homes to small, relatively affordable apartments. It has the feel of a small town where cultures come together in harmony and all people live in peace. Resi-dents and visitors are truly neighbors in the best sense. This horrific killing there shattered what turns out to be nothing more than an illusion of tranquility, reminding us quite poignantly yet again that there really are no safe places right now.
I heard a young woman who was interviewed say that she does not understand how it is that people call everyone to prayer at times like this when her place of prayer is both no longer safe and literally not available until the bodies and the blood are cleared, the investigations stop, and repairs are made.
Of course we realize that it is not just that synagogue that was attacked, but churches, and grocery stores, and far too many schools, and movie theaters, and mailboxes in homes and offices, and… all with no sign of things getting any better and some pretty clear indications that, though this type of violence does seem to be cyclical, things are getting generally worse. The rabbi of the synagogue said this shooting was not just an attack on his synagogue or on Jews, but an attack on America.
Another young woman spoke of growing up “post-Columbine,” in a world where active shooter drills are commonplace for all school children. We all live in that world, don’t we? There are so many reminders of the frailty of life in this country, and in this world too, if we dare look beyond our own borders.
There is no easy answer to any of this. And getting to an answer is complicated by the reality that we as a culture don’t really have a way to deal with the complexity that is involved in this escalating violence. We tend to respond as a culture to small parts of the big picture, but we lack the means, and apparently both the ability and the will to make sense of this multi-faceted matter of great importance. In the wake of such massacres, we point toward guns, and mental health, and political discourse, or whatever, when the solution undoubtedly requires accounting for all of that and more. Further, we have lost, it seems, the ability to have meaningful conversations about anything that might stray into anything resembling politics by hitting hot buttons that trigger knee-jerk reactivity and shut off any possible rational problem-solving.
And perhaps more fundamentally, until we remember that we are all in this together, it is impossible to imagine a way forward. In fact, all of the violence and tension gin up our fears and incline people to cling even more tightly to small, insular and increasingly isolated groups that promise safety, small “tribes” that are becoming more entrenched in opposing views. Sadly, this is not just an American problem; it is happening all around the world, in Brazil, in Germany, and elsewhere, not to mention Russia and China and other traditionally closed countries.
And, because we are inundated with “news” around the clock, we end up knowing too much without really knowing anything at all. With all of that energy spent filling the air-waves and digital space, what passes as truth is more likely to be defined by ratings pursuits and advertising money, and politically-driven distortions, and all sorts of unabashed bombast.
One part of any hope for resolution of our current issues, it seems to me, is for us to learn to be in conversation with each other again, beginning with listening to each other. Listening does not mean agreeing with. But being heard lifts people from oblivion before they start yelling more vicious and venomous things more loudly, before they pick up guns to make their point, before they retreat further into the imagined safety of their small group that stands with them against the world. Conversation that begins with listening builds bridges instead of walls. Listening that sets aside assumptions and opens to new learning about each other does that best of all.
Listening is truly NOT not doing something. Instead, it is a very effective way of bringing about transformation in others and in ourselves, and working toward the kind of deep inter-personal healing it seems we need right about now. Listening creates space for movement and opens the possibility that people can begin to see other people – even those with whom they think they have absolutely nothing in common – as companions on a journey, with whom they might not ever agree, but at least as human beings they are less likely to hurt or kill. That seems a good starting place, doesn’t it?
This is an age of worry and fear and pain and confusion and so much more, for right now at least. And there are dire predictions that we might never be able to reverse the momentum toward fragmentation and polarization. But I am not willing to concede that. Of course we have a lot of work to do. And that work begins face to face and in respectful conversations, not only with people with whom we agree but with people who see things differently and even very differently. David Brooks, who has thoughtfully engaged questions of civility at this moment of history, reminds us that we can only find whole truths if we work together, incorporating in whatever fashion the varied perspectives of every other. Getting to that goal requires getting to know each other all over again, even as we get to know ourselves anew as well.
For me, a new approach Is worth trying. We surely cannot keep going the way we are.
In the next several days, I hope to pull together a listening session for people who want to be in constructive conversation. Stay tuned for more information. And the First Sunday Forum on Sunday, November 4, is intended to be a time to think together and talk together about reclaiming the highest ideals for our national political discourse. Come as you are willing and able.