How not to succumb to numb

December 8th, 2015

We live in a new (ab)normal with mass shootings almost every day of the week. As of this writing, there was shooting in London today, a few days ago San Bernardino, before that Paris, Planned Parenthood, and Minneapolis. And those are just the big headlines from the last 10 days. There will probably be more by the time you get this.

What’s a church, or synagogue or mosque to do? As Jonathan Merritt points out, prayer alone isn’t enough. Even the New York Daily News is clear on this: “God Isn’t Fixing This.” I’d like to suggest four things every Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leader can do. And one thing none of us should do.

Call us to care. With so much violence in the world, it’s easy to go numb. How many times can we memorize the names of those who died, grieve the lives they left behind, or send money to help rebuild shattered communities? After 9/11 — with Oklahoma City, Columbine and Waco already behind us — many of us had already hit compassion fatigue. Then came Hurricane Katrina followed by an ever-increasing number of natural disasters. Here’s the danger of succumbing to numb: not caring dims our humanity, disconnects us from our neighbors, deadens us to our own vulnerability, denies hard realities of the world and diminishes our sense of personal agency.

Pastors, priests, imams, rabbis, ministers and congregational leaders, please: call us to care. Last week I attended a deeply touching, beautifully executed, interfaith prayer service for peace that was surprisingly sophisticated for my Wyoming city. Hosted in a Roman Catholic church, it included men, women, gay, straight, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish — with just about every hue of humanity represented. No one wanted to leave when it was over.

Call us to stay calm. In the wake of tragedy, there’s a lot of pressure to have an immediate response, which often leads to unwise pronouncements and unjust actions. Religious leaders tasked with helping make sense of the world around us should proceed with caution. A few days after 9/11, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell Sr. prognosticated to the world that pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays, and lesbians “helped this to happen.” Pastor John Hagee linked Hurricane Katrina to a gay pride event. No mention was even made of missing or defective levees, let alone climate change. Similarly, in a recent speech, Jerry Falwell Jr. reactively encouraged students at Christian Liberty University to be armed and “end those Muslims.” No mention was made of love, forgiveness, and healing of Christ. Make no mistake, comments like these only serve to inspire reactionary violence against innocent people.

I remember how tough it was to speak intelligibly on the Sunday after 9/11. My advice to you? When in doubt, adopt a pastoral approach. Remind us that God is with us, that we have seen tough times before, that we can rely on God for guidance. Then design ways for us to do that. In the congregation I led, we embarked on a study of just war as a way of engaging our minds and hearts. “We don’t really know why this happened” or “We’re discerning an appropriate response” or “I’m not sure I know what to think,” are also perfectly reasonable things to say early on.

Call us to action. To avoid succumbing to numb, we have to do something. Other than round up or kill people we are afraid of, that is. Our respective faiths give us plenty to work with. This is the time to practice the best tenets of our faith, not react in fear. Now is the time to love our neighbors, work for peace, intercede in prayer, practice compassion, welcome the stranger, house vulnerable refugees, protect the innocent, nurture the hurting, and yes, love our enemies. Above all, this is the time to imitate a loving, compassionate, beneficent and just God. The more we do these things, the safer and more connected we will be.

Call out the lies. ISIS, the KKK, and other religious extremist groups rely on twisting sacred scriptures, tradition, interpretation and facts to make their cases. It’s up to us who know better to correct the lies. Muslim scholars and leaders have been doing just this. Christian and Jewish leaders too need to call out their peers who justify targeting Muslims, blaming refugees, and shutting borders— based on the Bible. Otherwise, we become mirror images of the hateful, xenophobic violence we say we stand against.

Finally, here’s one “please don’t do.”

Please don’t pretend soul-shaking acts of violence aren’t happening. People watch the news. They listen to the radio. They scan Facebook and Twitter feeds. They know what’s happening in the world. Even if it means changing your service last-minute, at the very least lift up these events in prayer. To stay silent is to be rendered irrelevant. That’s a new kind of (ab)normal we should we resist at every turn.

Rebekah Simon-Peter blogs at She is the author of The Jew Named Jesus and Green Church.

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