Transforming our pain

May 19th, 2021

A local news outlet reported that Alexandria—where my wife Joy and I reside—is the second most dangerous place to live in Louisiana.

Shootings have been making headlines pretty often lately. So our violent crime ranking did not come as much of a surprise. Besides, we’ve known for a while that our state as a whole makes the national top ten list for violence: number six according to 2020 statistics.

As I reflected on the violence that surrounds me, some words from Richard Rohr came to mind. “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.”

All of this local violence—I would say any violence we humans visit upon one another—is the transmission of pain we’ve received onto someone else (and onto ourselves). To put this another way, violence is a misguided and self-defeating strategy for dealing with our pain. To reduce the violence in our world, we will have to deal with our pain differently.

I’m getting ahead of myself. So, put a pin in the idea of reducing violence by dealing with our pain. Let’s turn first to a somber fact. We might not like to admit it, but each of us has been bruised and battered, chipped and scraped by life. By impersonal circumstances but also by other people. Oh, and let’s be honest, by our very own precious little selves.

That’s what at least some of us mean by the unfortunate phrase “original sin.” It’s not so much that each of us is born bad. No. Babies do not come into this world with a moral rap sheet. But each of us is thrown into a world that contains not only loving, nurturing forces but also selfish, oppressive, and even toxic people, movements, families, and institutions.

To put it another way, each of us comes on the scene in the middle of a movie. A lot of stuff has already happened—good and bad, beautiful and destructive stuff. And every one of us carries within us undeserved pain given to us by somebody or something.

Our pain gives rise to a hunger for justice. Things should be set right. And you know, that’s just how God thinks about it, too. Things need to be made right. And so, many of us fervently pursue justice. And, without intending to, we make things even worse.

You see, many of us are convinced that justice requires punishment. You have to balance the scales. Heap a proportionate amount of pain on those who have caused pain. You just have to find the right people to blame for the mess we’re in. That’s called retributive justice.

But here’s the problem. Punishment does not heal pain. On the contrary, it creates new pain. And as a result, it perpetuates the very violence we’re trying to solve.

Studies show that those who have suffered violence feel a transitory sense of relief when they see their perpetrator being punished. But all too soon, the pain they had been feeling re-emerges.

There is another way forward. It’s the way that Jesus exemplified. And people like Howard Thurman, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. patterned their thinking and lives on it.

Instead of looking for someone to blame, we can set our sights on healing. This is restorative justice.

Compassion is the path to restorative justice. My pain is transformed when I stand in solidarity with the pain of another. We start with “I suffer” and move to “we suffer.” We heal together.

Then, as Richard Rohr says, “Those who agree to carry and love what God loves—which is both the good and the bad—and to pay the price for its reconciliation within themselves, these are the followers of Jesus Christ. They are the leaven, the salt, the remnant, the mustard seed that God uses to transform the world.” (The Universal Christ, p. 152)

Love is the only power that will transform our pain and deliver us from violence. Love is not easy. It isn’t even safe. But it is good. And in the end, love wins.

This article originally appeared at Looking for God in Messy Places. Reprinted with permission.

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