This week, right in my own "backyard," a terrible thing happened. A man, fueled by hate, walked into a Unitarian Universalist (UU) church during a children's play and began shooting. Two people are dead and four more are physically injured. Many more are left to bear emotional scars. The alleged shooter (as of this writing, there has been no trial and no conviction) has admitted that he attacked the UU church because they embraced the gay community and because of their "liberal" stance. He said that he'd recently lost his job and attributed his loss to liberal politics. Police investigations revealed that the man had a history of domestic violence and mental illness.
When I heard the news, I felt many things: shocked, saddened, frightened. After that came the question, "how do we make sense of a senseless act such as this?" I was reminded of other tragedies… from the events of September 11th to the bombing of the high school in Clinton, Tennessee (6 miles from Oak Ridge) during the turbulent civil rights movement of the 1960's. It is sometimes mind-boggling how the seed of hatred can sprout within people and move them to inflict pain to so many others.
Peace with a club in hand is war.
- Portuguese proverb
In this most recent act of mindless violent "retaliation" against innocents, I have made some observations. There have been some people outside of the UU congregation who have expressed a desire to retaliate. Some have said that they hope the attacker gets the death penalty. Others have said that God will punish him. However, within the UU group itself, the response has been nothing but compassionate. One member of the congregation said, "we may never know why this has happened to us, but with more people losing jobs and more mentally ill people being left untreated, we should do a better job of taking care of them so as to prevent more tragedies like these." I found it remarkable that a man in the midst of a tragedy was able to look at the bigger picture and recognize mankind's failure to extend compassion to every single person, rather than assign blame to a third person or petition for retaliation from the justice system or an almighty supernatural power.
UUA President Rev. William Sinkford, when asked by a reporter whether or not he believed the shooter would go to hell, replied that he was already "living in his own private hell." That, my sisters and brothers, is the "sense" of this senselessness. The attacker does not know himself - his Buddha nature. It is the same for all of us who continue to cling to our suffering, only horribly amplified in his case. We continue to live in our own personal hell until we realize our true nature and are able to break free.
In an essay I wrote called "Forgiveness," I talked about learning to forgive ourselves and move toward that freedom which awaits all who seek it. I said that "true liberation of the heart comes from stopping the war within ourselves." When we can end that war, then it will be a natural consequence that we will end conflict with others.
If you want to make peace, you don't talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.
- Moshe Dayan
I found it especially remarkable that the UU congregation reacted as they did during the shooting. Several members wrestled the shooter to the floor and disarmed him… but they did not attack him in retaliation. There was no mob-like retaliation. They did not beat him up.
This is a real-life example of how we must react in our own lives. Of course we should protect ourselves - but should we retaliate? What purpose would that serve, other than to temporarily satisfy our own thirst for revenge? It would only cause suffering to both the attacker and the attacked.
An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind."
- Mahatma Gandhi
Now is the true test of our humanity - after the initial act is over and the attacker has been apprehended. It is the true measure of our compassion to see whether or not we make the effort to rehabilitate or if we only try to punish. The same is true in our personal lives. When someone has wronged us, do we try to "get even," or do we try to find out the underlying problem and address it? Our spouses cheat on us, our children lie to us, our coworkers steal from us, our neighbors disturb our peace and quiet. Do we seek "payback?"
Large scale tragedies such as this recent one are opportunities for us to be personally mindful as well as to practice compassion as a society. At times like this, the challenge is to shun the sword of vengeance and don the robe of love and charity. It isn't that we take the attack lying down and allow ourselves to be wronged - but that we rise above the initial action, think of the impact of our reaction on our fellow man, and extend the hand of compassion to help address the underlying cause of conflict.
It is easier to lead men to combat, stirring up their passion, than to restrain them and direct them toward the patient labors of peace.
- Andre Gide
I close with a Zen parable: One evening, a monk was sitting in meditation when a thief entered his house with a sword, demanding "your money or your life!"
Without fear, the monk replied, "Don't disturb me! Help yourself to the money, it's in that box." The monk then continued with his meditation.
The thief was taken aback by the monk's reaction, but he continued with his stealing.
While he was removing the money from the box, the monk said, "Please don't take all of the money out of the poor box. Leave some of it for them to buy food." Again the thief was startled, but he left some money as the monk asked.
Just as the thief was about to leave, the monk shouted, "Stop! That was Buddha's money! Aren't you going to thank him for it?" Surprised yet again, the thief made a quick bow before the statute of Buddha and mumbled thanks before he ran away.
A few days later, the thief was caught and confessed to his crime. When the monk was questioned as a witness, he said, "No, this man did not steal anything. He was given the money. This man even said 'thank you.' How could he steal what had been given him freely?"
At this, the thief was moved to repent of his crime and became a student of the monk.
To recognize the inherent worth and dignity of every person
- First Principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association
May all those who have been affected in this tragic event know peace and compassion. May all know freedom from suffering.
Talk given Wednesday, July 30, to the Cherry Tree Sangha