by Ken Sehested
What can you do to abate the harm caused by the mass murders in New Zealand mosques? Not much, in the scheme of things.
Which is not to say there’s nothing at all to do.
For us in the US (and people around the world), we must use that tragedy as a mirror to examine how we are complicit with similar threats close to home. If the grief we experience over deadly news a half-world away is to be more than vaporous sentiment, fading with each text alert from our phones, there must be a contextualizing in our own location.
The first thing we must do is interrogate the posture of hope. Does living in hope entail a denial of reality? If the posture of hope involves evasion of the world’s misery, what we have is not hope but acquiescence to the world’s disordering.
The second thing to do is to recognize and name our own infatuation with violence porn. It’s why we find ourselves ogling car crashes as we slowly drive by; or staring at a person living with a highly visible physical impairment. It’s why grocery stores prominently display lurid tabloids—with their sensational (and usually fraudulent) headlines and scandal photos—to catch our eyes as we wait in line. The fear-mongers are everywhere, and relentless. This is how the privileged secure their advantage.
We must, of course, go beyond self-reflection to public engagement, demanding that public institutions of all sorts faithfully steward public resources to reduce the risk of harm and protect the innocent.
But, as with all outbreaks of large, headline-garnering acts of violence, the roots of this poisoned fruit must be addressed in local watersheds. If the tragedy in Christchurch is to be more than passing titillation, we must discover and address similar outbreaks (actual or potential) in our own contexts.
Doing so means many things; but few are as threatening as the blossoming of white supremacy claims closer to home.
In the early 19th century William Blake wrote, “The one who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars.” The work of reconciliation is not only about resolving large disputes. It is also about building sturdy relationships, doing so in specific circumstances, which often means in our daily encounters.
Reconciliation’s topography begins in places were street names are familiar.
The old stories of enmity and malice must be deconstructed. Yet new stories of health and healing must be reconstructed. Resisting the threat of violence is urgent, of course.
Peace-making is essential; but it is only the first step in peace-building. As Walker Knight said so well, “Peace, like war, is waged.”
One couple in my congregation made a very creative Lenten pledge to cultivate friendship “three houses down”—to intentionally interact with neighbors in the three houses to their left and three to their right.
The three houses down commitment isn’t an end game. It’s a place to start, among many other relational connections.
The behavioral disciplines of reconciliation are learned by practice—the small stuff prepares you for the larger. As Jesus said in Luke’s Gospel, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much” (16:10).
In that light, see this illustrated article by Sarah Lazarovic, “This Is How Borrowing Things From Our Neighbors Strengthens Society: Research shows that small talk and casual connections create happy communities and less-lonely individuals” from Yes! Magazine.
Then consider these eight suggestions for interpreting the Apostle Paul’s insistence that being “in Christ” entails being in the “world” in particular ways: “There is a new creation: The Apostle Paul’s vision of the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:16-21).”
After interrogating the posture of hope, and recognizing our own complicity in the world’s disordering, the third thing we must do is resolving we can do something (even though we can’t do everything).
No one is saying getting to know your neighbors will bring world peace. But it represents a start. There’s never just one thing that needs doing. The list is long, which is why being in communities of conviction is imperative—and by such means we get connected to ever-larger communities and networks.
As Edmund Burke cautioned, “Nobody made a greater mistake than the one who did nothing because they could only do a little.”
Start someplace—some place nearby. Find a trailhead to the ministry of reconciliation. Give yourself wholeheartedly to that occasion. (With experience, you may be able to blaze a new trail, leaving marks for others to navigate.) What comes next will be revealed. The road unfolds only in the walking.