As it happened, I was sitting in front of the TV as the “Listening Session” happened at the White House on Wednesday, so President Donald Trump and other officials could hear from survivors of the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting tragedy.
We also heard from their parents, from parents of children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School and Columbine High School. Others too had their passionate pleas they wanted the president and federal government to hear.
Sorrow and anguish were passionately coupled with pleas for solutions that will “keep us safe” in schools and beyond. I had tears in my eyes and mixed grief in my heart during the 90-minute session.
I easily grieved as a father and a grandfather, imagining my own pain if such a horror had touched our family. Fortunately it hasn’t, yet it still could. I too want us to keep our children safe. But it will take far more than the prevention and defense measures suggested that day.
The collective heart of our nation seems split in two. Part of our heart seems callous, hardened, wild with fear, bizarrely ready to lash out at perpetrators and victims alike. I only vaguely comprehend this. Life still seems too cheap for some who aren’t able to see children as true children.
I suspect most people, regardless of political ideology and partisan fervor, can indeed identify somewhat with the bone-deep pain of surviving students and parents.
Most of us can applaud the courageous efforts being made – mostly, it seems, by those deeply affected by tragedy already – to “practice the better,” to make a real difference in preventing troubled people from turning their pains into a “killing field.”
Every time a mass killing occurs, particularly in a school, it seems like children and their protectors are being sacrificed by those who can act but don’t. Sacrificed for what? I really have no clue, but it is the result!
Before this horrific Valentine’s Day massacre, I was going to write here about an ancient Christian doctrine called Atonement. We’re in the Lenten season, where tradition focuses on it as we near Easter. “Jesus died for our sins” has been a Christian doctrine only since the late 11th century.
In light of the collective split heart of our nation, I will focus on an historical alternative to this Atonement tradition. It’s called at-one-ment. It comes out of the deep intuitions of St. Francis about God’s love. In very short form here, it affirms that the prophets and Jesus challenged the people to understand God never wanted atonement through sacrifices of animals, crops or humans. God wanted at-one-ment with people (actually the original meaning of the word “atone”).
But we’re fixed on retribution, punishing each other. We keep sacrificing each other and our children to whatever little idols/god we’ve decided are more important than being in a restorative relationship with God and each other.
Ironically, so many of our children get what Jesus is about – even if they don’t ever think about Jesus. They know in the midst of tragedy, being safe and loved, being at-one with each other is far more essential than the stupidity that results in blaming each other, and killing each other.
Many people deeply driven primarily by fear are not even at-one within themselves. People driven primarily by love may not be at-one within themselves, either. But I strongly suspect they are closer to understanding what they need to find a deeper at-one-ment for themselves.
Every day, our children can teach us being at-one with others in love is the at-one-ment we all need.
The Rev. Paul Graves, a Sandpoint resident and retired United Methodist minister, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.