A few weeks ago, I was having lunch with a new member at Highland (the church I serve) and was just asking questions trying to learn his story and what I found out was that this person has lived a fascinating life.
For over a decade, he worked with the Department of Justice also serving several years as a Federal judge. And then recently moved to Abilene Texas to teach at ACU.
He told me about his passion for justice and fairness and how in his time as a judge he had worked hard to balance mercy and justice in handing out sentences. When he was training new lawyers preparing to be judges, he would always have them sit in the row behind the family of the defendant as they were receiving their sentence.
He said he wanted them to feel the gravity of what they were doing to other people’s lives, he wanted them to see these people cry and realize that they were putting away someone’s son/daughter/husband/wife. And then he said the day you stop being able to empathize with the pain of those people is the day you need to walk away from being a judge.
I love that.
Mercy and Justice hand in hand.
Empathy for the evil-doer even as you must mete out the consequences of their actions.
Communion Can Heal the World
Recently this same judge was teaching a class at ACU, and to help prepare these college students for the world of Criminal justice he had his entire class read over the eye witness testimony and court documents from the Ferguson shooting.
Because he was a white male, he asked a black professor to teach this particular part of the course with him, and the demographic of the class was evenly divided between people of color and those who were white.
Now you should know, these aren’t passive servile students. These are activists who care deeply about making the world a better place and have made life altering decisions to train for addressing the very issues they were studying…and they didn’t all agree with each other on what needed to change.
Judging from the news stories and the social media feeds, this was a tinder box waiting to explode. But the most important thing about these professors and students really isn’t their demographic. It’s their faith.
And so with the wisdom of a judge, my new friend decided not to have this polarizing conversation in a classroom, but in his home. He invited dozens of students to his house every week to read through the case files and take turns listening to each other.
But people can yell and scream in a house as easily as they can a classroom, so my friend decided to start every session off a bit differently. The professors and students took communion together.
They looked each other in the eyes and told each other that this was the Body of Christ broken for you, they prayed, shared a meal, and then they started talking about their points of disagreement.
And from everyone I’ve heard from, it was a life-transforming experience. White people had their eyes opened to the way people of color experienced the world, people of color had their eyes opened to the way their white brother or sister experienced the world. They listened to each other, they spoke their mind and shared their heart.
And when my new friend was telling me this story, I realized that this is what the world needs more than anything right now. Communion.
Have you noticed how the past few national tragedies have been more polarizing than bringing people together?
Tuesday of this past week, there was an article in the New York Times that lamented this fact. The article quoted Gary Mormino, a retired historian from the University of South Florida, who said:
Past tragedies tended to unify Americans— some people will recall how, after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s calm but assertive radio talks bonded the country, elevating hopes. Many more will remember the feeling of shared grief as the television broadcaster Walter Cronkite wiped a tear while reporting the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. But 2016 brings together the toxic elements of an election year, presidential candidates who polarize the electorate, voters who are afraid and angry, and a press eager to exploit the spectacle of division and disaster…Alas, we live in a balkanized state and nation.”
Social Media and Suffering
The opposite of communion is Facebook. It’s pictures of people’s avatars having conversations about real people’s lives lived in the real world.
Recently Christianity Today executive editor Andy Crouch talked about this in a podcast about the tragic Orlando shooting and the subsequent social media fallout. The conversation wasn’t so much about the tragedy as it was about the way we collectively began to use this tragedy as a blunt instrument to attack each other with our various ideologies.
And the impulse behind all of this really is sincere and comes from good places, we want to respond and fight back in the face of evil and great tragedy, but what we often do is gloss over the complexities and nuance that is a part of reality, and most unfortunately we begin to shame each other into doing the last thing that people in trauma need. Speak into it.
Here’s how Crouch says it:
“The basic thing that media substitutes for is presence. We use media when we can’t be present. Media means between, so we are putting something between us and the other…It substitutes for actual embodied presence…The one thing that media are really bad at doing is the one thing needed in the immediate wake of any trauma for any person or community: the silence that’s possible when you’re present in the body but impossible to communicate through media,”
In the Jewish tradition, there are no words in the face of death. So Jewish people for thousands of years have a tradition of sitting shiva with those who are mourning. Even in the book of Job, Job’s friends don’t start with words, they start the tradition of sitting with the mourner for seven days.
It’s after that when things start to go downhill.
But now social media has made us all the friends of Job.
We rush into every tragedy with words that will do nothing for those immediately affected but will help us distance ourselves from whoever the bad guys in this particular situation.
Or we are shamed by others for keeping silent.
To be clear, I understand the impulse to say something, we want to help. We want to bear the burden with others, but can we honestly say that our moral outrage is that pure? Or that our from the hip judgments are really adequate for the complexities of each situation?
The impulse to help needs to be re-directed into actual ways of meaningful presence with people who are affected by the casualties. I would suggest something like a prayer vigil (which people in my city held for the victims of Orlando and Charleston).
And I would suggest that there we share communion.
At one point Andy Crouch said that we have no idea how damaging social media is to our society, and that we may all be going to hell for using it. He was speaking metaphorically, but I think he’s on to something. Hell is a place of isolation from God and each other. It’s fueled by self-righteous pride and hatred for the other.
Social media in moments like these opens the gates of Hell a little wider for already hellish moments.
And in those moments, Facebook is her Devil.
Image from Pablo with Author Modification