It was a strange weekend here in Columbia, Maryland. We were listening to the radio while we cleaned up the house on Saturday morning and at the top of the hour, a reporter announced that there was another incident of random gun violence in a public area. It took us all a few seconds to understand that this time the incident was at the Columbia Mall, about a mile from our house.
This incident--these incidents--feel to me like a sudden rip in the fabric of community. I'm reminded of the practice of Jewish mourners who tear their clothes at the moment when their hear that a loved one has died. I'm reminded of passage in the Gospel of Matthew which describes how the curtain in the temple was torn in two at the moment of Jesus' death. Violence suddenly broke out in a place where my family and thousands of other people go each week, assuming we are safe. Something ripped open that space, some kind of rage or grief or madness, and fear and confusion flooded in.
Police were at the crime scene within minutes, and over the following hour over 200 police officers arrived at the mall according to a friend of mine who is a fire department chaplain. As sorts of other emergency personnel were there as well, and everyone seems to have performed magnificently. We heard story after story of people looking out for each other, pulling strangers to safety, reaching out to those who were scared, distracting upset children, lending cell phones, giving rides.
Our phone started ringing about a minute after we heard the news on the radio. Relatives from all over the country began to call to make sure we were okay. Then came emails and Facebook messages from friends, reporting on their own safety and making sure we were safe as well.
All those people reaching out to each other--at the mall and across the country--began to patch up the rip in the fabric of our community. Each connection, each call, each hand extended, was a thread woven back across the tear. We came back together in a hundred thousand different ways Saturday afternoon and all through Sunday.
Church communities like Kittamaqundi gathered all over the county on Sunday morning to pray and sing and embrace. I imagine that many felt a particular resonance with the Psalm of the day, number 27:
The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?
Though an army encamp against me,
my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me,
yet I will be confident.
For he will hide me in his shelter
in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
he will set me high on a rock.
In the afternoon we gathered again for a prayer service where we lit candles for the two victims and the perpetrator, for the first responders, for all of those who work at the mall, for everyone who was frightened and for all of those who have ever entertained thoughts of committing acts of violence. We know how to show up to sadness at KC, and we know the power of God to bring light even to the darkest places.
At our Youth Group meeting Sunday night, we talked a bit about the shooting but the kids seemed a little disengaged. I had a feeling they had been talked out by then and I think I was as well. So we moved on and did what we usually do. We played an extremely creative round of “Late to Work” (our variation of a classic theater game—happy to explain it off line) and then we settled in to our “FOCUS” time.
This year, our Youth Group has been playing around with the idea of "Pay It Forward" inspired, in part, by this video. We've been exploring how we can contribute to a situation the actions, attitudes and energy that characterize the world we would like to live in. In other words, instead of reacting to the negative things we experience in the world by complaining or withdrawing or retaliating, we find away to contribute something positive to the situation. We’ve challenged the kids to find ways to practice this principle by smiling at people they don’t know or making a positive comment when everyone else is complaining, etc.
Last night, at the suggestion of one of the other adult leaders, I gave the kids a copy of the “Heinz Dilemma” to play around with--the story of a man who must decide between robbing a pharmacy and watching his wife die because he can't afford the one medicine what would save her. It’s a scenario that was the topic of discussion on the first day of my first ethics course in college. (The course was called “Decision-making in Situations of Uncertainty” and it was taught by one of my all-time favorite professors, Kathryn Tanner.) The scenario was a favorite of the psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg who claimed to be able to diagnose a person's stage of moral development by their response to the Heinz Dilemma.
The kids in our Youth Group talked a bit about how Heinz would be justified in stealing the drug because a human life has greater value than an individual's financial profit (demonstrating, by the way, Kohlberg's highest stage of moral development, "universal human ethics"). But the conversation soon swerved into territory that Kohlberg didn't explore. Didn't Heinz have other options? Wasn't there a way that he could influence the pharmacist and persuade him to sell Heinz the drug for a lower price? I was thinking they'd suggest Heinz take his story to the local media and have them shame the pharmacist into changing his behavior. The kids, however, went in the other direction.
What if Heinz found a way to do something kind or helpful for the pharmacist? What if he demonstrated compassion for the pharmacist? Could there be a way for him to create a connection with this person so that the pharmacist would be moved to extend some kindness in return? Suddenly, we weren't talking about a hypothetical anymore.
It was a good way to end a hard weekend. As we look for a way to build a better world, we are going to need a lot of people to ask, "Are these really our only options?" Do we really need to decide between lashing out and giving in, between fighting fire with fire and letting ourselves sink into despair? And we need people who are committed to using the Power of Love to change the way things are.