The Common Good

What a Tragedy Can Call Us To Do

Sojomail - January 13, 2011


"The sustained level of casualties remains unacceptably high. It is a terrible price to pay for our news."

-- Rodney Pinder, director of the International News Safety Institute (INSI), on a report that said 97 journalists were killed last year, 85 of whom were murdered. (Source: The Guardian)

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Hearts & Minds by Jim Wallis

What a Tragedy Can Call Us To Do

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We needed to be called to transcend politics in our response to the shootings in Arizona, lest the politics of our reactions to this tragedy turn us even further against one another. We needed to honor the heroism demonstrated by so many ordinary people during this senseless and evil attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, which killed six people and wounded 14 others. We needed to be called to use their example to find the best in all of us and become better people ourselves. We needed to be called to end the ideological blame and battles that were already distracting us from learning the many lessons of this horrible event. We needed to be called to make our public discourse better.

Barack Obama did all that last night during a memorial service at the University of Arizona for the victims of last Saturday's shooting in Tucson, Arizona. The president delivered a speech that was both presidential and pastoral. His speech was a call to the nation to move to a higher and better place -- to build an America that is worthy of the people who were killed or wounded, or who acted heroically during the tragic shooting. I believe this speech revealed the heart and vision of this president more than any other speech he has delivered in the first two years of his administration. If you haven't read it yet, please do; or better yet, watch it.

You could feel the president's emotions most when he spoke about little Christina Taylor Green, the youngest shooting victim. Many of us parents who were listening felt our own eyes well up when he said, "In Christina, we see all of our children, so curious, so trusting, so energetic, so full of magic, so deserving of our love, and so deserving of our good example. … I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. All of us, we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations." Last night's speech was an invocation of the spiritual and biblical wisdom that "a child shall lead them."

President Obama also took the discussion of this tragedy beyond the debates about "civility," which have already become so politicized. He said, "And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths usher in more civility in our public discourse, let's remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud." That was the political sound bite of the evening, and the one I hope all our political commentators in this country take to heart.

I watched the memorial service in Birmingham, Alabama, where I attended a meeting of Christian Churches Together (CCT) -- a new fellowship of America's church leaders that crosses the boundaries of theology, tradition, and, yes, politics. Many of us watched the president's speech together. We had just spent the day slowly walking through the Civil Rights Institute that is here, recounting the moving history of a movement that fought hatred and violence to bring us together as a nation.

As I walked the historical trail of the civil rights movement at that extraordinary museum, I reflected on how weak our notions of "civility" sometimes are. We don't overcome oppression, division, hatred, and violence just by being nice and polite, or by making sure we don't get too passionate. Instead, hatred is only overcome with the power of love, and violence is best defeated by the persistence of nonviolence that is aimed at winning people over, rather than winning over them. Sometimes "civility" is the best we can do; but ultimately, our violent differences, and even our more serious disagreements, are most effectively and deeply responded to with love.

We saw that love expressed in the service last night. For five days, much of the nation has been waiting at the side of the hospital bed of Congresswoman Giffords, alongside her husband Mark Kelly. Just before his speech, the president and the first lady visited that hospital room. Shortly after they left, Congresswoman Giffords opened her eyes for the first time. When President Obama shared this during his speech, the ecstatic applause that rose from the audience expressed the hope of the nation for Gabby's courageous and miraculous recovery. The raw courage and powerful love now present at Gabby's hospital room is being reported around the country. As she opens her eyes, I pray that this would become a moment when we all open our own.

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Any tragedy like the shooting in Tucson, Arizona should cause us to reflect and ask ourselves: What are the situations and environments that allow hate and violence to grow? How can we not only stop conflict, but also be a part of creating a just community that displays the positive presence of peace? We must start with ourselves. Use our Peace and Civility Pledge to guide your reflection with scripture.

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