The violence of hatred breaks our hearts. This past weekend in my neighborhood of Overland Park, a shooter killed three people and injured others. My church sits a mile from the sites, and members of my parish know the families of the victims. We are in the process of responding, holding vigils and praying, seeking to comfort one another and make sense of this hateful thing.
I know two ways souls respond to such hate. In one, the heart hardens against the violence, protecting itself. In the other, the heart weeps, leaving itself open to be broken again.
The first way can seem so right. There is a dark logic in giving our hearts permission to loathe the one who could go to so terrible a place, and arm himself to take lives randomly with gunfire. There is a sort of helpless security in burying our hearts away from the reports of such violence. If this gives up some piece of our humanity, at least it keeps our hearts from feeling such pain again.
Yet I have to believe in the other way, leaving my heart open to the world, though it will be broken again and again. In part, this is because I know that claiming permission to hate one man makes way for hating others, and then hating them by groups and by labels, until perhaps one day I wouldn’t care if they lived or died.
But mostly, I believe that I must allow my heart to keep breaking because I believe that Christians truly are called to follow Jesus Christ, even through crucifixion. We are remembering the trial and crucifixion of Jesus this week, but we are also faced with our own trial: will we take up the agony of the cross and keep telling the truth, or will we hide in the crowds of our own time, and call for our own tools of violence against those we would crucify?
There are so many ways to harden a heart. There are those who will blame the gun in the man’s hand, or only the man and never the gun. There are those who will say that when violence arrives, only a “good guy with a gun” can stop it, and God help us, perhaps that is true, once a person has emerged from a terrible place full of hate and armed with a deadly instrument.
But so much happens before hate turns to violence, and so much happens in the means that allow the gun to come into the hands of the one who would do evil with it — surely there is more than one place to work for a better world? Our hearts break, and we join the tragic chorus who wonder and work to find what we might do now for the future, to heal the broken before they turn to hate, and to make violence harder to accomplish once hate has taken root.
There are those in the nation who weep bitterly that a tragedy in our often wealthy, often white suburb of a midwestern city has so powerfully drawn the national gaze, when 35 were wounded and four killed in Chicago shootings this past weekend alone. And who can judge such anger? Too many of us have hardened our hearts to the violence that happens in our country, willing ourselves to believe it only happens there, or to them, and that they must have drawn it to themselves or deserved it. Shame on those of us who will not work to oppose violence because we have sought to protect ourselves with the false promise that it is the problem of others.
No, we must let the violence hit us, and weep. Our hearts will break, and we must not cease loving the neighbors that hate would make victims, whether they look like us or not; whether we hold a common faith or not; whether we understand one another or not.
We want an answer that ends this. We want to know that it was only this man. Only a mental illness, or only the last of an obsolete brand of cultish hate. We want to believe it will not happen again. But the truth is, there is sin in our world, and it will keep tempting us to hate, and we have put the tools of violence too easily in reach.
We can oppose sin and hate, but it is a hard and lifelong work. For people of faith, it involves yearning for the world to be as God would have it be, rather than as it is. It involves resisting over and over in the moments where we find ourselves tired, and sin near at hand offering a suggestion that sounds so reasonable.
Opposing sin and hate involves the strange and joyful work of cultivating moral life. It involves making small choices to strengthen the habits of caring for one another, so we can be astonished to realize how large that love can become within us. Opposing sin and hate involves learning to love those most different from ourselves.
It is not the immediate solution we want; it’s a slow one full of growing pains, and we must undertake it together, knowing its work won’t be completed in our lives, and that every victory will only ever be partial. But this solution has the advantage of being true, and the victories we WILL achieve will be the greatest inheritance we can leave our children.
I do not know if it is evil for the heart to protect itself by hardening. But I believe that the way forward is instead to become lovers with breaking hearts. The path is hard and the companions are often unexpected, but there is deep truth and even joy in it, for all that we weep to see hatred not yet gone from around us. God help us on our way.
The Rev. Benedict Varnum serves as an Episcopal priest in Overland Park, Kan., in a parish that was involved in organizing an interfaith vigil responding to shootings in that area on Sunday, April 13.