Last weekend seemed much longer than 48 hours. The shift in the news cycle from Friday evening to Sunday evening felt more like a month. While I don’t know people who were injured or killed in the shootings that took place in El Paso, or Dayton, Ohio last Saturday, it seems like this turn of events has gripped the nation in a way that other mass shootings have not in some time.
A troubling aspect of the shooting in El Paso, is the apparent connection with white supremacy and the thought that this community that has been predominantly Hispanic for centuries, dating back as early as 1680, somehow represented an invasion of Hispanics into the United States. Sadly, there are connections emerging between the shooting in Dayton, and the Pittsburgh, PA, Tree of Life Synagogue last December, that may also point toward racial or ethnic prejudices. And the El Paso shooter wanted to emulate the shooter in Christchurch, New Zealand, where 51 people were massacred as they worshipped in their mosque.
My hunch is that actions like this don’t take place without very deep-seated fears. Maybe they are fears about change, or loss, a lack of control, or some notion about purity. Fear has an insidious way of corrupting judgment and clouding perspective. It spurs people to retrenchment and reduces the range of responses down to resignation or lashing out.
In an online article published in The Atlantic on August 6, 2019, Christian Picciolini, a reformed white nationalist, talked about his concern that the worst is yet to come. And yet, he described his entrance into this movement as a time when he was alone and vulnerable, receptive to the influence of others.
Picciolini now leads a global network called the Free Radicals Project, where former extremists like him provide counseling for others who want to leave extremist movements. It happens not by telling people they are wrong, not by showing them numbers or data that contradicts their positions. It happens by listening to them — for a long time; listening for what he calls the potholes, things that detour us in our journey of life — trauma, abuse, mental illness, poverty, joblessness — and then working to fill in the potholes.
Did you happen to catch that? Often as not, it’s with people who are disaffected or disconnected, isolated in some way, that makes them vulnerable to these beliefs. And they are tuned in to the subtle signals of others who would influence them through fear to suit their own purposes. What they long for is community, authentic connection, belonging, and opportunities to be heard.
Most faith communities have a mission or a mandate to care for the marginalized. The Hebrews were formed into a people who had been enslaved to another nation. A hallmark of their faith is to care for the stranger and the alien in their midst because, God says, they were once strangers in a strange land. Jesus’ first sermon began with a quotation from the prophet Isaiah about bringing good news to poor people, pardoning prisoners, giving sight to the blind, and letting those who knew oppression go free. He got into trouble with the home-town crowd when he announced care for widows who were foreigners. Muslims have a mandate to care for and protect the dispossessed migrant. At the very heart of faith is this understanding that we are supposed to be connected to each other — even when we are different.
Picciolini begins by listening carefully and by building community. It’s the very thing the Christian community is supposed to do — to reach out to the disaffected, to fill in the potholes, to offer connection that’s real. That’s how a lot of healing takes place.
Through the Free Radicals Project, Picciolini has helped over 300 people move out of white supremacy and toward constructive lives. Is that not what God would desire of us? Is that not what God would desire through leaders who could offer signals that help people move away from fear and out of hate?
We may offer thoughts and prayers when terrible and terrifying things like this happen. It may be because we don’t know what else to do. There are times when our thoughts and prayers are not enough.
The first chapter of the book of Isaiah, the book most often quoted by Jesus, gives a startling account of God getting tired of our worship, not wanting to see our hands stretched out, and not listening to our prayers, unless and until we cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow, all the most vulnerable people around us.
It’s when our prayers become enacted by caring for people who haven’t counted, lived out by embracing the ones who don’t belong, and realigning ourselves with justice and doing good that God is pleased with us. Seek out a friend, listen to someone who is not a friend or who may be lonely. Displace fear with hope. Let your ears perk up at the potholes. Work to fill them in. Then our thoughts and prayers will help to change the world.
Lander Bethel is the minister of Grand Avenue Presbyterian Church in Sherman and First Presbyterian Church in Denison. He earned a doctoral degree in ministry from McCormick Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Genna, live in Sherman. They have three sons. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.