Life is fragile

A trip to the supermarket is the most ordinary of experiences. It is deeply shocking to read of yet another hate-fuelled violent gun tragedy, this time at a busy supermarket in America, perpetrated by an 18 year old who had published a 180 page long online document riddled with racist, antisemitic and white supremacist beliefs including the ‘great replacement theory‘. He drove 300+km to carry out his evil crime, copying some of the methodology of the shooter in the NZ mosque tragedy including live-streaming it all.
The mass shooting at the supermarket is the latest in a painful litany of violence driven by hate and racism, fuelled by racially motivated violent extremism. Eleven of the 13 people shot were black.

…. A 77 year old grandmother who volunteered every weekend at her church’s food pantry and viewed volunteering as part of her religious duty. An 86 year old who was a devoted caregiver, the ‘rock of her family’, spending each day taking care of her husband of 68 years at the nursing home where he resides. She would cut his hair, iron his clothes, dress him and shave him. Her son said, ‘She was his angel. I’m very thankful for the example she set for us of how to love each other unconditionally’. A 53 year old going to the shops to get a birthday cake. A selfless, generous, loving father and grandfather who used to check in on everyone. A 55 year old retired police officer and amateur inventor who tried to stop the shooter. He had been working part-time on a project to build cars with engines that run on clean energy using hydrogen-electrolysis, a process that splits water molecules into hydrogen and water. A 32 year old who moved home to be closer to her elder brother to help care for his 4 children as he underwent treatment for leukaemia. A 72 year old, the ‘glue in her family’, who was a well-known community figure who would cut the grass in the local park, give kids on the street toys, and help anyone she could….

Lives ended tragically by hate fuelled violence.

Reflecting on this from a distance, thousands of miles across the ocean in another continent, where gun violence of this kind is (thankfully) rare, I reflect on the necessity to build social cohesion and invest in initiatives that build social capital. The Australian Human Rights Commission defines social cohesion in the context of a society that ‘works towards the well-being of all its members, fights exclusion and marginalisation, creates a sense of belonging, promotes trust and offers its members the opportunity of upward mobility’.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has posed the challenging question about whether it’s possible for democratic societies to ‘contain diverse populations while still maintaining harmony’. It is interesting also to consider the impact of the pandemic on the ways and places in which people interact. Early evidence suggests that bridges between groups are weakening, as the closure of key pillars of public life, including schools and libraries, reduced casual encounters that once fostered connection between disparate groups. Instead, interactions have been concentrated within existing networks.

The Victorian Council of Churches has an important role to play in contributing to social cohesion and social capital, by continuing to work together to build ecumenical and inter-faith partnerships, and strengthening relationships that transcend racial, cultural and even religious boundaries. We need to be convinced that this commitment will strengthen trust and understanding and resolve, and build a movement towards the promised realm of peace and God’s shalom. As a human community, we are related to one another as we participate in the oikoumene of the Creator.

Social cohesion in Australia continues to be embedded in traditional multiculturalism. It is yet to catch up with the digital world and online ‘echo chambers’ where cyberhate, foreign interference and violent extremism thrive. The digital world can quickly desensitise individuals to violent messages and extreme ideology and imagery.  Disinformation and cyber-enabled foreign interference target the fissures of social cohesion in democracies.

In our highly individualized and culturally diverse society there is an urgent need for a new form of solidarity to build social cohesion, to recognise what we share in common as well as what is distinctive, to recognise the history that has shaped culture and community today.

A few weeks ago the Victorian Jewish community hosted a solemn online remembrance of Yom Hashoah, a day when the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust are memorialized. It was a very moving presentation. Next week is Sorry Day (26th May), which was one of the 54 recommendations from the Bringing Them Home report (many of which were never implemented). The report concluded that “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities have endured gross violations of their human rights. These violations continue to affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples daily lives. They were an act of genocide, aimed at wiping out indigenous families, communities, and cultures, vital to the precious and inalienable heritage of Australia”.

These ‘special days’ in the calendar like Yom Hashoah and Sorry Day invite us to lament, but also to garner resolve to be agents of change in the world, to be reconcilers because we ourselves have been reconciled with God, to be peacemakers following the example of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. What we do matters, both in the immediate and in the transcendent understandings of time. This is what people of faith call hope. We will affirm God’s call to us to be those who protect the lives of all within the human community, since each is loved by God, and each should be able to find a place of belonging in God’s reign of peace.

May it be so!

(Rev Sandy Boyce, VCC EO, 17th May 2022)

A few prayers as part of reflecting on the gun tragedy, and a song by Sting….

If blood will flow when flesh and steel are one
Drying in the colour of the evening sun
Tomorrow’s rain will wash the stains away
But something in our minds will always stay
Perhaps this final act was meant
To clinch a lifetime’s argument
That nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could
For all those born beneath an angry star
Lest we forget how fragile we are
On and on the rain will fall
Like tears from a star like tears from a star
On and on the rain will say
How fragile we are how fragile we are (Music and lyrics by Sting)

Prayer for the shooting
(first we mourn, then we must act)
God, we are broken psalmists
for weeping came in the night
and more weeping comes in the morning.
We lift up in sorrow
all of those affected by the gun tragedy.
Wrap your tenderness around
those who mourn
those who have already died,
those who are wounded.
Hold them in your embrace,
shelter them in your resurrection,
sit with families
in intensive care and in funeral homes,
hold the flood of tears,
angry words, angry even at you,
loss it will take years to comfort.
Then teach us how to change
this culture of guns,
not by our despair
but by courage and resistance,
so that we may rise to a new morning,
and walk into a day of hope. Amen.
(Source: Maren C. Tirabassi, Gifts in Open Hands, adapted)

A prayer in response to violence
O God of deep compassion and abounding mercy, in whose trust is our perfect peace: Draw near to us in this time of anguish, anxiety and anger, receive the dead into your eternal care, comfort those who mourn, strengthen those who are wounded or in despair, turn our anger into the conviction to act, channel our passion to end our dependence on violence for our sense of security, and lead us all to greater trust in you and in your image found in the entire human family. Through Jesus the Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns among us eternally. Amen.
(Source: Rev Michael W Hopkins, adapted)

SONG: When Human Voices Cannot Sing
1. When human voices cannot sing
and human hearts are breaking,
we bring our grief to you, O God
who knows our inner aching.

2. Set free our spirits from all fear –
the cloud of dark unknowing,
and let the light, the Christ-light show
the pathway of our going.
(Words: Shirley Murray, (*v 3&4 omitted); tune: St Columba