After Saturday’s tragic shooting in Tucson, some have pointed the finger at inflammatory political rhetoric.
Many singled out Sarah Palin’s now-infamous “Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD!” tweet and her ‘Crosshairs’ campaign map, which included Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ district, as a sign that some politicians have gone too far in stoking vitriol against their political opponents. (Since the shooting, Palin reportedly emphasized in an email that she “hates violence.”) Others reject any connection between the shooter, who does not appear to espouse any coherent ideology, and our current political climate.
What are the ethical and moral implications of incendiary political language?
There is a fine line between working hard for something you believe in and making a demon out of anyone who believes something different than you. Have some political leaders crossed the line? You bet. Do some people in the media make a living out of mocking, ridiculing, and humiliating people? You bet. Do their behaviors have consequences in helping to create a culture that celebrates spiteful and hateful speech and actions? No question about it.
Religions have generally been pretty bad in this area too. Too often, a passionate belief carried by a person of faith results in that person attacking a person of a different faith. History is full of wars and executions and torture conducted in the name of religion. Religious language is too often exclusive and demeaning of different faiths.
But there is another pattern in religion too–more powerful than the exclusive one if less well understood. It is a belief that God is present in all things, that the most profound truth in the universe is that whole universe is a expression of truth, that loving God means recognizing God in others and working to create communities of love and unity for all. That kind of religion does not seek to demonize but to welcome. It does not exclude but seeks the wayward, the forgotten, the different in order to include them in the search for the sacred. It does not seek to fight for one point of view but to act peacefully, selflessly, compassionately toward all. That kind of faith has enormous trust in others and welcomes the expression of the longing for the divine, for justice, for love in all.
Surely, no one can lay the blame for the violence in Tucson at the foot of any politician or religious leader or media figure. The man who killed must bear the burden of his actions. Those who grieve must be comforted. The devastation wrought by sudden and unspeakable violence will require long and painful healing. it is often too much to bear for those left behind. When your whole world is destroyed in an instant, the loss can cut into your spirit for decades and the pain can be passed from generation to generation. The journey to make meaning out of the meaningless is life’s most treacherous path. Such is the specter of Tucson after Saturday.
But equally surely, this is a moment that calls for quiet, purging, reflection. Perhaps the insights of the spiritual life can help us now. Are we really focused on how to build a future that celebrates freedom, sacrifice, community? Have we found the right balance between debating ideas and detoxing our relationships? Do we trust each other enough to work together tirelessly? Are we good enough at asking the big questions like what we stand for, what we really want for ourselves and for the world, what we’re ready to give to each other to get it? Are we enabling our schools to teach the lessons of peaceful conflict resolution, of inclusion, of service? Are we creating a politics that inspires our spirits and engages our minds in ways that matter? Are we ready to believe in our country and in each other again?
Violence is the ultimate despair of making sense of each other. It comes in words and actions; in what we say and in what we fail to say. It is all around us today. It is ugly.
Our country faced a similar moment over 50 years ago when in the midst of the civil rights movement, bombings and terrifying attacks began to become the standard. In the midst of it all, a courageous newspaper editor, Ralph McGill of the Atlanta Constitution called his city and his nation to account. Writing on the front page in 1958, he cut to the point: “You do not preach and encourage hatred for the Negro and hope to restrict it to that field. It is an old, old story. It is one repeated over and over again in history. When the wolves of hate are loosed on one people, then no one is safe.”
Perhaps Tucson will be the point at which we decide “enough” of violence of any kind. Perhaps we will realize that we should speak of “hating” no one, “targeting” no one, humiliating and scapegoating no one. Changing our language may seem like a small step but words matter. The wolves of hate are everywhere on television, in schools, and yes, in the halls of congress. They are not just loosed on Republicans and Democrats. They are loosed on us all. And no one is safe.
This is our moment. Let the networks show courage and discontinue the shows that spout hate. Let the schools show courage and give time and priority to teaching social and emotional gifts. Let the politicians show courage and change their mailings, their ads, their demonizing. And let the rest of us remember that seeking what is best for ourselves means seeking what is best for all of us.
And may we pray together for those who are suffering–that their pain may be healed and that we might be a leaven for their spirits in the days and years ahead.