on violence

One day, several years ago, a man committed suicide in front of me. I was six months pregnant at the time, selling expensive chocolates and coffee in a fancy mall in downtown Portland. I was the only one working on the ground floor of a large, 5-story atrium, so when he jumped from the top floor I had to be the one who called 911. It is all a bit of a blur, but I remember noticing the children who had been sitting nearby and drinking their hot chocolates with their parents, staring in horror at the ground. On the phone, I answered questions as calmly as I could, but I refused to be the one to go over and check the man’s pulse; based on visual evidence there was no way he had survived. A fellow mall employee, a no-nonsense woman who sold terrible artwork and had been a paramedic in another life, ran over with a sheet and covered the body, telling me later she “just wanted to give dignity to the body.” I was relieved when it was all covered, afraid for my unborn baby to see such things. I huddled in our back storage room while everything got cleaned up, and then I worked the rest of my shift as if nothing had happened. The tile was clean again, and unaware shoppers went back to their ways. I tried to forget it ever happened to me, and felt only pity for the man who had died.

In thinking about this experience, however, i have been forced to confront the fact that this man did violence to me: he chose to commit suicide right in front of me, in a public place–a mall, for heaven’s sake–with children present. It was a sad act, to be sure, but it was also violence. And I have a right to view it as such, and be angry for how his actions have affected me. But both hiding from my emotions and engaging in anger have not erased the memory from my mind. The only thing I can think now is: I wish I had known him before he jumped.

//

For many years now I have lived with and hung out with and taught refugees. Last year, when I was teaching at the local community college, we had a lockdown drill, in case of a shooting. I had been prepped beforehand and knew the exact time the drill would happen; I tried repeatedly to explain the situation to my very-basic level ESL students. When the light started flashing and the alarm blared, I turned off the fluorescents, locked the door, and told my students to line up on the wall as far away from the windows as possible. Even though I had explained the procedure, had told them step by step what we would do, even as I had tried to explain the concept of “drill” and “practice” and even the purpose of what we were doing–none of it mattered in those moments. In the dark, huddled together, I saw their faces full of fear and remembrance. The majority of them were refugees, survivors of war and trauma from all over the world. The minutes were long, dark, and painful for me to watch as a teacher, even as I quietly tried to reassure them. This isn’t real, this isn’t real, this isn’t real.

Except, of course it was. It had been real in the past, and could very well be real in the future.

//

The day I started to write all this down was the day the shooting in Clackamas happened. I am very much tied to this story; it is down the street from my parents’ house, my sister worked right where the shooting happened, my daughter went there once a week with her grandparents. I knew people who were inside when the violence happened, and many in my community are hurting. I started to think more about violence, about what it is about America that causes this sort of tragedy to happen–(as we are) isolated from both war and religious conflict.

Being where we live now, where violence is a bit more in-our-faces, I have had to come to terms with the possibility, at least. I have had the luxury, of most of my life, of not having to think through these issues. And in light of Clackamas, and Connecticut to an ever greater degree, it is true that we cannot barricade ourselves away from violence anywhere: not in a mall, a school, or a suburban neighborhood. Evil is here, and it is a reality.

Why pretend otherwise?

//

Trying to think about radical pacifism today. Aside from arguments and laws and laments, how can I run after justice, which always goes hand and hand with peace? And the only place I can come to is this: engagement with it all. With the victims and the perpetrators, and all of us who fall somewhere in-between. Our barricades aren’t working anymore; violence can be found in malls, in movie theaters, in schools. Violence is found in the histories of my friends, and it is becoming a hallmark of this year in our own nation.

So we must enter in. We must know and be known, we must break out of the safe places we have built for ourselves and our children. We must do it with courage, we must be the light of Christ, we must always be aware of our own darkness.

//

I strongly recommend reading through this Compline prayer today, taking comfort especially in the Psalms.

I also highly recommend the movie Monsieur Lazhar, which helped me understand the importance of processing violence and trauma, especially with children.

Also, I read Nail Scarred Hands Made New by John Shorack and was blown away. There are people, all over the world, committed to laying down their lives and going to the most violent places in order to bear witness. This is life-changing stuff, people.

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11 thoughts on “on violence

  1. Oh, DL – thank you so much for this. For all of it – for the reflections, for the book suggestion and especially for the prayer. What a rough day, in so many ways. And radical pacifism is the only answer, I do believe. When I married my husband, he was a CO during the Vietnamese war and we lived and worked in Africa for 2 years in lieu of military service. He was still drafted – just to do ‘legitimate’ peace work. By the end of that 2 years, working with and living with devout Anabaptists, I was more of pacifist even than he was! I know that we live in a world that requires standing armies and police. But I do not have to take up arms or do violence to anyone and I can say so, kindly, politely and strongly. If we do not make some changes in the easy availability of weapons of destruction, I don’t know where we’re going to end up, except I think it’s going to look and feel a lot like hell.

  2. Kim N. says:

    Thank you for sharing your own journey to give words to the grief we all feel this day. And to hear words of wisdom that do not try to simplify the the tragedy and find simple answers. Your words help me to turn to the Prince of Peace and ask Him how to walk in his footsteps. Thank you for being one who is showing us how.

  3. Di says:

    I would have to disagree Danielle. Justice does not always go hand & hand with peace. sometimes it in fact takes some form of violence, to get to justice.
    But, I do appreciate your post. It is horrible to realize how close violence like this can be to where I live. A few blocks. And sometimes people live with violence inside their own homes. What to we do then?

    • mshedden says:

      This, it seems to me, is why the pursuit of justice biblically is left to God. In our quest for justice it often seems we are left continuing the cycle of violence. Often times it is hard for us conceive of a justice not predicated on violence, even violence that is often also unjust. Whereas we worship the crucified God who lived the love of God, Neighbor, and enemy to the point of forgiveness on the cross. If justice and peace kiss somewhere it must be there. It maybe offensive to us that justice could look that way, but I am not sure we have any other hope better than the one we call Immanuel, God with us.
      DL, thanks for sharing this story.

  4. Dana Cassell says:

    I know that grief is an intimate and diverse process, but still my response to public and national grief is, mostly, anger and annoyance. Thanks for these reminders that violence is systemic and communal and rooted deep within ourselves…and that engagement with it all means accepting our own darkness and refusing to shy away from the darkness we meet in others. Your words are balm.

  5. Thank you, just thank you. God bless you as you continue to heal from the memory of the mall suicide you witnessed.

  6. wackyweavers says:

    Danielle- thank you. You have penned (or typed in this case) so many thoughts that I have personally had to wrestle with in this current season of our own family’s journey. I pray that God would be clear with the discernment He gives you and that your family’s heart can be still long enough for Fear to quiet and Peace to reign. Thank you for giving words to my own jumbled, rambled thoughts

  7. Bethany Bassett says:

    Radical pacifism through engagement… beautiful and hard and good. I’m reminded of the news story several years back of the woman who was taken hostage by a murderer on the run read to him from The Purpose Driven Life and talked to him about his life until he peacefully turned himself in. I’m not saying anything one way or the other about the book, but the story seems such a strong example of what you wrote–“We must know and be known.” Justice and peace, the kingdom of heaven, and we the ones charged with bringing it to earth. Thank you for this.

  8. This is the best I’ve read written on this. Come out of our safety–yes.

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