Remembering the Dead

We are frequently shocked and horrified now by reports of violent encounters between young people and police. And we mourn for the lives lost, and for the racism that underlies many of these confrontations. But such events are not new, and not always based on racism. Those of us who lived through the protests of the 1960s and 1970s are not unfamiliar with irrational and deadly violence. We remember, along with Watts and other riots fueled by racial oppression, along with vicious incidents over desegregation, the ugly confrontations between police and protestors at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and the killings at Kent State University and Jackson State University. Issues are not simple, and there are no clear-cut solutions.

*****

May 4 is always a day of mourning for me. On that day in 1970, on a sunny Monday noontime, thirteen Kent State University students were shot by the Ohio National Guard; four were killed and one paralyzed. My then husband and I had come to Kent State to teach the previous fall. The events of that May have, in many ways, influenced my life.

Recently, I was talking with a young college student who asked me where I had taught. When I mentioned Kent State, she asked me where it was. She had never heard of the university, much less the shootings, even though she attends a similar state university in the next state west, less than 300 miles from Kent. Her parents may not even have been born at the time of the shootings.

If you want to read about the events of that tragic time and their effect on the nation, the Wikipedia article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kent_State_shootings is excellent. Here are some observations that I would add to that article.

Kent State was then a university largely populated by first-generation college students who were not deeply involved in political issues and protests. They did not have much experience in protest, and were not well prepared to protect themselves physically. Dispersing when confronted by an armed National Guard would have been wise.

The National Guard soldiers who were on campus that day had come from a ten-day labor union dispute in Akron where they had been the targets of bricks and rocks – and possibly worse. They were tired, jittery, and facing people their own age. Even though most of the students were not particularly privileged – most were working to help pay for college – their student draft deferrals must have made them seem privileged to members of the Guard.

The preceding weekend had been the first warm weekend of a late spring. Kent was then a town full of bars, catering to students, locals, and visitors from a wide area. The atmosphere included a certain amount of general letting loose, along with some indignation over the invasion of Cambodia.

Kent State’s President, Dr. Robert I. White, was out of town at the time and not available to respond to the protestors.

The ROTC building that was destroyed was a small temporary structure used by a very small program that in 1970 was not popular on college campuses in general. In later reports, it sounded as if a major university building had been burnt.

I remember standing at the checkout at a local grocery store a month or so after the killings and hearing the woman in front of me, a frail-looking, white-haired person, tell the checkout clerk that “they should have shot more of them.” Bitterness – much of it aimed against the students – was common in the town of Kent for years.

Most of the students who were shot were either standing around watching a few students actively confront the Guard or passing by on their way to their next class.

The then Governor of Ohio, Jim Rhodes, was vilifying students for the opposition of some of them to an unpopular war before the shootings occurred. For many years afterward, during Rhodes’ further terms as governor, the university’s budget requests were routinely cut at the state level. There were years in which we, the faculty, brought chalk and erasers to class. Handouts and other materials were rationed, maintenance deferred, and expenditures in general pared to the bone.

*****

When I tell people of my generation or their children that I taught at Kent State, they always ask, “Were you there . . .?” Yes, I was. But now it’s old history or totally unknown to younger people. Have you heard of the killings that rocked the nation? Do you know the names of the dead?

Sandra Scheuer was walking from one class to another.
William Schroeder was also on his way to his next class.
Allison Krause, who had put a flower in the rifle of a Guardsman the day before, was watching.
Jeffrey Miller was participating in the protest.

Nine other students were shot; most were either watching or passing by. The most severely injured was Dean Kahler, who was not himself confronting the National Guard; he was shot in the spine and paralyzed from the chest down. He went on to finish his degree and became a teacher and was active in local and state government. I knew him very slightly later and admired his lack of bitterness. But all of those who were shot that day found their lives shaped by the consequences of the shootings. Those of us who were a part of the campus community were also affected permanently.

Remember them all. Remember the time when the nation killed its own on their own college campus. Remember the names of the dead.

Sandra Scheuer
William Schroeder
Allison Krause
Jeffrey Miller

 

This is a revision of a post previously published on May 4, 2014.

The Promise of Easter

On this Saturday of Holy Week, the sun is shining brightly and the spring air is soft. The forsythia and daffodils are blooming, and the maples and earliest apple trees are in blossom. Cardinals and robins are singing, and the message of rebirth infuses the earth.

I think about tomorrow, the holiest day in the Christian calendar, named in our language for an ancient Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and rebirth. And I think about the way many religions, ancient and contemporary, reflect on the cycle of the year through stories of the god who dies and is reborn. Rebirth – resurrection – is the central concept of Christianity, but we are not unique.

There is something very powerful in the turning of the seasons that stirs human imagination. We may explain the seasons scientifically, but they still seem more significant and more amazing than the physical facts of scientific explanation. Perhaps this is because the forces that drive the seasons are so much larger than we are.

But the mystery of rebirth is also larger than we are. We need our myths to help explain the incomprehensible nature of rebirth. And so we have our stories of the god who dies and is reborn. The story in my heart is the story of the passion and resurrection of the Christ. I am a Christian because I grew up in a Christian culture, and the stories of the Christian tradition resonate with me. They help me find my way to God – or, rather, they help me see that God is with me. But I don’t for a moment believe that my stories are the only ones that are true.

We are like the group of blind people in the story of the encounter with an elephant. One person, feeling the elephant’s leg, said that the elephant was very like a tree. Another, touching the ear, declared that the beast was like a ship with a large sail. A third, stroking the trunk, said that the elephant was like a snake. And so on. Every faith has grasped a part of God, but no one has grasped all of God. We are human and limited in our understanding; we can’t fully comprehend the infinity that is God.

And so we waste our energy arguing over our beliefs, assuming that our own way of faith is somehow more true than others. When we believe we know the only truth, we try to convince everyone else to believe exactly what we believe, while those of other faiths do the same. And so we have crusades, jihads, holy wars, grieving God in the name of God.

We try to discover evidence that Jesus really (that is, in physical fact, empirically observable) did die and rise again. Some seem to believe that the truth of the resurrection depends on such physical reality. But the real truth of the story rests in its power to transform us, its power to bring us into an ever-growing relationship with God.

What matters about the story of the god who dies and is resurrected is not its historical accuracy. What matters is not even the story of rebirth’s connection to the cycle of the seasons. What matters is the message of God’s power and love behind the story of resurrection. What matters is the little bit of truth about God revealed in the story.

There are many different theological statements about the significance of the Resurrection of Jesus. The one that one hears most often is that Jesus died for us, to save us from the consequences of our sinfulness. There may be truth in this concept, but I don’t think it’s the whole truth. It may be the elephant’s tail, but the whole truth of the elephant is something else.

For me, the larger truth of the passion and resurrection is the revelation of God’s overwhelming love for us and the promise of God’s presence with us. God chose to suffer and die as we suffer and die. God understands us completely and is with us completely. God promises to go with us into the darkest places of our lives. But even all that is not, I think, the whole truth of the Resurrection. The whole truth is beyond my limited human comprehension. All I can do is experience the power of the story and love God.

(Note:  This was first posted a year ago.)

What Is Truth?

“What is truth?” he asked, lifting one hand slightly.
The ragged man before him glanced upward and did not reply,
while the abyss between them deepened and grew wider.
A single word danced above it and split into a hundred permutations,
each with its own singular meaning.

Truth is sunlight pouring through the leaves of the maple.
Truth is the lightning bolt that shatters the tree,
the lily bud unfolding in the morning light,
the wind howling across the mountain pass,
the warm arms of the sea in a sheltered cove.

Truth is the convolution of the nautilus,
the mysterious equations of the stars,
the first stroke of paint on wet paper,
the rainbow in the waterfall,
the crystalline promise of the unbroken geode.

Truth is the bullfrog’s song in the warm dark of a May night,
the storm clouds gathering against the sunset,
the winter moon in the branches of a tree,
the scent of peonies on a warm morning,
twilight moving across a northern sky.

Truth is the magma seething at the earth’s core,
the collision of cells conceiving,
the shuddering of the earth forcing one plate against another,
the acorn sprouting under the soil,
the breath of God in everything that is.

 

(Note:  The image above is a photograph of children playing on the Temple Mount, near the area that was once thought (probably erroneously) to be the site where Pontius Pilate questioned Jesus, asking “What is truth?”)

 

A Night in Gethsemane

Tenebrae: The Service of Shadows

Maundy Thursday. A difficult night. A difficult service. We love to rejoice with the risen Christ, but it is far harder to suffer with the betrayed and bleeding man on the cross. As the readings for the service of Tenebrae move from betrayal and desertion to mockery and death, the candles in the sanctuary are put out one by one. As we hear the story in scripture, the shadows of our own sin and guilt grow deeper, closing in around us.

The darkness presses in on me. If I had been there that long night and the dark day that followed, which role would have been mine? Would I have taken an active part, calling out accusations before Caiaphas? Would I have been convinced that this man was a disrupter, a threat to my faith, a creator of disorder who had to be destroyed in the name of God?

Might I have been a Roman skeptic, amused at the foolishness of these Eastern fanatics who thought a poor itinerant preacher a serious threat? Or would I have played the part of the military bullies who jammed the crown of thorns on his head and struck him repeatedly in the face, not caring who or what he was, only knowing that this was a chance for a bit of fun?

Might I have been one of those who had heard Jesus teach, seen him heal, who had believed that he was indeed the Messiah? Would I have watched from a little distance, my faith in the Lord who had entered the city in triumph only a few days earlier violently shaken by the sight of the blood on his face? Would my voice have been the voice of Peter, denying that I even knew him?

Jesus was not, after all, the clear sign that had been expected. The Jews looked for a military leader who would free them from the yoke of the Romans. They expected ritual purity and unmistakable glory. Instead, Jesus had eaten with sinners, entered the city on a donkey, and washed his disciples’ feet. The Romans were expecting the sort of armed revolt they were so good at crushing, not a king who claimed his kingdom was not of this earth. When the sign came, it was undecipherable – not because the sign wasn’t meaningful, but because the people who saw it were blinded by their own expectations. The dying Christ and the empty tomb were mysteries too deep for human reason.

The shadows close in. All I can do is weep for my sins, my doubts, my blindness, and for the infinite suffering endured for us. Endured so that we might glimpse our own brokenness. Endured so that we might know the infinite love that made us and pray for the marvelous, undeserved, overwhelming light of Easter morning.

(Note: This was first posted two years ago.)

Tolerance → Acceptance → Understanding → Love

Some years ago, when I had had two heart attacks within a week, I decided that part of my recovery would be to visualize my heart healing, moving from damaged to strong. I painted two watercolor pictures, one very literal, showing my sick heart developing collateral circulation (which it did) and the other more abstract. And I thought long and hard about broken hearts.

There are many ways hearts are broken. Some, like mine, are literally, physically broken. Hearts are often broken by hardship and despair. When our emotions are severely damaged, we are broken-hearted. Failure and loss can cause heartbreak. Relentless conflict can break us down.

Right now, the political conflict in our country makes a lot of us feel as if we’ve suffered a collective heart attack. Pain, along with shock, followed by disbelief, fear, and anger. Weakness and anxiety. The knowledge that nothing can ever be quite the same. Dread of what may come. Uncertainty about what may and may not be possible. A recognition that recovery and rehabilitation will require a lot of very hard work.

That hard work has barely begun. Severe damage has been done to our assumptions about who we are as a nation, and to our concepts of civility, government of the people, and human unity. Political action from all directions may spur us to deeper thought about these things, but more is needed in the long run. Resistance, hate-filled rhetoric, and the reiteration of established biases, both right and left, won’t heal our hearts. We need to stop complaining and begin building bridges, not citadels.

The movement we need as a nation, and as a world, isn’t political. It isn’t a matter of institutions, parties, and religions. It’s a matter of consciousness and spirit. We need to find the sacred wholeness that underlies everything. Then we can move from tolerance to acceptance, and from there to understanding and even love.

The world can seem to be full of violence and hate. In such a world, too often about the best we are able to manage is tolerance. Tolerance says, “I acknowledge your right to exist, but I don’t really want anything to do with you. I’ll leave you alone, as long as you stay in your assigned place and don’t annoy me with your differences.”

In our real, ordinary, daily lives, we often do much better than mere tolerance – with people around us. We may truly accept people we know, even when we disagree. People at a distance, people we don’t really know, may be a different story entirely. It’s not so very hard to distance ourselves from people we don’t encounter at all, and label them as “different” or “enemy.”

Even at its best, acceptance has its limitations. Acceptance says, “I’m willing to interact with you, even to care about you, but there are boundaries. When your ideas and convictions are in conflict with mine, I don’t want to hear about them. Keep to the safe subjects, and we can be friends.”

The positive aspect of such acceptance is that it recognizes the important things we have in common. It acknowledges our common humanity, in spite of our different opinions. The problem is that it doesn’t let us see one another wholly. We walk around with blinders on, happily assuming that everyone else is just like us. We rarely feel a need to consider the value of our own ideas, because we don’t even hear the alternatives. And because we are imperfect creatures shaped by what we have been taught and by our experiences (and therefore biased – yes, all of us), we can be startled and repelled to find that someone is different in some way. When we discover that someone we have accepted is in some way contrary to our biases, we feel betrayed, or angry, or badly confused. Our acceptance changes.

We need to go deeper. We can’t take our own beliefs to be some sort of monumental truth that everyone should agree to. Acceptance is a normal human need. But deeper than that, we all yearn to be understood. Not just recognized, not just accepted, but truly known. We need understanding, understanding of ourselves and understanding of those who think otherwise.

Understanding requires that we listen to one another, at all possible levels. We can’t refuse to hear the ideas of others, even if we find them repellant. We don’t have to agree with them or keep quiet when we disagree, but we do have to listen and accept that those ideas are as real as ours are, and as sincere. It helps to remind ourselves that others can disagree and not be wrong. Ignoring or belittling sincerely held beliefs and concepts only leads to deeper division.

When we truly listen to others, we come to understand not only what they believe but also why they believe it. With that understanding, we can begin to see one another’s true selves, and our hearts can begin to heal. As understanding grows, so does our awareness of our connection. Whether or not we are in agreement, we are connected, and we can build on that connection. We can build bridges and discover our underlying unity. Diversity doesn’t undermine that human unity – it makes it richer.

Understanding says, “I see you as you are, and I respect your being even when we don’t agree. I value you as a person, and I can see your truth, even when it isn’t mine. We are all flawed and incomplete, but we are connected, and together we are more than the sum of our individual selves.” Understanding is not totally sequential, nor is it a straight path. It’s a spiral that grows upward and outward and deeper and richer as it progresses. We move back and forth and around on that spiral, and as we reach fuller understanding of others, we also gain fuller understanding of ourselves. The two go together.

Love grows out of understanding. It’s very hard to hate or despise someone whose deepest beliefs and feelings you not only know but understand. When we truly understand one another, we recognize our mutual humanity and the spiritual reality that connects everything that is. And what is that but love?

Finding Peace

The past year has been a hard one. Strident. Violent. Frightening. We’ve seen the worst human impulses acted out in public, sometimes by what seem to be fanatics and sometimes by people very like ourselves and our friends. The future seems uncertain, with threats of further violence and injustice looming. Where do we look, then, for peace? How can we find inner peace in a turbulent world?

True peace is never external. For one thing, there has never in human history been a time when any society has been free of conflict. Tension and disagreement are natural characteristics of human existence. There has never been a “golden age” of peace and tranquility. We can’t recapture a time that never was.

Yet most of us have experienced times of peace and joy. Moments so filled with love and beauty that they linger with us, enriching our lives. We can choose to live in the elements of those moments, even though the moments themselves are past. We don’t have to live in the conflicts and threats of violence that surround us.

If enough of us choose to live in peace and connection, we can draw others away from the desire to act out their worst fears in violence and injustice. Inner peace leads to connection, and connection leads to peace in the world.

So how do we find peace within? That’s the first question.

Peace is individual; we each have to make our own way to it. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I do believe that what I’ve experienced is not very different from the experiences of others. So when I speak for myself, I’m hoping that you will find resonances there that connect with you.

For me, peace begins with the spiritual practice of looking for God’s presence everywhere and in everyone. I find the sacred in everything that is beautiful, and in everything that is ugly but has the potential for beauty within it. That covers just about everything I encounter.

It was easy to love God in all that was beautiful.
The lessons of deeper knowledge, though,
Instructed me to embrace God in all things.
– – – – – – – – 
St. Francis of Assisi

When the potential for beauty is not realized, it can be heart-wrenching and even tragic. But the potential is still there – God is still there – and I can choose to love the presence of God in even the worst circumstances. People don’t have to be good or lovely or admirable or “right” in order to be loveable. God is present in suffering and in what appears to us to be evil. And it’s that presence of God that makes it possible for us to connect, to be aware that we are all part of the interconnected and interdependent universe.

A vitally important component of that awareness is self-understanding. I have to know and understand my own emotions and the behaviors that grow out of them before I can be truly aware of others and live out my connection to them. That means that I have to look closely at what I most dislike in myself, not just at what I like. I have to examine my own fears, anger, grief, hatreds, shame, and guilt, as well as my own joys, passions, and loves. And I must apply what I learn about my feelings to my own behaviors. In every circumstance, I must ask myself, “What in my own self and in my experience has led me to feel what I feel?” “Why did I act the way I did?”  When I understand myself and my emotions, I gain a new perspective that makes it possible for me to find peace within myself.

We are all often afraid – or sometimes just wary – of what we don’t understand and foolishly think we should somehow be able to control. Understanding diminishes fear. When we see our fears clearly, we can learn to lament them, express them fully to ourselves, and let them shrink in importance.  All of this is hard work, and it takes time.  But it is truly worth the effort.

The second question is this: how can we find peace in connection with others, and build greater peace in our world?

When I understand myself, it becomes much easier to understand others and be aware of our connection as part of a shared universe. Human emotions are universal. There are dark places in all of us; claiming my own dark places makes it possible for me to understand and forgive the dark places of others.

We all have light places in us, too. The connection that grows out of self-awareness makes it possible for us to share light with others, both our light and theirs. And in that shared light, we can see the real proportions of our conflicts and disagreements. They generally turn out to be much smaller than we had thought, and our shared connections much larger. After all, we don’t have to think alike to be human together.

In that shared light, we can find peace. Even though conflicts continue, we can choose not to be defined by them, choose not to live in them, be consumed by them. We can choose to live in our shared humanness. And the flow of peace in the universe increases.

In a Time of Pain, Where Can Healing Begin?

How I Feel Now

I’m not sure where to go with this. My heart is full of pain, disbelief, and betrayal. How can a nation founded on principles of equality and religious tolerance have moved so far from those principles? How can so many people, including people I love and respect, have chosen to elect as president a person who freely uses bigotry, hatred, and anger to get his own way? Who stirs up fear and xenophobia in his followers? A narcissist who doesn’t read, doesn’t listen, can’t accept criticism, thinks he’s smarter than anybody else, and trusts and respects nothing except his own gut instincts? Has the country’s lowest common denominator become the dominant definer of who we are?

Last Wednesday morning, trying to get my mind around what had happened, I realized that I felt very much as I had on the day – May 4, 1970 – when thirteen students were shot (four of them killed, one paralyzed) by the Ohio National Guard on the Kent State University campus. My then-husband and I had come to Kent to teach the fall before; he was teaching that Monday morning and I was at home in our apartment across the street from the campus when I heard the shots. I felt the same disbelief, the same sense of betrayal this past Wednesday. The same sense that the country I knew and loved wasn’t what I thought.

Pain All Around

There’s pain on both sides of last Tuesday’s election. I’ll leave the analysis of voting patterns to others with a better knowledge of politics than I have. What concerns me most at this point is what this campaign and this election say about the country and the world we live in. If we view the whole thing only on the surface, we might say that government has become a spectacle, a media-driven power battle with no rules and no standards. In this milieu, we can’t even talk to each other. But underneath, I think there is something more significant going on. And I keep thinking that this must be like what was happening in Germany in 1933-34.

There is an underlying pain in our country and elsewhere in the world that must be healed if we are to move beyond the hatred and strife that seem to be in charge of everything. Some of that pain comes from a sense of betrayal, a feeling that the establishment that seems to be in charge of the country isn’t doing a very good job. Much of the pain comes from fear – fear of change, fear of the loss of whatever is important.

For most of us, it’s hard to accept anyone or anything that seems to threaten what we see, consciously or not, as stability and comfort. Such fear has nothing to do with reason or principles – it has to do solely with our instincts of self-defense and survival. But we are more than the most destructive members of the animal kingdom. We’re able to think beyond our immediate time and place, and beyond our own worst impulses and most primitive instincts – if we care to do so.

The Shadow Within

It’s important that we see and acknowledge the ways in which this long campaign and election have given voice to the worst that is in us all. We all are beings of light and shadow, and Trump’s campaign rantings gave voice to that shadow side that distrusts, fears, and lashes out at anything that seems to be a threat. That lashes out without thought or logical analysis, and without love or kindness. Those rantings gave permission for the open expression of hatred and bigotry.

If we are going to encourage and support the healing our society needs, we have to begin by getting to know our own individual shadow sides, as well as the shadow side of our country. Denying either will not help us move toward reconciliation. And we badly need shared understanding and reconciliation.

So we begin by a close examination of ourselves. What do I fear? What lies behind those fears? Why do I hate what I hate? What makes me angry, and why? Who do I fear, and who do I blame? What causes these feelings, and what have I done to overcome my negative responses to others?

Examining one’s own worst feelings and fears is not pleasant, but it’s necessary. If we can’t look at that destructive part of the self that fears difference and see threats everywhere, then we can’t assimilate it into our best self and let it be kept in balance, healed, and transformed into an understanding of all the hurting and unhealed. If I can’t acknowledge and come to know my own fear, how can I understand yours and support you as you deal with it?

Some Steps Toward Healing

  1. Taking responsibility. If the division in our country that currently has erupted in hateful slogans in high schools, violent public action, and loud expressions of bigotry, misogyny, and racism is ever going to be healed, we must all take a part in the healing. That includes those of us who wear safety pins to show we stand with the threatened, people who feel – and are – threatened, those who hate and attack, and those who see a changing world that seems to deny their basic beliefs. All of us. All of US.
  2. Listening. Refusing to associate with those whose views we find repugnant isn’t the answer. Nor is trying to “fix” one another’s views. We have to be willing to hear ideas we can’t accept and recognize their importance and their truth to those who do accept them. We need to listen to one another – listen without the intention of refuting or denying perceived truth, listen in order to understand and find the common humanity that underlies all our differences.
  3. Giving respect. Respecting others, even when they don’t respect us, is not easy. But the pain that lies beneath so much vicious expression today is real pain, and ignoring it or dismissing it as invalid doesn’t lead to understanding and reconciliation. Respecting others and the pain they feel is vitally important. A willingness to be with those with whom we disagree and to listen to their views can help close the gap that divides us. It is more healing to simply be together in a spirit of acceptance than it is to try to reach agreement.
  4. Teaching. The eruptions of hate in some of our schools show how much education is needed if future generations are to work together for the common good and not perpetuate current divisions. It’s unreasonable to expect the schools to do it all for us. Every one of us has the responsibility to teach by example as well as by precept. If we believe in love and equality and justice, we need to live out those values and express them wherever we can in the way we listen, respect, and treat others.

The divisions in our country and our world will not be healed overnight – will probably never be entirely healed. But if we do not work toward healing, they will surely get worse. Let us all work together for the sake of a future without concentration camps, genocide, racism, oppression, and meaningless wars.