As the final days of 2012 wound down, I, like most Americans, found myself thinking a lot about the children and families connected with the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting. It felt personal to me because I know what it is like to have experienced gun violence first hand. I also know what it is like to have lost someone I love through the violent act of another. So with this in mind, I would like to join this conversation. Here’s my story….
We were four minutes into the New Year of 1998 and my wife and I were awakened to the sound of loud popping coming from the street in front of our house. I jumped out of bed immediately knowing that it was too loud to be firecrackers, it sounded like gunfire. Within two minutes, the police had arrived and with the eerie backdrop of flashing red and blue emergency lights in my front yard, the stage was set for what was going to be a very long night. A few moments later, one of the officers came to our door to ask us if we would come out to see if we could identify the victim. As their flashlights illuminated his life less body at the edge of our driveway, we told them that we did not know him. We immediately went back into the house to check on our youngest daughter who was sleeping in the bedroom that had windows facing the street. I remember not wanting to wake her so I gently held the back of my hand up close to her little nose to see if she was breathing. Thankfully she was ok, as none of the bullets had hit our house. However, an invisible bullet had struck my heart that night. And I knew that my faith in Jesus would not keep me immune from the violence in our world.
Within twenty minutes our house had been fenced in by yellow tape and the drone of a police helicopter circling above us seemed to go on for hours. We sat together in our living room while the occasional flashes from the helicopter’s spotlight illuminated the first responders who were in our front yard. Our house had become ground zero and the man lying dead in a pool of his blood, in our grass, was the first murder of 1998 in our town. Investigators later told me that they had recovered twenty-seven 9-millimeter shell casings from up and down our street. The rear window of our station wagon was shot out as the shooter chased the victim around it in our driveway, before killing him. The gunfire continued as the shooter sped away down our street as three more bullets shot out the windshield of my truck that was parked on the street. Many questions went through my mind that morning as I swept up the broken glass on our driveway and street. Having a person shot to death in your front yard will change you in many ways. I know this to be true.
I also know what it is like to have a family member murdered by an act of violence. Six years after the New Year’s shooting, my brother, who was a Clark County Sherriff’s sergeant, was murdered. The call started as a domestic disturbance and then escalated when the suspect armed himself with his hunting rifle. He then knocked out his second story window screens so he could have a better view through the scope of his hunting rife as he watched emergency personnel gather in his front yard. After about thirty minutes, the suspect decided to flee the scene. He jumped in his truck and drove through a fence and managed to get out to the street. As he sped away he decided to focus his rage on the driver’s side door of my brother’s patrol car that was parked at a bend in the road. The force of the impact was so great it compressed the driver’s seat of his patrol car down to seven inches. It also cracked the telephone pole that it slammed into. So two days after his murder, here I was again, standing again on ground marked with thousands of pieces of broken glass. It is also ground that been stained with the blood of my brother.
I’ve experienced many hard days since then, days flooded with grief, pain and anger brought on by violence. And each time I hear of another shooting or another murder, I know exactly what it feels like to get that call, a call that tells you that someone you love has been murdered. In the midst of my pain then, and even up to today, there have been a few penetrating questions that Creator continues to ask me. These questions have helped bring clarity and healing to my life.
One of the questions I wrestled with is this: “In the midst of our violent world, what kind of person do you want be? “ I have found that if I let this question penetrate through the thick layers of my own fear and anger, it reminds me that I have the ability to take responsibility for whom I want be in this world, even if I am surrounded by death and violence. My answers to this question have also continued to evolve throughout my lifetime.
When I was around fifteen or sixteen years old, I remember watching an episode of Sixty Minutes where basketball legend Bill Russell was being interviewed about violence. At the end of this interview, Bill Russell summed up his thoughts by saying, “Be careful who your enemies are, for it is them you will be most like.” Somehow those words have stuck with me over the years, and my experiences have confirmed the profound truth found within them. A year after my brother’s death, Cathy and I made the decision to relocate to the Pacific Northwest so we could be closer to my brother’s family. As we approached the two-year mark of his death, the stress of the impending murder trial weighed heavy on my soul. When you are the victim of a violent crime the tension between forgiveness and justice can feel like it is going to rip you apart. You could imagine my surprise when one day, while sitting in a Starbucks in Vancouver Washington, Bill Russell walked in. Standing at 6’9” he was hard to miss. As he stood at the condiment bar doctoring his coffee, I couldn’t resist walking over to talk to him. Here’s how the conversation went.
“You’re hard to miss in a crowd.” I said as I looked up at him.
He continued stirring his coffee and answered with a wry smile, “It’s been that way most of my life.”
“Do you remember doing an interview on Sixty Minutes, maybe around thirty years ago when you said the quote, ‘Be careful who your enemies are for it is them you will be most like?’”
He thought for a moment and replied as he snapped down the lid down on his cup. “I do remember that interview and yes I do remember saying that.”
“Well, I just wanted to say thank you for your words. Your quote has meant a lot to me over the years.”
“Well thank you for saying that.” He said before turning and walking out the door. As I made my way back to our table I smiled to myself, shaking my head in disbelief. What were the odds of a chance encounter like this ever happening? There is no doubt in my mind that this was a divine appointment that Creator had set up for me. It also confirmed the way that Creator had been working on my heart, which brings me to another question I was being asked. During those first few years after my brother’s death, I felt a lot like a man I remember reading about in a story in the Bible. He was a crippled man, and one day Jesus approached him and asked him a simple but deep question; He asked him if he wanted to get well. I felt like Jesus was asking me the very same question and if I said yes, I was going to have to get up, and start walking the path where I would have to face my own anger and fear. I did say yes, and my path has forced me to make choices of how I was going to treat my enemies.
Eventually the trial began, and after listening to a month of testimonies, a jury found the defendant guilty of murdering my brother, and he was sent to prison for twenty-nine years. Now you might be tempted to think that when this guilty verdict was read, everything was set right for me. To be honest about it, it was not. I took a few years of good counseling and a loving family and friends to help me see that the pain and anger I was holding on to was keeping me locked up inside of my own personal prison. I was angry with the man who shot the person in front of my house. I was angry with the man who killed my brother. I was also angry with Creator for allowing all of this to happen. However, in spite of my own anger, the steady love and forgiveness from Creator helped lead me to place where I could eventually lay down my sword of anger and vengeance, and forgive the man who killed my brother. Forgiveness is the key that opened the door to set me free.
As I continue to listen to the different voices that are speaking into our ongoing national conversation surrounding gun violence I find myself at times feeling greatly dismayed. To me, it seems like America has been surrounded by yellow police tape, and we seem to be dumbfounded as to how to make things better. Some say we need more guns to protect ourselves. I heard one person make an argument for having assault rifles on hand in every school principle’s office. Others say we need to enforce much stricter gun laws or remove all guns entirely from society. I have not heard anyone addressing the root of violence that seems to have darkened the hearts of too many of our brothers and sisters.
I’m not sure America will ever solve this problem because violence has been to deeply embedded in our history. It’s also been normalized. We seem to be incapable in facing the truth that America is a violent nation. If you wonder if this is true, turn back the pages of history a few years and take a hard look at how our European forefathers treated the Native Americans they encountered here living on this land. They justified violence and genocide upon the Native peoples of North America; they also did it in the name of God.
Last month, on December 29th 2012, (which happens to be my brother’s birthday) I came across an article about the Wounded Knee massacre that left me feeling deeply grieved. Most people are aware of this tragic event that happened on December 29th, 1890 where 150 American Indians were brutally shot down. Many of them were women and children. I was sickened to learn that after this massacre, the US government issued twenty “Medals of Honor” to members of the Seventh Calvary for their distinguished actions on the battlefield that day. What kind of country gives Medals of Honor to soldiers who distinguish themselves in a battle where un-armed women and children are murdered? Ours did… In the aftermath of the battle, the wounded were loaded into wagons and taken to Pine Ridge Episcopal church as a makeshift triage hospital. As the victims were laid down upon the hay covered floor, they could not help but look up to notice that the sanctuary had been decorated with Yuletide evergreen boughs along with a large banner that simply read, PEACE ON EARTH GOOD WILL TO MEN.
I don’t know what was going on in the minds of those soldiers that day when they opened fire. I imagine that they were afraid. These soldiers became savages in their effort to kill who they thought were “savages.” The problem is that most of these “Savages” were women and children and little babies.
If we are going to be free, we must do the work of facing our own fear and anger. The way I see it is that if we do not figure out a different way of dealing with our enemies, we will remain collectively locked up in our national prison of fear and anger. When we demonize our enemies and choose to return evil for evil it keeps us in a never-ending cycle of violence and retribution. This must be why Jesus told us to love our enemies, and do good to those who do us harm because he knew that it was the only way to break the cycle of violence. We will never really overcome evil with evil, and I agree with Jesus that we should work to overcome evil with good. I’ve had to work on this individually, but I believe as a people, we need to do a better job of this together.
If there was ever a time where Jesus could have been justified in striking down his enemies, I believe it would have been on those who were pounding the nine-inch nails into his feet and his hands. But he chose not to. Instead he uttered these last words as he approached his death, “Forgive them father, they don’t know what they are doing.” When Jesus asks us to love our enemies, He’s not asking us to do something that he is not already doing. Jesus forgives, and loves his enemies, are we willing to do the same?