A Grace Stronger Than Hate
Nine people lay in final silent prayer on the floor of the church that had been a place of solace, safety and strength to their families for over a century. The victims, those who died, and those left to suffer for them, prayed as the gunman – just a boy, really – reloaded as many as 5 times methodically acting out his own suffering. With an eerie steadiness he shot and shot again. Finally, he left a woman unharmed instructing her to tell the world of his actions, and his hatred.
And we watched this boy in the strange hair, waving his pistol – a gift from his father – parading in night ranger gear emblazoned with white supremacist logos, and the rebel flag. His hatred buried deep within strangely half sketched ideologies and a belief system as old as the ground on which he stood. And the ubiquitous flag of rebellion in nearly every photo. The flag that flew in defiant full mast even as the nation’s flag was lowered to half. A flag. An ideology half baked, half formed. A symbol of something for that frightened child, who wrapped himself in cloaks of hate, who became bigger than his pain and, in the mania of self-proclamation, falsely witnessed and falsely accused.
The pain of his abuse, relayed in vengeance to unprepared and unsuspecting victims, set off waves of anger and violence in its turn. I was beside myself, and even now, days later, have to edit and rewrite notes of invective as I try to find words of reason. Anger at that flag, anger at the shooter, and anger at our still divided country and its tenacious denial of cruelty, anger at a God who seemingly answered with compliant silence. Anger at the futility of prayer.
Anger is an understandable feeling, but not a platform for understanding. Yet, how can we understand something this insane? How to find meaning in absurd acts of violence? Anger can lead me to the threshold, but only inquisitiveness and interest can lead me through to understanding.
Prayer is futile when it is the incessant blathering of self-confirmation. But, it can be a powerful tool in opening out hearts to an experience greater than our ability to comprehend. Instead of relying on crude scenarios of good vs evil, we can have a conversation with God, the cosmos, our higher power, whomever or whatever exists to allow us the space to disengage from the harmful and access the possible. Prayer is meaningless when we reiterate what we’ve known. But, essential when we don’t know.
Regardless of the god one prays to, the act of simply opening to a deeper understanding brings us closer to our truth. As we move farther away from the truths we are expected to hold, communion with the unknowing brings us closer to how we feel, which is our experience of the truth. In the Buddhist tradition, we think less of a specific God and more in terms of the personal responsibility we all have to bring goodness into the world. Prayer in a non-theistic tradition is crying to the sky itself, opening to the unknown and having the strength to align our intentions toward goodness, clarity and understanding.
Pain, anguish and longing are powerful motivators. They can so easily drive us into darkness. The anguish in our guts can forge toxic philosophies that keep us locked in patterns of hated. However, we can choose to halt the process, and allow the energy of our broken hearts to open us. In this way, we can use the power of our suffering to touch the goodness inherent in the universe. The goodness that understands the long view. The goodness that recognizes decency in others and speaks to their higher purpose. When word came that the parishioners of the church, families and friends of the victims were praying for forgiveness, I was stunned. These wounded, angry and brokenhearted people were choosing to align themselves with a power greater than hate. Through their tears, they gained an authority over the violence and spoke for heaven itself.
I am a small man, easily carried to extremes. Greater people knelt in prayer and forgiveness. Greater people opened their hearts in prayer, and torn apart in misery, cried to the sky for the end of suffering that begets suffering and ignorance that spawns only darkness. To them prayer is not futile. It is all there is. When taking arms against arms only breeds war, and the hatred in our own hearts casts darkness on our senses and reason, there is nothing to do, but raise to the sky and open our hearts in aspiration.
Hate breeds hate. The wheel of anger turns from victim to perpetrator to victim to perpetrator, and the only way of stopping this lineage of evil is to stop the lineage of evil. Just that. Stop. To choose grace. To choose to forgiveness and to, in all irrational outrageous courageousness, choose love. Love in the face of anger. Understanding in the face of ignorance. Grace in the face of hatred.
By channeling our anger, hurt and pain to the possibility of openness we align ourselves with the wisdom of the universe, and its inherent compassion and goodness. In this way, we speak to the long game, to the very evolution of humanity from the vicious survival modes of our upbringing, to the thriving and grace of a future based on respect for ourselves and for all of life. Ironically, the survival games, now outmoded, will serve to hasten our extinction. The adaptation required for our race – the HUMAN race of many colors and faiths – to survive, is to move beyond survival, and learn to thrive. For our own survival, we’d do well to join our fellows in prayer and open to the possibility of peace and understanding in the world.
So, rather than doing what we always do and inadvertently or intentionally propagating cycles of abuse, we can turn from known, rigid concepts, half investigated ideas, unrepentant flags and statements of hate. And, in the silence of opening, we can turn broken hearted to the sky. We can choose grace over hate.