An American Dream

“An individual dies when they cease to be surprised. I am surprised every morning when I see the sunshine again. When I see an act of evil I don’t accommodate, I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere. I am still so surprised! That is why I am against it. We must learn to be surprised.” 

— Abraham Joshua Heschel

Wednesday night I woke from a deeply disturbing nightmare. My mom was shot and killed. She was right outside our house, the house I grew up in, checking to see what a stranger wanted. It was late at night and I’d wanted to stop her, to tell her to let my dog run out first with her snarling bark that usually annoys me but every once in a while helps me feel safe. But Mom is too hospitable for such things. Somehow, instead, I was still upstairs, looking out the bathroom window onto the scene as it happened.

When I woke, my feet were icy and tingling, the way they get when a bad dream has chilled me to the bone. My mind returned to what had initially kept me from falling asleep in the first place. Just before bed, my husband and I had read about the shooting in San Bernardino, California. Fourteen people were killed and 21 injured at a center for people with mental disabilities who were in the midst of a holiday party.

I am so heartbroken and bewildered. Why did this happen? How must the surviving loved ones be feeling?  How terrifying and devastating for all those present. I’m struggling with this tragedy, not only for its own sake, but also because of the tragedies it recalls. I have read that this is the largest mass shooting in the U.S. since the horrific event at Sandy Hook Elementary three years ago. More troubling still, this is the 355th documented mass shooting in the U.S. for this year alone. And surrounding all of this is the ongoing refugee crisis, terrorist outbursts in Iraq, Kenya, Paris and elsewhere; the innumerable wars and pseudo wars wreaking havoc on the lives of men, women and children.

 

Graphic courtesy of PBS.org
All documented mass shootings in America in 2015: graphic courtesy of PBS.org

Dwelling on all this I am filled with despair, outrage and, reluctant as I am to admit it, fear. However, what I am afraid of is not a terrorist attack. Nor do I dwell on being caught up in the violent outburst of a mentally deranged person. And certainly not dread of foreign invasion. I’m afraid of a tendency I’ve noticed to consider purveyors of violence “outsiders.”  I am afraid of a general lack of willingness to look in the mirror and recognize that the violence erupting in schools and churches, in city streets and now even in a residential home, are not about the “other,” they are about us; you and me, as individuals and as part of a community and country. Each of these acts are awful opportunities to examine our culture and ask how and why it compels and enables such violence. Yet, again and again, that opportunity is passed over and we are left with only sorrow, rage and despair at the devastating destruction of precious lives.

Part of my heart urges me to continue this train of thought by addressing the refusal of so many to take into consideration how entrenched the U.S. is in the production and distribution of weapons. It is an enormous and enormously profitable business in which machines made specifically for the purpose of destruction of life are sold with little to no discrimination both within and outside our borders. Part of my heart is prompting me to illustrate the terror that unfolds in villages that are haunted by drones or where the land has become a permanent battlefield because of unexploded ordnances, or where people live under threat of a night raid, always terrifying, often lethal.

Most of my heart, however, is consumed by the fullness of my womb, filtering everything through the lens of an expectant mother. When I was at this place of unborn fullness with my son Eli, who will soon be two, a friend asked if I was not afraid to bring a child into this world. At the time I said no, I was not afraid. What I didn’t realize then is that being a parent would in fact cause me to be more concerned for safety, more aware of danger, more sensitive to the precarity of life.

There were many nights when I would contemplate horrifying scenarios that would end with either one or all of us dead. I would consider how absurd it is that I should expect and feel entitled to safety in my home when so many others live without it, when so many whose lives are taken had no part in inviting such violence. However, I continue to see participating in creating and nurturing life (whether through pregnancy and parenting, art, activism or other means) as the greatest act of hope, of love, of resistance to violence and despair that we can offer this world. And so I pray that fear never be what stops me from sharing in such acts.

And this brings me back to the dream. I was troubled by the dream not only because of Mom’s death, but because of where I stood as it happened. I remained removed, hiding within the walls of our house, hiding behind my dog’s ability to intimidate. It is my mom, in this dream, who is the one stepping out in an act of love. I don’t consider myself to be in the wrong for having been afraid, but I am disturbed by my choice to follow fear and remove myself or drive away whatever or whoever triggered that fear.

Fear and anger have a place. They are important signals that tell us something is very wrong. But staring at the wrong does not lead us to what is right. I am grateful for the times that I have a visceral response to tragedy, for the times that I am still surprised by violence. I’m grateful because it means in that moment I am living outside of apathy and inside communion with living beings. However, if I become overwhelmed with anger or fear, judgment or disgust, I try to redirect those feelings toward grief. Turning to mourning allows sadness to soften and open my heart, creating a pathway for the grace and wisdom of the Spirit to enter in and do it’s healing, guiding work.

22709617203_6e722b715d_b
Witness Against Torture activists participating in a Thanksgiving Day Fast near Guantanamo military prison in Cuba. Photo courtesy of www.flickr.com / Witness Against Torture.

There is a piece to this dream I failed to recount initially. As I am standing at the window, I am aware also of the presence of a few of my friends from Witness Against Torture who (in reality and in the dream) had just returned from Cuba. In the dream I am vaguely aware that they too have tried to get Mom’s attention, tried to ask her to wait. They, however, are not asking her to wait so they can send out the dog, but so that they can go with her.

~~~~~~~~

An American Dream was originally published by Amy Nee in her blog, Amy the Show.

Note to the reader: throughout this piece there are links that have been attached to statements and ideas that I thought might require further explanation or that I would have liked to share more about but others have already collected the information more efficiently or articulately. If you are interested in or object to anything that was said, please feel free to follow the links for further exploration.

Additional note to readers from Sister Julia:

I recommend watching this video to learn a bit more about the recent fast and protest by Witness Against Torture activists in Cuba:

Pregnant with hope

Guest blogger: Amy Nee – entry originally published at http://www.catholicsoncall.org/pregnant-hope

Scripture Reflection for the Third Sunday of Advent (December 11, 2011)

Scripture Readings:
Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11
Luke 1:46-48, 49-50, 53-54
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

When truth is spoken it illuminates more than just the person. The light stretches its filamented fingers, lacing them through history and pointing toward what is to be. Mary, a young unwed woman, accepts the impossible announcement that she will carry not only a child, but the Christ-child. Affirmed by her cousin, Elizabeth, that this strange pregnancy is an act of God, Mary goes beyond the exultation of trusting that her own reputation will be restored and indicates another restoration: the “mighty are brought down from their thrones…the hungry filled with good things…the rich sent empty away.” She joyously reveals God’s plan for a transformed social order.

Was Mary aware of how closely her words echoed those of the prophet Isaiah? Or was this spontaneous outpouring of the spirit, of joy, simply an irrepressible desire to magnify the God who desires good for all even, perhaps especially, the oppressed. How often the prophets speak of “glad tidings to the poor,” and “release to the prisoner,” of freedom from captivity and healing. I cannot believe that they were only announcing metaphors. These words reveal the vision of God, the image of a Kingdom in which we are called to be co-creators.

A consciousness of this Kingdom is shaped in Mary, as Jesus, the one who would embody it, takes shape in her womb. As Mary, Joseph and Jesus faced the hardships of poverty, heard the news of innocents slaughtered, met the continual challenges of daily life, the joy present when Mary proclaimed the Magnificat was likely not so readily felt. The promise that this little boy was the messiah even as he had to be fed and changed, that the hungry would be filled even as stomachs rumbled, that the mighty would be brought down from their thrones even as they abused their power with as much might as ever, are promises that could not have been easy to believe. Mary no doubt had to draw on the prophecies and experiences that she had treasured up; carrying within her the truths of the Kingdom just as she had carried within her the one who would reveal them.

If advent is a time of preparation, how do we, like John, “prepare the way” in keeping with God’s revealed intention for a world of justice, peace and joy, more a Kin-dom, than a Kingdom, where the disparity between the powerful and the oppressed is leveled? How do we, like Mary, say “let it be with me as you have said” and trust that by the power of the Holy Spirit we are being filled, made whole and holy – spirit, soul and body? As Christians we are called not only to carry, but to become the Body of Christ. What an incredible mystery! Recognition of this compels us toward Paul’s seemingly impossible directives to “rejoice always,” “pray without ceasing,” and “in all circumstance give thanks.” (This from a man who was jailed and persecuted continually; – how keenly he must have felt the hope of liberation!) Such mystery awakes the need to “test everything,” using the tools of prayer, action, honest communication – continually “experimenting with truth,” as Gandhi called it. Taking care to refrain from making assumptions as to what is good and to always be surprised, to always resist evil, even when it seems to seep into everything around us – including us. Rabbi and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “An individual dies when they cease to be surprised. I am surprised every morning when I see the sunshine again. When I see an act of evil I don’t accommodate, I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere. I am still so surprised! That is why I am against it. We must learn to be surprised.”

In a world that seems so fixed in cycles of violence, it can be difficult to believe that the promised Kin-dom is coming, let alone that it already is. When we see that drone bombs are dropped on children, that dumpsters overflow with food while millions go hungry, and houses stand empty while millions are homeless; when we cut each other apart with our words, and pollute the earth with careless or even intentional consumption – how difficult indeed to hope for healing, for liberation, for full stomachs and joyful hearts! It is difficult to face all this and believe that we can live in a way that challenges the corruption and mends the brokenness that surrounds us; that we can embody a transforming way that sets not only the oppressed but the oppressors free. It seems very difficult, impossible even to enter into Kin-dom living. Yet, we wait for Christ to be revealed. As we wait we create communities of faith where we can challenge one another to affirm God’s vision, spoken by the prophets, incarnate in Jesus, and just possibly, in us. As we live amidst the tension of the Everlasting Not Yet we are offered this hope: God has already accomplished things beyond belief, God is with us; with God, nothing is impossible.