Violence downtown: How do we respond?

The Fourth of July brought terrible violence to downtown Savannah this year, violence that killed three people, injured several others, and brought fear and grief to many. While i didn't know him personally, Scott Waldrup, the general manager at The Grey, was a close friend of some of my close friends. They are saddened and angry, and - like we all are in similar circumstances - looking for answers and solutions to the problems that led to Scott's death.

There will be no shortage of suggestions there, I suspect. Some will suggest tougher and more restrictive gun control laws, others more police officers or security personnel. Still others will suggest that more "good guys" carry guns with them at all times or that we should arrest everyone known to have any connection to gangs and hand down longer prison sentences. These are just a few that come readily to mind; they are the ones we seem to hear the most whenever a tragedy like this strikes close to home. Let me be very clear - i do not believe that i have THE answer to the problem, but i do believe this: not one of those suggested reactions will solve the problem. They are simple solutions to a very complex problem, and the complex problems of society and humanity never have a simple fix. If they did, we would have solved them all long ago.

As followers of Jesus, even if we don't have the answers, we still can respond. There are real, practical, and positive actions we can take. In the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday, Jesus says, "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." I believe our appropriate responses are found in these words.

Come to me - Jesus beckons all of us who are weary and (in an older translation) heavy laden and promises to give us rest. If we're honest, this is probably not our first instinct upon hearing what happened. We tend to look first for who is to blame, for some target at which to aim our anger. Then we look for other people to fix the problem until they can't, and then we can blame them as well. But Jesus knows better and invites us to turn to him instead. This course of action requires faith and patience, which at these times are often in short supply. When we are sad or angry, we want immediate relief, preferably the kind that will bring some consequences upon those we blame.

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me - uh, oh. Just bringing our problems and laying them at the feet of Jesus, as comforting as that sounds, apparently isn't enough. If we turn to Jesus with the burdens we're carrying, he's going to offer us another one. Jesus asks us to learn from him, and that of course means learning to live as he did, to respond as he did, to see others as he did. Taking his yoke upon us means practicing those difficult exercises of love and forgiveness, and it means being willing to ask him not just to change the world around us but to change us, too. It means having the courage to look honestly at ourselves and ask if we play any part in how the world is. Do our own fear and selfishness,  the "devices and desires of our own hearts," contribute in any way to the things we see happening that we do not like? That isn't to say that any one of us caused these terrible events Tuesday night; it is to say that our own brokenness is part of the brokenness of the world, and we, like it, are in need of redemption.

I am gentle and humble in heart - these two qualities, gentleness and humility lie at the very heart of the problem, I believe. If we are looking for a solution to the ills of the world, we need look no further than the lack of humility and gentleness to which we are all given in some measure. If we want the world to change, if we want there to be an end to hatred, violence, and murder, that change begins with and depends upon our capacity to be gentle and humble. Humility shows us who we are and what we are, and gentleness allows us to forgive ourselves and others. To be followers of Jesus means that we hold Jesus to be the model for our own lives, to see where we fall short and, with that in mind, to deal gently with others when they also fall short.

This is not an easy path, but Jesus never promised it would be. Anger and retribution are quicker and easier, but the history of humankind shows us that they have never worked, not once. So we turn away from them and turn instead toward the One who calls us to him, to the Light of the World. We place our trust and our hope in him; we lay our heavy burdens down at his feet; and we take up in their place the one that he offers us.

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: Draw us ever closer into that embrace that we may be changed more and more into your likeness and reach out our own arms of love to those around us. Amen.