What I’ve seen:
Flowers, some purchased, some foraged, laid outside local mosques.
Beside them, lines of softly glowing candles.
Printed messages and chalked art coming from kindergarteners to pensioners.
Hijabs donned for the first time in expressions of sisterly solidarity.
Generous donations made to those whose loss is greatest, whose anguish keenest.
Vigils that have gathered diverse thousands.
“Kia kaha”. “They are us”. “This is not us”. “This is your home”. “Love will win”.
What I’ve heard:
A nationally broadcast call to prayer, to commemorative silence.
Grief from close friends who studied and worked with, received dairy freebies from men whose lives were snuffed out last Friday.
A young Muslim woman reluctant to leave her room for fear.
A young Muslim man expressing surprise at the public’s outpouring of support- and sharing the challenge it has been to “keep the mindsets straight” of a few he knew who hungered for vengeance.
What I’ve felt:
I’ve been deeply disturbed by the killer’s callousness. Enraged, even, by it. And sobered to learn he lived down the road from me in Dunedin; Somerville Street is visible from my bedroom window.
What sort of person proclaims “Let’s get this party started” moments before spraying bullet after bullet into crowds prostrate in prayer? What sort of person thinks it fitting to capture their rampage on camera and live stream it to the world? What sort of person, for all we can tell, lacks a shred of remorse for the agony they unleashed upon a nation?
I’ve been horrified at such unbridled hate, such gleeful desecration, hellish in its contempt for human life. What distorted beliefs had he internalised about Muslims, about himself, to culminate in last Friday’s events?
What sort of person would be like this, act like this?
I’ll tell you this much: it’s the sort of person I want to see suffer. Who I want nothing to do with. Who my gut wants to vilify, to relegate him into the “other” category reserved for those bereft of human decency. Who is not like us, not like me.
Or so I would like to think.
Last Saturday, I came across the words Jesus spoke to the multitudes on a Galilean hillside, recorded in Matthew 5.
“You’ve heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not murder; whoever murders will be liable to [God’s] judgement”.
That’s the one, Jesus, I thought. Murderers ought to receive your wrath.
“… But I say to you, whoever insults or calls another “You worthless fool!” is in danger of hellfire.”*
I’ve never hurled that particular accusation at anyone. I was, however, confronted by Jesus’ indictment against the heart attitude underlying such pronouncements: contempt. Why? Because his words are levelled not just at people like Friday’s shooter: they’re levelled at us, upstanding compassionate citizens who would never dream of emptying a firearm on another human being.
His words are levelled at me.
What I’m realising:
If I’m brutally honest, I can detect the seeds of contempt within myself. Contempt, spurring me to scorn, fuelling feelings that someone or something lacks worth or consideration, that they’re somehow beneath me. And that realisation has been chilling.
I notice it in the sharp superiority of my tone in a retort to something my husband says that I think is stupid (or that I simply disagree with). It unfurls in my irritation when a busload of tourists descends on my hallowed places of solitude around Dunedin, their foreign accents and clicking cameras grating on my nerves. Mild hostility wells up within at these ‘intruders’. I’d never verbalise what my heart hisses in those moments but the sentiment is undeniable: “Go away! You don’t belong here like I do”. How quickly I forget that I’m also an immigrant, here by the good graces of- and at cost to- the tangata whenua. No, I’m no foreigner to contempt. If anything, it’s my ugly native tongue.
Contempt, profaning who and what is sacred. And is anything more sacred than a person bearing the very image of God, however broken that image may be? On Friday we saw some of contempt’s outworkings in their most grotesque and hellish forms on earth. How ironic, that the quality we rightly condemn as evil in Friday’s murderer- his callous contempt towards others- we tend to be blind to in ourselves. Perhaps contempt manifests itself in far more subtle, less obviously destructive ways in us.
But let’s not kid ourselves that we have nothing whatsoever in common with the killer. The expressions may differ for each of us, but can any of us honestly say that we’ve never held anyone or anything in contempt?
What I need:
My heart still clings to an overinflated sense of my own moral decency, but slowly I’m coming to believe that I need forgiveness as badly as Friday’s killer does.
I need my distorted beliefs aligned with reality as God deems it.
I need my harsh and exclusive mother tongue exchanged for a gentle and welcoming one.
I need grace to pursue my neighbour’s flourishing and show them they belong before crisis hits.
I need my occasional animosity towards others transformed into love, the costly kind Jesus shows when praying for those crucifying him: “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing”.
And as I remember how lavishly these needs of mine are being met in Jesus, I’m given compassion to extend my prayers beyond the victims of evil and seek the healing rather than the suffering of Brenton Tarrant.
Because if he’s beyond redemption, then so am I.
*Matthew 5:21-22, ESV