In recent days we have seen two more appalling gun crimes, in Washington D.C. and Austria. They, of course, are shootings that hit the headlines. Many others rate no more than a brief paragraph in the local newspaper (where that still exists) or go unrecorded because they are ‘lost’ in a bigger conflict such as Syria or the Democratic Republic of Congo. We read, register the obligatory shock and horror and then move on, hopefully with prayer for all concerned; but unless we are in some way personally involved, our response tends to be no more than that. (I know there are people campaigning to change things, from stricter gun control to more generous support for ex-servicemen and women, but I am speaking generally, for a purpose.) What few of us ever seem to address are the roots of violence in ourselves or others.
One of the paradoxes of being passionate for peace, for example, is that we can become just as violent as those who advocate war. Our desire to defend the defenceless can make us aggressors, too. When I raised doubts about President Obama’s initial advocacy of some form of military intervention in Syria, I received a handful of emails accusing me of lacking compassion for the Syrian people. The violence of the language used made me want to retaliate and highlighted how difficult it can be to break the circle. That is one reason why, in the monastic tradition, mastering the passions is so important. Anger is a passion from which we need to be freed, otherwise it can destroy. There is a place — a much smaller place than many will admit — for righteous anger, but I think myself that only the truly pure in heart are capable of such. Most of us just get angry, and our anger is anything but pure-hearted. Again, most of us would probably (not certainly) never use a gun, but we use words, looks and gestures to wound others. Even our silences can be hurtful. The anger inside has a way of showing itself outside, no matter how much gloss we try to put on it.
Perhaps one response to the killings in America and Austria would be to look into our hearts and acknowledge the violence that lurks there. Then ask the Lord for mercy, for he alone can purify the intentions of our hearts.