COLUMN: Forging instruments of peace, one heart at a time

It’s been almost a week since two mass shootings claimed the lives of at least 31 people. In a country that, thus far in 2019, averages more than one mass shooting per day, these latest incidents have raised, yet again, the question of how, or if, we will stem the tide of violence and bloodshed in America.

In the days since the El Paso and Dayton shootings, the regular screed of arguments for and against gun control, the arguments blaming mental illness, and video games and a dozen other scapegoats, have been hashed and rehashed in every arena of public discourse – just the same as the days after Parkland, Las Vegas, Sandy Hook, Aurora and after hundreds of other mass shootings.

It is not my intent to rehash those arguments. Suffice it to say, this nation needs common sense gun law reform that protects both innocent lives and the core principles of the Second Amendment, and the American people need to demand leadership toward that end from our elected officials.

But, there is something deeper going on here. It is something deeper, within us all – something gun laws (much as we need them) won’t fix. There is something wrong with the heart of America. The very soul of our nation is poisoned beyond recognition with hatred, fear, darkness and an insensate adoration of violence.

It is easy to point the finger at any number of sources for this darkening of our national conscience. Politicians. The media. Popular culture. Video games. The Russian bots. The conservatives. The liberals. In the wake of each mass shooting, before the blood dries, we each pick our favorite target and let loose our rage. But there is a reason that hits much closer to home for the shooting-outrage-apathy-shooting cycle that keeps getting played out, over and over, at the cost of innocent lives.

There is a reason politicians, of both parties, fall back on the easy path of inaction after each of these mass killings. We should call out politicians’ failings and hold them accountable. But, here’s the problem: politicians only hold the authority we vest in them. They take their cues from us. And, as long as politicians see the path of least resistance is the path of greed, hatred, fear, apathy and partisan bickering, well, that’s the path they’re going to take. Because that’s the path we’ve paved for them. And, until we pave them a different path, we’re going to keep ending up at the same, blood-soaked end.

How do we do this? How do we forge instruments of peace in a nation constantly at war with itself? Each of us will have different political and social answers. More often than not, our answers will be in opposition. And, if our system works, all those contradictory answers will coalesce into middle-ground laws that advance the common good.

But, if that’s to happen, we, collectively, have to want the common good. We have to relearn how to look beyond ourselves. If we really want to transform our society, we have to selflessly love our neighbor. More importantly, and far more difficult, we have to learn to love our enemy. And that can’t be driven top-down by policy. That has to well up from individual hearts. From yours. From mine. From those you love. From those you hate. Only the collective work of our individual hearts can bring about that transformation.

Toward that end, I invite you all to join me in some introspection. I know a great many of us disagree quite passionately on politics. Fine. This has nothing to do with politics or party. Just take some self-inventory, and ask: Where, within me, am I harboring fear? Or enmity? Or greed? Where is the darkness within me? It’s there for all of us. And, we need to root it out, with honesty, humility and conviction.

From there, I’d invite us all to answer these questions as we go about our individual, daily lives:

What small things can we do to make ourselves instruments of peace?

When we meet hatred, how can we respond with love?

When we see or suffer injury – emotional, spiritual or physical – how can we inspire pardon, instead of retribution?

Where there is discord, within ourselves or between our neighbors, how can we foster unity?

When we suffer apathy, and doubt that we can make any difference, how can we find and share with others the faith to keep moving forward?

In a society that seems to despair of anything better, how can we inspire a bit of hope?

In the darkness of a society poisoned by hatred, greed, fear and violence, what small acts can we commit to bring light?

When we find sadness, in any neighbor, of any party or political persuasion, what totally selfless act, no matter how small, can we use to bring joy?

These are not grand acts. These are small acts, committed with conviction in our daily lives. But, ultimately, if we want to make ourselves instruments of peace in a violent society, it will take each of us committing to these small, selfless, nonsensical acts of love and charity.

If the greater mass of us commit to those small acts, they will have a collective impact that cannot help but transform our lives, our communities and our society. Until we commit to that kind of transformation, all else is just bluster in a dark, downward spiral.

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Neal is health, military affairs and religion reporter and columnist for the Enid News & Eagle. Follow him on Twitter, @jamesnealwriter, and online at jamesrneal.com.
Have a question about this story? Do you see something we missed? Do you have a story idea for James? Send an email to jneal@enidnews.com.

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I am a retired Naval Officer and small business owner, outside of my work at the News & Eagle. My wife Tammy and I enjoy serving together at church and attending Gaslight and ESO. We have two daughters, three dogs and little free time.