By Robb Davis
On Tuesday night over 500 people gathered at Beit Haverim for a service of healing, hosted by the Celebration of Abraham. It was a time to express sadness, to mourn, but also to speak words of hope in a time of fear and sadness. As I participated in the singing, prayers and words of remembrance, I considered what an appropriate response to Pittsburgh might be—especially for those of us on the opposite end of the country.
I think it is normal and human to have three responses to this act of terror—this great human tragedy.
First, I think we should engage in lamentation: a passionate act of showing grief. As we gathered in the Jewish house of prayer I was reminded of the important place of lamentation in the Hebrew Bible. Lamentation is not just, or even primarily, the recitation of words. It includes the rending of garments and placing ashes upon ones head. It is a public act of a heart crying out to understand an injustice, a harm, a devastating loss.
Laments are of (at least) three varieties: a person may lament their own sin—their own failing to achieve what they believe God or a higher power wants. They may be because of an injustice they have had to endure at the hands of evil doers. But not infrequently laments are directed at the profound brokenness of the world.
“Why does evil prevail?”
“Why do the poor suffer?”
“Where is justice?
These are all questions of the one who laments. In one sense lamentation is shaking one’s fist at the universe (at God) and demanding an answer to the fundamental question of why injustice seems to prevail in the world.
In this time I believe that a lamentation is called for. With a humble posture and a clear mind about the brokenness around us, we proclaim our utter incomprehension at what we see.
Second, I think we should be angry—we should respond with anger. Different from a lament, anger is pure emotion. Words may not come—the questions and doubts too profound for human speech. Anger is a deeply physical reaction in the face of wrongdoing. It is not “rational.” It merely is.
In the Christian “New Testament” St. Paul wrote a letter in which he told followers of the Christian way to “Be angry, but don’t sin. Don’t let the sun set on your anger. Don’t give evil a chance.”
There is a place for anger in these days. Weaponized words that lead to weapons that destroy, demand an angry and hostile response. But Paul’s exhortation is important: don’t take anger to bed with you. I think of a parent with a child. In the night they hold that child close; to nurture that child and protect it so it might grow.
But we can’t treat anger that way Paul seems to say. If you nurture it in the night. If you hold it dear, it will grow into a thing that will destroy you. Don’t let that thing have a chance of coming into being.
Third, we have to act. We cannot sit by. The problem is, we cannot act in Pittsburgh, or in myriad other places where mass death has occurred—Indiana, Nevada, South Carolina, Florida… we don’t live there. We live here.
How do we act in the face of these deeds of mass destruction—how do we act locally? What does it look like and do local acts mean anything at all? I remember when I was in Haiti they spoke of the dechoukaj of the post Duvalier period. Dechoukaj in Creole means to “tear up by the roots,” to pull out the weeds and remove what is useless or harmful.
I always appreciated the image, and years later when I worked on an organic farm, hoeing and pulling weeds days at a time, I realized that the work of uprooting is never done.
The people—the human beings—who have committed the horrific crimes like Robert Bowers did in Pittsburgh walk among us. They are our neighbors, our family, our workplace acquaintances. They are not alien to us, they walk our shared space. Many are outcasts, loners—people who have moved to the edges in one way or another.
But experience shows they did not start that way. Based on what we know about childhood trauma, bullying, loneliness, and lives bereft of hope, we understand that the Robert Bowers of the world are not born monstrous but walk down a long, harsh path of brokenness to arrive at their own destruction and the destruction of others. They are made outcasts, people of anger, people with no hope.
Our local dechoukaj is not about finding the Bowers among us and throwing them out. Rather, it is in the tending of our garden—removing the weeds of hate and exclusion from out schools, our playgrounds, our sports fields and our homes.
Trauma borne of abuse, violence, neglect, and bullying in childhood bears a fruit, too often, of violence. Our dechoukaj must focus on pulling out the sources of these things. Every time we volunteer for organizations like CASA, or help with Davis’ youth restorative justice program through YCRC, or support school district efforts to reduce bullying, or take in foster children, or, the many other acts that can help move neglected and abused children beyond the challenges they have faced, we engage in local dechoukaj.
It is careful, long, and tiring work, but along with lamentation and anger, it represents an act that must follow on the brokenness we see in our times.
Robb Davis is former Mayor of Davis