Saturday, December 08, 2007

What does it take to be known?

This past Wednesday, December 5 my city- Omaha, Nebraska- joined in the sad and tragic line of communities across our nation who have experienced the devastation of mass murder. My son called that night from Missouri to tell me that he was watching CNN's coverage of this horrific act. It's hard to believe this happened in Omaha my son said. Another friend commented that he had liked living in Omaha because it is a city that ranks in the top 50 in size in the United States, while keeping a low profile. Omaha offers a wonderful quality of life he said. And now this!

What could have driven young Robert Hawkins to take a semi-automatic weapon to a shopping mall where he opened fire on innocent people, killing 8 and wounding several others. This is a city in shock!

Hawkins left a suicide note apparently, saying he couldn't cope with life any longer, while anticipating that he would finally be known and achieve fame. What a sad and ultimately pathetic search for some scrap of significance. To think that becoming significant must involve fame! I shudder at the images of Peter Hawkins splashed across the front pages of the Omaha World Herald, his grainy image pointing his rifle ahead.

At times like these, there's little to be said in explanation of such senseless actions. Rather, people of faith, along with others who may or may not claim faith, need to reaffirm the most basic truths about what matters.

I've been reading a book by the eminent Jewish Rabbi and theologian, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, that helps me reaffirm fundamental touchstones of my own faith. It's a book titled, To Heal a Fractured World." The subtitle is "The Ethics of Responsibility."

Sacks opens with a quote from Psalm 8:
When I behold Your heavens, the work of your fingers,
The moon and the stars that You set in place
What is man that You are mindful of him,
Mortal man that You take notice of him?
Yet You have made him little less than the angels
And adorned him with glory and majesty.

That's long been one of my favorite psalms, for it speaks to the enormous dignity and worth of human creatures to God. But I also remember one of my first teachers of theology saying,
"We human beings are both the glory of God and the scum of the earth." Dr. John Bray was indicating that we human beings are capable of co-creating with God such wonderful gifts for life, and at the same time we retain an awful capacity for evil. It's a frightening paradox.
The events this past week are indicative of our human capacity for evil.

Rabbi Sacks in true Jewish tradition professes that "One of Judaism's most distinctive and challenging ideas is its ethics of responsibility, the idea that God invites us to become, in the rabbinic phrase, his 'partners in the work of creation.'

Rabbic Sacks points to the reality that we also live in a fractured world:
"The gossamer filaments of connection between us and others that once held together families, communities and societies, have become attentuated. We have become lonely selves in search of purely personal fulfillment."

I think of that twisted young man, Peter Hawkins, and what led him to believe that he was making a name for himself. What fragments of faith, family, and community became so frayed that he felt so isolated and rejected? I'm not in any sense making excuses for this deed of personal responsibility. I'm just wondering.

As I reflect on what it means to be known, I'm also led to consider what we as a society and we as communities of faith have sought to make known about the things that count, the contours of an ethic of responsibility.

I appreciate Rabbi Sack's emphatic remark that "the ethical life is a form of celebration.
Doing good is not painful, a matter of dour duty and a chastising conscience."
The Hebrew word for this comments Rabbi Sacks is "Simha", usually translated as joy.
What it really means writes Sacks, is the happiness we share, or better still, the happiness we make by sharing.

The ethic of of responsibility, of sharing what we have, is the best answer I know to the meaning and meaningfulness of a life. I wish that Peter Hawkins had experienced this ethic in a deeper way. I pray that our communities of faith here in Omaha will come together, and that all people will know that we share in the call to mutual responsibility, even as we share our grief.


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