After the shootings

by Michael Carney

Friday morning I got up early to walk the dog and work on my sermon. Since the men’s Bible study earlier in the week I’d been struck by the Gospel reading’s description of a crowd yearning for healing. When I got downstairs Marsha was sitting in front of her laptop, crying. We tried to wrap our heads and hearts around the news of the shootings the night before. It was like entering the surreal landscape of a powerfully-presented action movie, taken over by a deranged killer just as cancer can take over the cells of a person’s body.

Next to Marsha’s laptop was that day’s Denver Post Entertainment section, with a review of “The Dark Night Rises” on the front page. Without really thinking I started to read the article, which was strangely ironic:

“Heroism is what Christopher Nolan’s rebooted Batman franchise has explored with a slow-burning, often brilliant intensity… Not the superheroism of so many comic book adaptations, but the individual and communal gumption required to face down evil…The final chapter (raises) a slew of nagging questions about how to rise to the task of the hero in the face of villainy, of evil.” (Denver Post, July 22, 2012)

Just days before I’d returned from our Mission Trip, immersed 24/7 with our youth. Attending a big midnight movie premiere is great fun in their world. At least one of our boys was at the Batman movie that night—fortunately at another theater. Dozens of witnesses originally thought a stunt was taking place—one said, “It was like something out of a movie. You don’t want to believe it’s real, but it is.” (DP July 21)

Accused shooter James Holmes dressed in a shockingly functional costume: body armor and a gas mask, with a deadly variety of weapons. After setting off tear gas canisters he strode through the theater “as calm as can be.” One witness reported “the gunman was standing there as if he were king of the world, like a video game or a movie scene.”

He’d apparently been methodically planning the assault for months, receiving deliveries of materials and ammunition. He identified himself to the police as Batman’s archenemy “The Joker.” It’s hard to say whether he’s mentally ill, but certainly he’s a sociopath. The Aurora Police made an extraordinarily quick and courageous response, but they couldn’t prevent his carnage. The suspect calmly surrendered to them, and the show was over.

The horror, however, was just beginning. The impact of this carefully choreographed act of terrorism quickly rippled out from its ground zero. Some victims were already dead or dying. Dozens of others had been wounded—hundreds were screaming as they tried to flee. Many who survived witnessed unspeakable acts of violence. Thousands of family members and friends were struck by the terror of not knowing whether their loved ones were safe.

These are not simply the actions of a sick man. In a vivid and dramatic way, we’ve been forced to confront the face of evil in our midst.

Many of us who are older find it hard to understand the appeal of action movies like this. I’m not drawn to attend, but I recognize them as imaginatively constructed and powerfully presented works of art. We may not like lumping them together with what we regard as great drama. We may consider them bad influences.

But our young people know they’re not real—it’s just entertainment to them. Why would they choose to watch such violent fare? Today’s sixteen-year-olds were in kindergarten when the World Trade Center was attacked. They’ve never heard of Ozzie and Harriet—21st century America is the only world they’ve ever known.

The young people on our mission trip had only been home three days when this tragedy erupted. There’s an interesting connection with today’s Gospel reading about the return of the disciples who’d been sent out two by two. There were many Facebook postings this week reflecting on the trip, including an older boy who described how sad he was to wake up alone in his own room—half a dozen others quickly agreed. They’d had powerful experiences serving in Birmingham, and it was hard to step back into their daily lives.

In the Gospel Jesus encourages the disciples who’d just returned from their missions to “rest a while” with him in a deserted place. (Mark 6:30) Before they can get away people begin to recognize them and hurry to follow. Soon there’s “a great crowd…like sheep without a shepherd,” which bears an eerie resemblance to the chaos at the movie theater. Jesus “had compassion” on the crowds, teaching and feeding and healing them.

Like the Gospel story, ours is a community experience. On Friday morning our Youth Director Shanda Velisek posted a pastoral message on Facebook and then texted me that she was “waiting to hear about some connection.” Denver is a pretty big city, but we’re all deeply connected.

A youth from St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Aurora was at the theater that night and made it home safely. One of my wife’s fellow students in the Audubon Master Birder course is a professor at the CU school James Holmes attended—another is a nursing supervisor at a local hospital. Shanda’s husband and sons work at Frito-Lay—the daughter of a co-worker was killed that night. Thousands of people have been impacted by the terror of this event, and the network of their relationships extends across the country and beyond. People all over the world are praying for the victims and their families today. Truly, we are all in this together.

I’m fascinated by the reviewer’s observation that this final Batman movie raises “a slew of nagging questions about how to rise to the task of the hero in the face of villainy, of evil.” I don’t think anyone’s feeling particularly heroic right now. Our reactions are all over the map: shock, bewilderment, sadness, outrage, fear, resignation.

Deep in our hearts, though, I think we’re bound together by the same yearning for healing shown by the crowds at the Sea of Galilee. Our hearts go out to those most directly impacted by the carnage, but we also ache for the healing of our world. How long, Lord, before your promise of “New Heavens and a New Earth” is fulfilled? (Revelation 21:4)

Somehow, despite all of this, life goes on. Friday afternoon I met with new parents to plan a baptism—I held their infant son as they shared their prayers and dreams for him. Yesterday a group of us met with leaders of five other Episcopal churches, all of whom are on fire with their ministries.

Regardless of all that has happened since, my memories of the mission trip are vivid—enduring glimpses of hope provided by our youth. In the face of villainy and evil, living into heroism may be a slow process, but each of us has a part to play. Please join me in saying a prayer which has expressed this for a thousand years—it’s in the Book of Common Prayer on p. 833.

Lord, make us instruments of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let us sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is discord, union;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

where there is sadness, joy.

Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;

to be understood as to understand;

to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

“A Prayer Attributed to St. Francis”

The Rev. Michael Carney is the Rector of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Centennial Colorado.

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