“Hurt people hurt people.” I first heard this piece of wisdom from Brene Brown, a popular speaker and author. Brene is a research professor at the University of Houston who spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. I thought about her words this morning when I awoke to yet one more horror story of 8 people shot to death at an Indianapolis Fed Ex facility. After reading the news article I decided to google that phrase to see where it occurs in Brown’s writing.
I didn’t find it which means I probably heard her say it in one of her podcasts. But what I discovered is that dozens of people have expressed that phrase in a variety of ways. One that especially caught my eye was this one: “Hurt people hurt people. That’s how pain patterns get passed on generation after generation after generation. Meet anger with sympathy, contempt with compassion and cruelty with kindness. Greet grimaces with smiles. Forgive and forget about finding fault.” That quote is from Yehuda Berg, a contemporary Jewish Rabbi and author, and his words reminded me of a key Christian teaching.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Jesus of Nazareth, Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:38-39.) Nowhere in the Bible is the stark contrast between the different ethics of the two testaments more clearly stated. Interestingly as different as the older quote in Leviticus 24:19-21 is from Jesus’ teaching; both represent radical new thinking for their time and context. In the Hebrew Scripture an eye for an eye was an attempt to set boundaries on the amount of revenge a person could take on someone who had wronged him/her. In other words its aim was to redefine justice so the punishment fit the crime.
Fast forward approximately 600 years and Jesus attempts to set an even higher standard by urging his followers to “turn the other cheek.” Suffice it to say this is a very high bar to live up to, and most of us who call ourselves Christians fall far short of emulating the sacrificial love of Jesus. What I like about Berg’s quote on this theme is that he unpacks what it means in terms of how the retaliation ethic results in generation after generation passing that way of living on to their children and grandchildren.
I have no way of knowing what motivated this recent shooter to commit his violent act, and we may never really know since he, like many of the other mass shooters, killed himself. We have now learned that he was a 19 year-old man, and that is significant because research into male emotional and mental development has shown that young men are not fully developed in those areas until their early 20’s. Obviously this young man was not responsible enough to have a gun, much less an assault rifle.
It seems to me the rash of gun violence may have something to do with the stress we have all been under for over a year now due to COVID-19. We are all hurting, some more than others, from the restrictions, grief and fear from this invisible enemy that has killed 560,000 Americans and millions more globally. If we are all hurting and hurt people hurt people it makes sense that the stresses of this past year could account for some part of this awful trend. But if that is true why have we not seen similar violence in other countries?
Knowing that it can take less stress in a pandemic to trigger a violent response to others is complicated by the number of guns in this country. In Moses’ day when the Levitical laws were developed the only weapons available to folks were clubs, swords and spears which could of course be deadly, but they were weapons designed for one-on-one combat. They could knock out a tooth or put out an eye, but they were not capable of killing multiple people in a matter of a few seconds. And I would note that weapons had not advanced into the ability to create mass destruction and killing by the time our second amendment was written.
My theory is that the fears and dis-ease of the pandemic motivated frightened people to own firearms, including assault weapons. There were more guns sold in this country in 2020 than ever before. Coincidence? I think not. And the fact that many radical members of the Republican party want to still live in the days of Levitical law makes the spiral of violence begetting more violence all the more dangerous. Since I began writing this blog this morning there have been two more incidents of gun violence that I know of in this country. One was in a Bob Evans restaurant in Canton, Ohio and the other in a routine traffic stop in San Antonio, Texas. There have been at least 45 mass shootings (which means 4 or more people killed or wounded) already this year. 45!! That’s about 3 per week.
What is unique about Americans that we cannot resolve this issue? It took just 1 mass killing in Australia in 1996 to institute strict gun control. It also only took 1 in New Zealand 2 years ago for them to do the same. The rash of killings this time in the U.S. began at Columbine in 1999 and has run unabated ever since. Why can’t we Americans agree on common sense gun control? If guns made us safer we could be the safest country in the world, but that is certainly not the case.
It is obviously more important in 2021 than ever before and perhaps harder to “Meet anger with sympathy, contempt with compassion and cruelty with kindness. Greet grimaces with smiles. Forgive and forget about finding fault.” This seems so hard if not impossible to do, but individually for Christians and other pacifists turning the other cheek and breaking the chain reaction of violence is the only way we will survive without creating a whole population of blind, toothless or dead people.