Our oldest son Jim is presently going through a phase in which he is struggling with nightmares. Some nights he'll run down to our bedroom in tears for fear of bears, bugs, and monsters. We do our best to remind him that bears are not going to get into our house and that the majority of bugs will not bite him. And as far as the latter boogeyman? I tell him confidently that there is no such thing as monsters.
But I'm not really sure if that's true because a man walked into a church in Charleston, sat there for a hour, and then murdered nine people because of the color of their skin. That is an evil far more scary than any ogre or beast our imaginations can dream up. The man who committed this heinous crime is still a human and, as hard as this is to swallow, one who is loved by God. But he's also a monster. Or, at the very least, a monster has him.
The troubling thing is that he's not alone. There are lots of monsters out there in the world. Some big. Some small. Some lurking inside of really nice people; even ourselves. You can call the monster sin. You can call the monster hatred, fear, or racism. Whatever you call it, the monster exists. It does no good to shut your eyes and tell yourself there is no such thing as monsters.
If we live in a world with monsters then what do we do? I was thinking about the stories that we tell our children. How do the heroes of those tales slay the beast?
Though we usually think of the brave hero fighting the evil villain alone, the good stories--the ones that ring true--show a community banding together against the monster. They rally together, they protect the weak and wounded, they each use their unique gifts to face down their foe. They realize that if the monster threatens one in their community then it threatens them all and therefore it is not a fight that one should face alone.
When these communities come together, it is not simply a symbolic unity. It is real and tangible. Hands are held. People are lifted up. Conversations about what must be done take place. I believe that prayer is a powerful thing. Yet when Jesus asked his followers to pray that God's kingdom would be on earth as it is in heaven, I believe he wanted that prayer to become incarnate in how we live on this earth. That bleeds into something else I remembered from children's stories about monsters.
The monster always seems to feed off of some sort of magic energy. There was something that made the monster strong and if the people figured out a way to cut that source off, the beast would weaken. I am not saying that I believe in some sort of magical force in the present day, but I do believe in a very real way that what we do can either feed the monster or starve it.
I think that hatred and fear are what this kind of monster feeds on and our culture can be a veritable buffet. You can see it in our news cycles and in the world around us. Monsters will beget monsters. Yet we have to make sure that we don't add another course to the meal. Well meaning people will say things like "I'm not racist but..." and help the beast grow. When we say things that dehumanize or stereotype the vulnerable people in our society on whom the monster preys--racial, sexual, and religious minorities--we feed it. Our words, our attitudes, our actions, and--in my home state where this most recent tragedy happened--our flags can make the beast stronger. And if we're not careful, we could unwittingly turn into monsters ourselves.
So we must make sure that we starve the monster and you starve it with love. I am not naive enough to believe that this man never received love; that if only he were loved a little more this would not have happened. It certainly is possible. I believe love can make a massive difference in a person's life and we should love the monster. Yet even more I am talking about a culture of compassion and concern for others. It is a culture in which we love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Cultures in which we realize it is not "us" and "them," but simply "us."
If such a culture took root--if we live out God's kingdom on earth as we pray for it--then it will make a difference. Don't get me wrong, the monsters will not disappear. But they cannot grown and thrive in that kind of community of compassion. Their hatred loses its power. They will have to flee to their caves and forbidden forests. Or maybe, just maybe, they may shed their monstrous selves and live at peace with the rest of us. But for that to be possible, you and I must shed our beastly ways as well.
May God help us as we deal with our monsters. And may we and God be with the people of Charleston as they move forward through this horrifying tragedy.