I found it impossible to take my mind off of it. As I watched thousands of kids gather outside, I was awash in worry and sadness. I was in New Orleans a couple of weeks ago for the triennial gathering of Lutheran youth. This Youth Gathering was very different for me, this time I was present as part of the leadership team, working with other adults to provide some of the programming and service learning for the more than 33,000 kids who came.
In the “other duties as assigned” category of my work, I assisted with security for the evening program in the Superdome. I was there the day after the nightmare in Aurora. I had been in contact with a few of our congregation’s young adults who told me that their friend and Desert Vista classmate Alex Teves, who was just beginning a life of service to others when he entered the theater that night, had been confirmed among the dead. As terrible as these things always are, this time it struck closer to home. The obvious question was, “Why?” and I had and still have no answer.
It was hot and humid as the kids gathered outside the dome, eager to get in. As they waited for us to open the doors, the horrible reality washed over me: we cannot protect them. There were police officers and security professionals who trained us, but I realized that if some disturbed individual with a twisted agenda wanted to, a lot of damage could be dome. It could be my kids in that crowd or in that theater. It could be my kids, and I cannot protect them. Even after they all got into the dome safely, my heart was racing. Just imagining what might have happened put my senses on the alert. Terrible things happen and I cannot stop them.
How we live is not dictated so much by civil or religious law but by social contract. We make hundreds of decisions every day based upon what kind of a society we want to live in. The admonition of Confucius to “never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself” is about social contract. Challenged to recite the Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel the Elder replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary; go and learn.”
There have been many conversations since that terrible night in Aurora, from mental health to gun control to Internet commerce and individual freedom. Some have argued that now is not the time for those conversations. I disagree. Not only is now the time for those conversations, we should never stop having them. We should not wait for tragedy to prompt the conversations because those are our kids in the theater and at the concert or the ball game and we must take some responsibility for the world they inherit from us. Yes, we have to accept that we cannot protect them all the time, but we need not give in to the despair that there is nothing we can do.
They are our kids. They are tall and short, rich and poor, connected and isolated, typical and special needs, athletic and clumsy, gifted and average, gay and straight, and even though we cannot always protect them, we can be mindful of what they learn by watching us, especially when it comes to resolving conflict; especially when religious principles and sacred writings are turned into the weapons of exclusion and condemnation. “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.”
Steve Hammer is the pastor at Esperanza Lutheran Church in Ahwatukee Foothills.